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Has our approach to military changed since Vietnam?

President Lyndon B. Johnson deliberating over Vietnam War strategy.
President Lyndon B. Johnson deliberating over Vietnam War strategy.
Wikimedia Commons

Recently in Washington, Congress passed the largest military budget in U.S. history. It is virtually a blank check to the Pentagon. I was stunned that both political parties went along with the huge amounts of both domestic and military spending that was not funded and which will be added to our enormous deficit.

I spent the entire year, 1967-68, in Vietnam as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. At the time I felt good about my service because I believed strongly in what we were doing in the Delta in Vietnam. In addition to our military duties, my unit was doing civil affairs, including delivering fertilizer and equipment to the agricultural center, as well as motor pumps for small boats transporting grain along the rivers. We thought we were helping Vietnam become a developed democracy because that’s what President John F. Kennedy and President Lyndon B. Johnson told us amid the limited amount of information we had.

My year in 1967 spent in the Army in Vietnam was with the expectation that our military era would be over soon and we would return to a civilian dominated state. However, with the passage of this new budget last week, we are truly a military state, and a huge military parade is envisaged to celebrate all of this. As a once and maybe future Republican (I am looking for some good moderate Republicans to support), I am appalled that our party has abandoned its concern for the deficit.

Let us remember that the last balanced budget was the Clinton-Gingrich budget in the 1990s. And while in the Senate in the late 1970s and the 1980s, I always kept a debt-o-meter to remind me that I was to vote within a balanced budget. As Republican deficit hawks, we had a rule that if we spent too much money we would have to increase taxes to pay for it rather than add it to the debt.

I was a “depression/war baby,” born into a rather stressful society. My relatives and neighbors were in the war and we were constantly fearful of more combat deaths in our community. We “depression/war babies” had a great sense of public duty because we felt our country needed us, but we were very patriotically gullible. Both President Kennedy and President Johnson lied to us, and lied to me, about what was really going on in Vietnam. Kennedy, in particular, wanted to be a great “war president.” He created the special forces, experienced the Cuban Bay of Pigs disaster, and he wanted a big military victory somewhere to make him that great war president.

Kennedy’s inaugural speech, his speech to the West Point graduating class of 1962 and his statements on the creation of the special forces all created a framework for our current military state. In particular, his inaugural speech was a classic war speech, which was played to troops traveling to and coming back from Vietnam. I saw it several times in those days.

Kennedy boldly declared, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

However, both Kennedy and his successor secretly knew very well that we did not have a path to victory in Vietnam. They were urging young, serious, patriotic, well-intentioned Americans such as myself to volunteer to serve in Vietnam without telling us the full truth about internal assessments. In fact, as Ken Burns’ painful PBS series on Vietnam recently demonstrates, both presidents had internal memorandums and briefings telling them just the opposite of what they were declaring in such beautiful language. They in fact knew that our military and our special forces were committing atrocities and that we had no realistic path to victory.

Burns’ documentary demonstrates that we were not sending our best and brightest to Vietnam; rather, the standards for the drafts were lowered such that the children from wealthier families would not have to be drafted and an elaborate system of exemptions was created. Poor people could not exercise those exemptions. Thus, the whole Vietnam ball of wax has become a source of great resentment to me. My 1967 and the first six months of 1968 was wasted and misspent time, and I resent Kennedy and Johnson for lying to me.

Now we come to 2018 when Congress suddenly passes an expensive military budget without any attempt at reforming weapons systems or at least getting the cost down. We seem to be on the verge of pledging to send more ground troops into the Middle East. Some have said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results, and that is what we have been doing.

For example, we are still building the same kinds of weapons we used in World War II and Vietnam — planes, tanks and guns. We use boots on the ground throughout the world. A recent article in the Economist (Feb. 10-16) shows that a homemade drone built at low cost could be more effective at fighting wars than conventional armies and navies. If we really want to kill someone, killing them with conventional ground troops is one of the least effective methods with the most horrific side-effects. Using commercial electronics and sophisticated software is about all we would need, and it would be a fraction of the cost. But the arms companies and labor unions building all the weapons would not be very happy.

In other words, from my years in the military in 1967-68, to the budget approved for 2018-19, indicates that we have just gone further down the same path. Meanwhile, we have fought and lost other wars using the same methodology that we had in Vietnam.

And yet, we seem to enjoy being a military state. We loved Kennedy’s war speeches, and we have followed his direction. Now, apparently, we will have a great military parade in Washington to tie all this together.

Is all of this insanity? Or is this just an old man resenting spending all of 1967 and part of ’68 in a combat zone?

The point of this is that the confused goals and illogical approach to defense spending has not changed since 1967 to the present enormous budget that was abruptly passed in Congress.

Sen. Larry Pressler was a U.S. senator for 18 years and congressman for four years. He is a Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Law graduate, a Vietnam veteran and the author of “Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent.”