by Henry Precht
Two significant anniversaries this month: the 1914 beginning of fighting in World War I in Europe and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam.
The outbreak of conflict 100 years ago followed a period of intense diplomacy within and between two alliances. Germany and Austria on one side; Russia, France and Britain on the other. Everyone feared German armed forces on land, Britain’s at sea and Russia’s quickly developing potential for both. Better to strike now rather than wait until the other side becomes more powerful; that was the dominant analysis. Statesmen and politicians engaged in stale, cliché-formed, fruitless wheeling and dealing. Both sides were confident a quick victory would be theirs. “Home by Christmas,” was the motto. Few and easily drowned out were the voices of doubt, delay and debate.
The naval incident off Vietnam in which an American ship was allegedly attacked led quickly to a congressional resolution giving the Johnson administration unfettered authority to wage war against the enemy we inherited from the French colonialists. No members of the House and only a couple of senators voted against it; they were both later defeated for re-election. Some time later convincing doubt was cast on the authenticity of the reported incident and accusations of misleading Congress were cast on LBJ. Never mind, as the incident was reported by the government-fed press, the public stood squarely behind their leader, confident of victory. Their support for the expanded conflict was the product of government fraud.
History is replete with euphoric moments at the start of a foreign adventure. Think of Afghanistan and Iraq. “Missions [Still Not] Accomplished.” Cheers — then terrible consequences, then condemnation.
How wrong, how tragically wrong initially were the leaders and their people. The four years of World War I became an utter disaster for its participants and for the future development of all nations: depression, fascism, communism, World War II and the Cold War. Vietnam became perhaps the single greatest unnecessary disaster for the US — economically and politically and for the future course of our national progress — to say nothing of the Vietnamese casualties.
Why did the enthusiastic support for war lead to deep frustrations and perverse choices? The key elements were two, in my opinion: First was the ease of going into war — much easier than taking the risks for peace, less taxing than applying creative imaginations to the issues at hand. Second was the absence of doubt, of questioning, of debate. No one asked: Could the leaders be wrong in committing forces; might there be another choice, a peaceful solution? It’s hard to be coldly analytical when surrounded by mobs calling your dissent traitorous.
Which brings me to two new statistics this month: In the Gaza war, eighty to ninety per cent of Israel’s population endorsed the actions of its army in severely punishing that hapless land. In Washington, one hundred percent of the Senate and House voted their backing for Israel without a single word of regret for the suffering of the Palestinian victims. Plus, they threw in an extra $225 million in military aid for Israeli defense. (Never mind the defense of our own borders or pressing domestic needs.)
Wouldn’t it have been a better outcome for the future of two peoples, if Israelis and Palestinians had sat together and talked through their differences — rather than hurling missiles at each other and breeding fear, distrust and hatred? Wouldn’t it have been wise if Secretary Kerry had been willing to sit and talk with Hamas, rather than keeping them at arm’s length as a “terrorist” band? It might, just might, have advanced his goal of reaching a two-state solution. Of course, while talking, it would have been necessary to deal firmly with Palestinian and Israeli extremists and essential to stand up to the super-loyal fans of Israel in the Congress. No easy options there.
In fact, generous and always reliable American support for Israel makes it unnecessary for the hardline regime even to contemplate compromise with its Palestinian antagonists.
The lessons of World War I and Vietnam are plain for all of us to read. If the public is willingly led by self- and special-interest politicians with neither courage nor vision, worse times impend. Not just for the regimes directly involved, but also unhappily for their loyal but misled and fearful citizens.