Afghanistan and Vietnam

The media has been concerned about what America’s loss in the Afghanistan War will mean for veterans.  There is a pretty good precedent in the Vietnam War.  If anything, being a Vietnam veteran was worse because the people back home hated them as baby-killing war criminals.  When they came home, they were greeted with derision and insults.  At least people feel that they have to express support for Afghanistan veterans, whether they really feel it or not.

Among Vietnam veterans, there were relatively few who served out of patriotism compared to Afghanistan vets, many of whom volunteered after 9/11. Many of the Vietnam vets who ended up with the most dangerous assignments were drafted. They didn’t want to be there; the citizens back home didn’t want them to be there; only the politicians wanted them to be there. Because of the draft, a much higher percentage of Afghanistan soldiers were “lifers” than in Vietnam.

There probably is more emotional loss for Afghanistan veterans because they went there to do good, to respond to 9/11, to make Afghanistan a better place. Most Vietnam veterans had few illusions that they were doing anything good for either the US or Vietnam. That probably made the service harder, but the loss easier to accept.

American veterans of the Afghanistan War appear really to have bonded with the Afghans interpreters they served with. In general, I thought that most Americans in Vietnam did not trust the South Vietnamese.  There may have been some good examples of Americans and Vietnamese working together, but in my experience they worked separately. However, if the Afghans were so close to the Americans, how did they collapse so quickly and fully? It looks like they were simply mercenaries, fighting for money. It looks like that is what the Afghan warlords have done for centuries. The US just turned out to be a rich ally in a never-ending Afghan war, like the Soviets, and Alexander the Great were before them. 

There were a lot of books and movies about the hardships of coming home from Vietnam, and there will be more about the hardships of coming home for Afghanistan. But one of my favorite movies is “The Best Years of Our Lives,” made about World War II veterans in 1946 by William Wyler. In its depiction, the veterans coming home from World War II were not that different from the veterans of Vietnam or Afghanistan. They couldn’t get jobs; their wives or girlfriends left them. Any transition is hard, particularly coming back home from service where danger and death were frequent companions, is hard. I often wonder what it was like for German and Japanese soldiers to return home after losing. After all three wars, the US economy was more or less in good shape, while the Germans in particular returned to a country that had been devastated and impoverished by war.  Ironically, the nuclear bombs that destroyed two cities saved Japan from a land invasion that would have destroyed Japan the way never-ending strategic bombing and house-to-house fighting destroyed Germany.

Bottom line: Coming home from a war is hard, whether you win or lose. It’s tough for Afghanistan vets, but probably no harder than for the veterans of other wars.

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