The recent movie The Post (about the Washington Post newspaper and its involvement with the Pentagon Papers – see below) poses interesting reminders of the power of the US government to rain death on countries that fall under our imperial domain and simultaneously keep the American people in the dark or asleep.
In the case of the Vietnam War (1950 – 1975)1 it took Daniel Ellsberg’s theft and subsequent efforts to publish the Pentagon Papers, officially, United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, in the New York Times in 1971 to reveal the lying and deception that characterized the whole justification for this war.
The Afghanistan War, frequently cited as our longest war but only if you limit our wars to ones where our troops are actually on the ground, proxy wars don’t count, is entering its 17th year. In this case the justifications have not featured much deception on the part of the US government. There have been repeated reports, interviews, and statements by participants that we have no strategy, no purpose, no end game, just an insistence that we prop up a corrupt narco-regime in Kabul to forestall the all purpose justification of the last twenty years, terrorism. The amazing accomplishment for the government and military is how complacent the American people are about this enormous waste of resources and human beings. We are treated to the usual bureaucratic names, Operation Enduring Freedom and currently Operation Freedom’s Sentinel spiced up with references to terrorism, Muslim fundamentalism, and global big power politics.
This passivity on the part of the American people is driven by a number of factors.
First, today we have a “volunteer” military. During the Vietnam War the military was populated by conscripts, draftees. Despite the widespread availability of deferments for those with the right pedigree and money, note both Bush II and our current President Shithole evaded any combat roles through these mechanisms, the military contained young men from a wide cross-section of the population. Almost everyone knew someone who was involved. Many knew soldiers who had been wounded or killed. Now, the dead and injured are largely invisible.
Second, the Vietnam War was widely reported in near real-time by the media. Since all three national TV networks ran nightly news programs that everyone watched, the Vietnam War was far more present in day to day life. One of the lessons the military and civilian politicians learned from this were the dangers of reporters floating about largely unsupervised. In 1983 the Pentagon barred all reporters from our military action in Grenada. Thus began military control of the press in war zones. Today reporters continue to be herded around by press officers. But, in any event the media is so fractionated that there is no focus.
Third, the financial costs of our recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere are not coming out of the pockets of today’s taxpayers. It is just being tacked onto the national debt. (See “Cost of War – $5.6 trillion for US wars 2001-2017”) The Vietnam War in contrast was paid as it occurred through a 10% surcharge on Federal income taxes. This was President Johnson’s “guns & butter” fiscal strategy.
Fourth, in both wars government and media propaganda was incessant. The Vietnam War was justified by the declared threat of communist expansion, the so-called “dominoes” effect. The Afghanistan War followed the 9/11 attacks and has been rhetorically sustained by the drum beat of terrorist threats.