As I write this, an Army staff sergeant named Robert Bales is in a cell at Fort Leavenworth accused of gunning down 17 Afghan villagers, including women and children. In all forms of media, commenters have been quick to draw parallels between these killings and a horrific incident from my own war, the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam.
Counter-insurgency wars like Vietnam and Afghanistan make soldiers lose their moral bearings. All wars require training in suspending basic human empathy so soldiers can dehumanize the “enemy” enough to kill them.
But the Viet Cong or the Taliban, operating within the civilian population, make it fuzzy who the enemy is. In February, 1967, Steinbeck wrote in a dispatch from Saigon, “The enemy is in front of us, behind us and often among us. They strike, retreat, disperse, and regroup.”
And by the time Steinbeck left for Thailand, in March, he was admitting, “I’m afraid bad days are coming. There is no way to make the Vietnam War decent, no way of justifying sending troops to another man’s country.”
Steinbeck’s dispatches from Vietnam in 1967 were a sincere attempt to describe, explain, and justify a war that was increasingly bewildering the American public. I use the word “sincere” with reservations, because he had qualms he didn’t make explicit in the essays. But he was sincere in his desire for the war to be noble and just, if not in its political dimension, at least at the level of the private soldiers.
Perhaps it’s fortunate Steinbeck died before the My Lai massacre story broke in 1969, because he would have been devastated. The valor, sacrifice, and honor of the individual soldier was his most consistent theme. He couldn’t have imagined that the soldiers he had met could have carried out the systematic slaughter of hundreds of unarmed villagers.
However, there is another perspective of the military and political leadership implicit in Steinbeck’s dispatches, although it’s complicated by his friendship with President Lyndon Johnson and his closeness to Gen. William Westmoreland. In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, American military planners couldn’t grasp the purpose of the war from their opponent’s perspective.
In 1968, an opinion poll was conducted in South Vietnam and the results were very telling: only 4 percent of the South Vietnamese said they wanted “victory over communism,” while 81 percent wanted the foreigners to leave.
I wonder what the numbers would be in Afghanistan. I suspect the majority would put victory over the Taliban far below chasing the latest occupiers from their country.
One of the strongest phrases Steinbeck ever wrote to describe the dilemma of an army of occupation was: “The flies have conquered the flypaper.” He was writing in 1942 about Nazi-like invaders of a thinly veiled Norway in “The Moon is Down,” but it rings true of our troops bogged down in Helmand Province today.
There are some other parallels I can think of — fading public support, mission creep, advising versus running the show. But one big difference strikes me as more important than such similarities, namely the nature of the American military itself in the two cases.
The Vietnam war was fought by a draft army and Afghanistan is being fought by an all-volunteer force. As a result, average citizens come into less contact with soldiers and their families involved in Afghanistan than they did with soldiers of the Vietnam War.
That means it is much easier for the whole confusing Afghan war to drop off the radar, and for the public to turn away from a case like that of Staff Sgt. Bales.
Such indifference was never the case for the war in Vietnam.
Follow Steven Levingston on Twitter @SteveLevingston