It’s no coincidence that the Vietnam War spawned the most powerful anti-war movement in American history. The Vietnam War was the first one Americans saw on television in their own homes almost every day. Seeing it, even if just on a screen, was a transforming experience for a nation that had not seen real war in their living rooms and front yards for more than 100 years. No one alive in the late 1960s and 70s could remember what living through the Civil War was like, but its repeated representation on television somehow kindled human moral memory.
Hence a national renunciation of the war that forced President Lyndon Johnson to call it off. Hence, a national consensus that convinced America to campaign to strengthen the Geneva Conventions’ Rules of War, and for the first time, to sign on to them.
To those who saw this national rejection of war as crippling for American power and influence, the lesson was clear: the best, maybe the only way to keep wars going was to keep them hidden from the American public.
The spear-point of this campaign was the first law of American television news coverage of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan — no pictures of dead Americans.
The military claimed they were protecting the dignity of the dead, rather than hiding the dirty secret content of warfare.
Changes in military doctrine and technology have helped reduce the number of people who know the worst aspects of war’s reality. Roughly 2.7 million Americans did military service in Vietnam. In Iraq, about 1.5 million Americans did time in the combat zone. About 400,000 of them did at least three tours of duty, in itself, a terrible abuse of these brave and loyal men and women. It chewed people up, but it did hold down the number of witnesses to what the U.S. was doing in Iraq and Afghanistan and its impact.
Twenty years of warfare in Afghanistan required the services of fewer than half a million troops. Fewer people on the ground meant fewer journalists reporting on what they were up to. Television, which had made Vietnam its war, watched closely the shock and awe period of initial attack in Iraq, both in 1990 and in 2003 and then showed declining interest as the effects of that initially “successful” warfare played out. By the time the magnitude of America’s losses, to its reputation with most Iraqi citizens, and in the realities of regional politics were obvious, American TV news left them unreported, left the lying assurances of American politicians and generals that “progress” was being made unchallenged.
The Afghan War began as a hunt for Osama bin Laden and when the chase went cold, the coverage of it went dark. The war continued. The failures — military, political, social — stayed largely hidden.
When bin Laden was found and killed, America celebrated, but the war went on, and so did the failures and so did the official lies and the news media uninterest.
So, even though polls suggest even more Americans support leaving the battlefield in Afghanistan than agreed with the abandonment of the American project in Vietnam, far fewer have a visceral sense of why we lost the war, why we lost so many of the Afghan people and why we had to give up.
Matthew Hoh had nearly twelve years experience with America’s wars overseas with the United States Marine Corps, Department of Defense and State Department. He has been a Senior Fellow with the Center For International Policy since 2010. In 2009, Matthew resigned in protest from his post in Afghanistan with the State Department over the American escalation of the war. Prior to his assignment in Afghanistan, Matthew took part in the American occupation of Iraq; first in 2004-5 in Salah ad Din Province with a State Department reconstruction and governance team and then in 2006-7 in Anbar Province as a Marine Corps company commander. When not deployed, Matthew worked on Afghanistan and Iraq war policy and operations issues at the Pentagon and State Department from 2002-8. Matthew’s writings have appeared in online and print periodicals such as the Atlanta Journal Constitution, CounterPunch, CNN, Defense News, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Mother Jones, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. He has been a guest on hundreds of news programs on radio and television networks including the BBC, CBS, CNN, CSPAN, Fox, NBC, MSNBC, NPR, Pacifica. and RT. The Council on Foreign Relations has cited Matthew’s resignation letter from his post in Afghanistan as an Essential Document. In 2010, Matthew was named the Ridenhour Prize Recipient for Truth Telling and, in 2020, he was awarded as a Defender of Liberty by the Committee for the Republic. Matthew is a member of the Board of Directors for the Institute for Public Accuracy, an Advisory Board Member for the Committee to Defend Julian Assange and Civil Liberties, Expose Facts, North Carolina Committee to Investigate Torture, The Resistance Center for Peace and Justice, Veterans For Peace, and World Beyond War, and he is an Associate Member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). He is a 100% disabled veteran and was certified by North Carolina as a Peer Support Specialist for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder.