David Wearing writes: Every so often, a memorable phrase enters the discourse, providing a telling insight into some of the deeper assumptions held in our political culture. One such term, now mostly forgotten, is the “Vietnam syndrome.”
The Vietnam war claimed the lives of 58,000 US soldiers, seriously damaged Washington’s prestige as an imperial power and caused untold hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Indochina, which had been subjected by America’s forces of liberation to levels of aerial bombing last seen in the second world war.
Over subsequent years, those keen to see the US again exert its military might in the world lamented the stubborn persistence of a “Vietnam syndrome” among the public and many policymakers. The latter were increasingly unconvinced of the practical feasibility of military action, while the former saw the potential human costs as intolerable and, in many cases, were resolved to actively oppose a repeat of the Vietnam experience.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that a widespread popular aversion to the horrors of war – something one might regard as quite healthy – should come to be repeatedly described as a “syndrome”; a collective psychological defect that would hopefully be overcome at some future date. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that state violence has long been a highly valued policy tool, as indicated by the vast resources devoted to it, out of all proportion to genuine needs of “defence.”
After the comprehensive defeat of a disobedient former ally, Saddam Hussein, in the 1991 Gulf war, George HW Bush declared euphorically, “by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” Many senior Republicans spent the next few years cultivating various fantasies about what could be achieved the next time an opportunity arose to let US forces off the leash. Such an opportunity was presented to them on 11 September 2001.