David Halberstam concludes his book "War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals" with the following observation: "I should note finally that I did not go looking for the ghosts of Vietnam, but they were often there, and they found me, most notably in the damage done to two institutions critical to general public health and disproportionately affected by that war, the U.S. Army and the Democratic Party."
The ghosts of Vietnam continue to haunt the Army, which came out of that war affected by a sense of demoralization that the institution still has not shaken.
My perceptions of this affliction are born out of my own experience as a Marine, not as a soldier in the Army. Having deployed five times in support of contingencies, and having had the opportunity to reflect on civil-military relations as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, I believe strongly that one of the keys to a healthy democracy is the relationship between a society and its military. This relationship has, for Americans, been tenuous in recent weeks.
Today we see an Army that is in agony over the twofold burden placed on it: that of transformation, which is changing many of the most sacred assumptions about how the Army should equip and man itself, and that of an extended commitment overseas, which is stretching its people and equipment to the limit. In the fallout from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, the Army is on the threshold of a far-reaching and potentially damaging institutional crisis. This crisis is the Army's, not necessarily the entire military's, and it will play itself out alongside society's interpretation of the way the Army deals with this affair.
The most important outcome of a war undertaken by a nation is not on the battlefield but within the society that fights these wars. U.S. society was transformed by Vietnam, especially civilians' relationship with the military. The wounds are still not healed, and the divide is not bridged, primarily because the Army and society often view Vietnam differently. When President George H.W. Bush claimed in the wake of the Persian Gulf War that the "Vietnam syndrome" was dead, he underestimated the depth and permanence of the scars for the Army.
The Army sees Vietnam as a great betrayal -- by both military and civilian leaders and by an American public that broke faith with its military. To many in the Army today, including the youngest soldiers who learn their institutional history as it is passed down, there were two great betrayals in Vietnam.
First, there was the hubris of Army leaders, who tied military decisions to covert political considerations and thereby sacrificed tens of thousands of lives in vain. Second, there were the elites of society who opposed the war and broke faith with those in the military who felt an obligation to serve their country.
As colonels and senior NCOs tell the story of their units and their institution to the youngest soldiers, history is transmitted to the next generation, and they see history and themselves from that perspective.
The Army's metaphor for the Vietnam experience is encapsulated in the Rambo character of the movies: a lonely, bitter warrior whose only desire is to have his country love him as much as he loves it.
Most of America remembers Vietnam differently than the Army does. In the end, typical Americans could not see the connection between the far-off jungles of Southeast Asia and America's security, and their support for the war declined to the point of opposition. But they also remember Vietnam as a tragic episode for an institution that they previously had respected unequivocally.
No longer were GIs the liberators, as in Europe. They were the flawed soldiers who didn't live up to the American ideals of honor and courage. Indeed, the metaphor that still haunts middle America is My Lai. Lt. William Calley's platoon, which massacred innocent civilians, became the prism through which the Army was seen by society.
Abu Ghraib threatens to serve as a similar metaphor for this war in Iraq.
The goons who tortured Iraqi prisoners are not representative of the Army. Neither were the members of Calley's platoon in 1968. But the self-immolation and crisis of confidence infecting the Army is one that also threatens to create a divide between Americans and their Army, especially if the episode is viewed by the Army as an unfair witch hunt directed against it.
As the Army struggles with the excruciating issues of command responsibility, it again becomes clear how harsh and absolute military accountability is, and how necessary. The corrosive impact of the absence of accountability is an institution where people will no longer trust leaders who feel themselves beyond accountability. If the Army comes out of this affair with the same sense of victimization that it did from Vietnam, the risk is a new division between the Army and American society that will be just as toxic as the divisions of Vietnam.
The writer is a Marine aviator assigned to Cherry Point, N.C., and currently deployed to Iwakuni, Japan. The views here are his own.