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.