"Waist Deep in the Big Muddy"
by Andrew J. Bacevich, The Quincy Institute (August 28, 2023)
Commonweal (September 7, 2023)
What can Vietnam teach us about the war in Ukraine?
Pete Seeger performs at a protest in New York, October 1975 (ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo).
I spent part of the long US Independence Day (Fourth of July) weekend listening to an old recording of "Woody's Children," a folk-music program that premiered in 1969 and ran for several decades on New York's WQXR. The particular program that I tuned into was first broadcast in October of that year, coinciding with the Vietnam moratorium. Not surprisingly, it consisted entirely of antiwar songs, a genre then at the height of its popularity.
I had missed the show the first time around. In October 1969, I was attending Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia, as a freshly minted, Vietnam-bound army second lieutenant. At the time, I felt no particular affinity for antiwar activists or their music.
Hearing the program for the first time in July 2023 nearly brought me to tears. That said, much of the music itself, although decidedly earnest, has not aged well. Frequently maudlin and bluntly didactic, the lyrics tend to lack subtlety. Yet as a political testimonial, the entire protest genre holds up remarkably well. Even today, with the folk revival of the sixties a distant memory, it retains underappreciated relevance.
The US peace movement is on life support
But fifty-some years later, the peace movement itself is on life support. Efforts to curb America's appetite for war have simply failed. The draft-eligible Baby Boomers who marched against the Vietnam War in their youth tacitly embraced militarism once they reached the heights of political, academic, journalistic, and corporate power.
The facts speak for themselves. When it comes to military spending, the United States leads the pack internationally. No nation or combination of nations comes anywhere close. When it comes to an actual propensity to use force, no nation (with the possible exception of Israel) can match the United States. Even so, in US politics, there is no peace party worthy of note. The results of failed wars such as Afghanistan and Iraq are forgotten with astonishing swiftness. Principled opposition to war is a fringe phenomenon.
Among the antiwar anthems reprised on "Woody's Children" in October 1969, one in particular caught my ear: "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." Written and performed by Pete Seeger, the ballad recounts a World War II training exercise in which the officer in charge insists on seeing the mission through even as swampy conditions deteriorate. The wise sergeant foresees disaster ahead, but "the big fool says to push on." Orders are orders, a stubborn blindness that will cost the officer dearly.
In 1969, the "big fool" was President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose response to difficulties in Vietnam was to throw more troops into the fray, expecting to transform stalemate into victory. Seeger's "big fool" was immune to learning. So was LBJ, even as the years passed and the violence escalated.
Fifty-eight thousand Americans died for nothing
From today's vantage point, the folly of Vietnam that Seeger and others on the folk scene denounced appears self-evident. As a result of his plunge into the Big Muddy, President Johnson's reputation sustained damage from which it has never recovered. Fifty-eight thousand Americans died for nothing.
Yet my own Independence Day rumination left me wondering yet again whether the United States had learned much of anything from the defeat it experienced in Vietnam—and whether President Biden, in his own meandering way, is not retracing LBJ's footsteps.
Adherence to three distinct principles prompted Johnson to intervene the way he did in Vietnam. First was the imperative of confronting perceived evil. Second was the requirement to do so directly by employing force. The third principle was the necessity of playing to ostensible American strengths while minimizing our vulnerabilities. Underlying this third principle was a conviction that, because of our superior technology and strategy, the United States has war figured out.
On the basis of those principles, Johnson persuaded himself (or was persuaded) that ensuring the survival of South Vietnam constituted a vital US national-security interest. It was a cause worth fighting for as well as a winnable one. Superior firepower and mobility would enable US forces to defeat an adversary generally lacking in modern arms.
Three principles that have remained stubbornly intact
The actual realities in Vietnam contradicted all of those principles. The enemy doggedly refused to be beaten, the lavish application of American weaponry only produced higher casualties, and the final outcome demonstrated conclusively that Vietnam itself was of no more than marginal importance to U.S. national security.
Yet in Washington, the three principles found wanting in Vietnam remained stubbornly intact and formed the basis of US policy going forward, most notably in a series of military interventions, large and small, in the greater Middle East. In 2003, the George W. Bush administration launched the most ambitious of those interventions when it invaded Iraq, initiating a campaign intended ultimately to eliminate evil itself.
Bush persuaded himself (or was persuaded) that the United States had no alternative but to oust Saddam Hussein's regime. Here, it seemed, was a cause worth fighting for and a winnable one, with US forces seemingly in possession of near-invincible capabilities.
To say that the ensuing Iraq War proved to be a repeat of Vietnam is both wildly wrong and essentially correct. The dry and dusty "look" of the Iraq War differed radically from Vietnam's jungles and rice paddies. But once US forces had waded into the Big Muddy of the Tigris and Euphrates and superior American arms once again failed to yield the expected victory, the Big Fool in the White House saw no choice but to push on, as did his successor. Once more, as in Vietnam, a chastened United States eventually found itself obliged to withdraw.
The echoes of Vietnam and Iraq are difficult to ignore
What lessons had the United States taken from the Iraq War (and from its Afghan sibling)? How have those lessons informed the Biden administration's policy regarding the war occurring on its own watch?
Once again, the "look" of the Ukraine War differs from the "look" of either Vietnam or Iraq. This is a classic conventional conflict pitting regular forces against one another on a linear and largely static battlefield.
Yet in Washington, the underlying principles that informed the Vietnam and Iraq Wars remain intact. First, there is the imperative of confronting evil, with Vladimir Putin now cast in the role once assigned to Ho Chi Minh and Saddam Hussein. Second is the necessity of employing armed force; the mere idea of diplomacy is viewed as tantamount to immoral appeasement. Third is the effort to devise a suitable design for victory, in this instance providing a plentiful supply of arms while allowing Ukrainians to do the actual fighting.
On the last point, however, President Biden's preference for relying on proxies should not conceal the fact that while the Big Muddy may now be the Dnieper, the waters are rising. An end to this war is not in sight, even as pressures to escalate increase; Biden's decision to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions is the latest example of his willingness to cave to those pressures. Meanwhile, sensitive questions about the war's origins and the United States' actual interests are often avoided.
But the echoes of Vietnam and Iraq are difficult to ignore. And as Pete Seeger wrote,
Every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We're waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Among recent US presidents, Joe Biden is not uniquely foolish. But like his predecessors going back to LBJ, he lacks imagination. And so we stumble deeper into the swamp, oblivious to the consequences that await.
* Note added: When the new Republican president, Richard Nixon, took office on January 20, 1969, about 34,000 Americans had been killed fighting in Vietnam by that point. During Nixon's first year in office, from January 1969 to January 1970, about another 10,000 Americans were killed fighting in Vietnam.
Nixon's decision to time military withdrawal from Vietnam to his reelection campaign cost thousands of lives. More than 20,000 American soldiers died during Nixon's first term. The Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian death toll was many times higher. This is by far Nixon's worst abuse of presidential power.