Wars of Generations

Gen-X’ers complain that we can’t get away from Vietnam. A war that ended 30 years ago still dogs us shaping our debates about fighting an entirely different war. But that is how every war is fought. The ghost of the wars that a generation of leaders fought in as youths still haunt them when become the nation’s elders. Vietnam still haunts us because it was the war of the youth of the baby-boomers currently directing national policy.

A generation does not become the decision makers in warfare and policy until their central cohort reaches their late 40’s or early 50’s. We usually associate a war with the generation who served as it’s foot soldiers but to understand the policy decisions and direction of the war we must look to the prior experiences of the generation that directed it.

The “Greatest Generation” fought in WWII but it did not direct it. The political and military leadership of WWII all came from the generation that fought in WWI. It was their experiences in WWI and its aftermath that shaped their policy of total defeat of the Axis powers and reversed America’s isolationism in the postwar era. The WWI generation directed US policy up until the early sixties when the first of the “Greatest Generation” reached political maturity.

We think of Vietnam as the baby boomer war but it was directed by the generation that fought in WWII. They launched the war in part because their WWII experiences stamped them with an optimistic view of Americas role and capabilities in the world. They lost the war in large part because psychologically, they kept trying to cram the conflict into the same mold as WWII. When Vietnam did not evolve like WWII they became confused, frustrated and defeatist. The “Greatest Generation” did recover from Vietnam and successfully steer the Cold War to its graceful end.

The baby-boomer came to power in the 90’s and their pessimistic and hesitant view of American power that they learned in Vietnam became the template for use of American force. Clinton’s tepid response to Al-Quada was in part due to his perception that, as in Vietnam, America could not successfully project force into 3rd world nations. Even Bush came to office extremely leery of the use of force in most situations. He was critical of “nation building” interventions. Some even described him as isolationist.

Part of the immense divide in political debate today occurs between those boomers for whom 9/11 radically shifted their generational world view and those boomers still stuck in the rice paddies. For far to many boomers, Vietnam became the platonic ideal for all wars. Every use of American power is just another road production of Vietnam with slight changes in costume. They seem incapable of viewing the current conflict through a separate lens.

The boomers will dominate American politics for at least the next decade. If we don’t understand their perception of Vietnam we won’t understand their perceptions of contemporary conflicts.

8 thoughts on “Wars of Generations”

  1. Vietnam is not the model for the Boomers; It is the model for the radical left. It’s the only successful template they have for defeating America.

    John Kerry, he of rice paddies (briefly), isn’t fighting Vietnam so much as fighting the last war that he and the radical left won.

  2. Fred Boness,

    I think Vietnam caused a broad loss of confidence across the political spectrums. The Left reacted as you describe but those on Right also lost confidence but they lost confidence that America would pull together and follow through with a really hard effort. A lot of the resistance to nation-building on the right arose from this viewpoint. The Right was worried we would get into military situations only to have public support evaporate. I do think that many in the military fear that outcome.

  3. I think the Right was also infatuated with a technological approach to war, and frustrated that that approach, successful in WWII, did not “scale downward” to yield success in Vietnam.

  4. “the Right was also infatuated with a technological approach to war”…the *Right*? The dean of over-analysis and over-quantitization was Robert McNamara, who was a liberal Democrat.

  5. The biggest lesson of Vietnam STILL is unlearned, and untalked about.
    Honest appraisals between alternatives.
    Kerry, from 71 on, was a leading proponent of Peace.
    Peace Now. His Nixon allied opponents were in favor of fighting evil, and defeating it (but lousy at it).

    Peace or War.
    Peace AND genocide after, or War against evil — war that lasts until we learn how to do nation building under threat of guerrilla terrorists.

  6. Shannon, please consider Vietnam part of the Moral Superiority War, which the Left claims to have won, with Peace.
    Peace now, instead of more war.
    Peace and genocide instead of fighting evil commies.

    The Left, like Kerry, chose peace AND genocide — and claims moral superiority for this choice. The selfish, lazy, isolationist choice of running out on Vietnam is understandable, but I’m enraged at the implicit claim of moral superiority.

    In Vietnam, the US did NOT learn how to do a good job at Nation Building under terrorist guerrilla attacks. We haven’t learned yet.
    We need to learn before we leave Iraq — as a democracy with some free press and human rights.
    See my:

  7. Tom Grey,

    “In Vietnam, the US did NOT learn how to do a good job at Nation Building under terrorist guerrilla attacks”

    On of the great tragedies of the Vietnam war was that South Vietnam was actually quite stable towards the end. The country fell to a vigorously resisted massive external invasion not from a popular uprising from within.

    Arguably, there were two entirely separate Vietnam wars: the first fought from 1964-1968(Tet) and the one fought from (Tet) 1968 till the end. The post-Tet war concentrated on civilian security and building civil institutions. It was very successful. Terrorism and civilian intimidation nearly completely disappeared in much of the country. The NV operated only in a conventional manner along the Cambodian and Laos borders. The problem was the war had already been lost in America in 1968.

    Much of what we are going in Iraq today is drawn from our experiences in the second half of the Vietnam war.

  8. Thats only becuase the liberals and the news media keep bringing it up all the time i mean they ignored the fact that bill clinton was a draft-dodger and what else they want to bug it all the time they are the real liars and crinimals

Comments are closed.