Retired Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster contends that support for the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, which is now in its eighteenth year, is being undermined by a “defeatist narrative that’s inaccurate, and doesn’t reflect what’s at stake.” Instead, Americans should see the fight as an “insurance policy” against the collapse of a friendly Afghan government and its replacement by enemies of the United States.
Before becoming President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, McMaster was perhaps best known in policy circles for his 1999 book Dereliction of Duty, a sharp critique of American political and military leaders during the Vietnam War, arguing that it “lost in Washington . . . even before the first American units were deployed.”
Ironically, McMaster is resurrecting two tropes from that era which sustained an unwinnable fight and then shifted blame for our failure to the domino and stabbed-in-the-back theories.
McMaster pleads, “If you think about the importance of the mission in Afghanistan, to protect what is fundamentally a transformed society, from the enemies that we’re facing—the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies — it is a cost that is sustainable.” Moreover, he warns, “They’re trying to establish these emirates. And then stitch these emirates together into a caliphate in which they force people to live under their brutal regime and then export terror to attack their near enemies, Arab states, Israel, and the far enemies, Europe and the United States.”
The echoes of the domino theory are unmistakable in both the dire inevitability and the absurdity of the predicted cataclysm.
In January 1951, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs Dean Rusk declared, “It is generally acknowledged that if Indochina were to fall . . . Burma and Thailand would follow suit almost immediately. Thereafter, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for Indonesia, India, and the others to remain outside the Soviet-dominated Asian Bloc.”
On April 7, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower formalized the theory and give it a name. Asked to comment on “the strategic importance of Indochina for the free world,” the president pointed to the “possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world” and the “broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle.”
He explained, “You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”
“But when we come to the possible sequence of events, the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following, now you begin to talk about areas that no only multiply the disadvantages that you would suffer through the loss of materials, sources of materials, but now you are talking about millions and millions of people.”
Oh, it gets worse: “It turns the so-called island defensive chain of Japan, Formosa, of the Philippines and to the southward; it moves in to threaten Australia and New Zealand. It takes away, in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area or Japan, in turn, will have only one place in the world to go—that is, toward the Communist areas in order to live. So, the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world.”
While those dire warnings seemed plausible to many in those scary early days of the Cold War, they were widely rejected by experts well before the escalation of the American war effort and seem positively absurd in hindsight. Despite a handful of revisionists who argue that America’s losing effort in Vietnam somehow staunched the spread of communism to the region, most see the individual nation-states as independent actors minimally influenced by events in Indochina.
We can’t, of course, know with certainty what will happen in the aftermath of an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. But we do know that Al Qaeda doesn’t need Afghanistan. After being routed there by the initial American invasion in 2001, they reconstituted in Yemen and elsewhere, albeit in a much less centralized, effective form. And the notion that the return of Taliban control over Kabul would engender a global caliphate is more fanciful than Australian going communist in the wake of defeat in Indochina.
Additionally, McMaster’s claim that the American public’s disillusionment with what is now easily the longest war effort in the country’s history is caused by some vague “defeatist narrative” harkens to the excuses made by American military leaders four decades ago.
In 1968, U.S. Marine Col. William R. Corson warned that “an American version of the German ‘stab in the back’ myth is being actively promoted by the hawks on Vietnam.” They were quite successful. It became received wisdom in military circles “that if only Johnson would allow his generals to prosecute the war with sufficient brutality—mining the Haiphong Harbor, destroying the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia—it could be won.”
More than that, though, was the sense that “the military mission had been compromised, even betrayed, by weak-kneed liberalism in Congress and seditious radicalism on college campuses.” Widespread but almost certainly mythological stories of troops returning home from war only to be spat upon and called baby killers “provided reassuring confirmation that had it not been for those duplicitous fifth-columnists, the Vietnamese would have never beaten us.”
Few serious scholars now believe that the war in Vietnam was winnable. The same is true—and has been for quite some time—of Afghanistan. And, indeed, despite the a majority of the American public thinking the war not worth fighting for more than a decade, we have continued muddling along.
To his credit, McMaster concedes that “Afghanistan is not going to become Switzerland. It’s just not.” Instead, he contends, “It can be Afghanistan, and it can be an Afghanistan like it was in the ’70s or like it was during this really short but brutal period of rule under the Taliban from 1996 to 2001.”
But, eighteen years in, there’s little evidence, indeed, that we are anywhere near close to achieving even that modest goal.
The historian Ronald Spector, reviewing McMaster’s book contemporaneously for the New York Times, charged that his “preoccupation with the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and their decisions displays some of the same ethnocentrism, the same assumption of American omnipotence, for which McMaster pillories the leaders of that era. It largely leaves out of account the ideas, plans and actions of the Vietnamese.” Revisiting the book upon McMaster’s elevation to National Security Advisor, he noted that “American GIs in Vietnam, including this author, usually saw the South Vietnamese government and army as incompetent and ineffective. As an historian, I would still argue that they were corrupt and ineffective, crippled by nepotism and unable to unite.”
Despite so much scholarship since, Spector laments, “the Vietnam War, as viewed by Americans, remains primarily an American story. The culprits are still to be found in the White House and the Pentagon and, depending on your political stance, among the anti-war left of the 1960s. The victims are the American soldiers sent to fight and die in an unnecessary and futile war. Yet more than forty years after the fall of Saigon, Americans are beginning to acknowledge that the Vietnamese had something to do with it.”
Surely, the same is true of the Afghans? No matter how much the American military, its political leadership, and the public they both serve may want to turn Afghanistan into Sweden or even just 1970s Afghanistan, it’s not really up to us.
Additionally, while all we have is a single report of the speech, it appears that McMaster brought out the tired chicken hawk trope that was so popular among neoconservatives during the early days of the conflict. He told of watching a recent town hall in which “A young student stood up and said ‘all I’ve known my whole life is war.’” McMaster observed, “Now, he’s never been to war, but he’s been subjected, I think, to this narrative of war-weariness.”
It’s problematic, indeed, to suggest that citizens who haven’t served in the war shouldn’t be concerned about it. It’s doubtless true that a tiny percentage of them have deployed to combat. But one would hope that they view those being sent to fight and die in that war as fellow citizens whose lives should be risked only in service of the most worthy—and achievable—goals.
James Joyner is a security studies professor at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. These views are his own.