It was either the late seventies or the eighties when I saw Barry Goldwater on TV. He was sitting on a stage with several other men. They were discussing Vietnam. I have a vivid memory of Goldwater saying, “We could have won that war.” I’m sure it’s such a strong memory because of my emotional reaction to that, having paid so much attention to things in the sixties and seventies, something like, “What, is he insane?”
I still read an occasional piece arguing as Goldwater did. They argue that if Lyndon Johnson had let the air war in the sixties proceed without restraints, maybe with invasion of North Vietnam, maybe even with the use of nuclear weapons as some advocated in the Korean War, we would have won. How do they know? All they really know is we could have been more aggressive. What would have been the cost? At what point would Chinese and Soviet forces have fought back just as freely?
In the end it was still up to local people to secure some part of the country as a regime friendly to us. Was it just because we didn’t kill more Vietnamese in the North that prevented that?
It’s hard to know what caution in Korea or Vietnam was justified, but we can know exactly what the immediate response would have been if US generals hadn’t been restrained in 1962 in Cuba. The Pentagon was set to invade Cuba until John Kennedy decided on blockade instead. Unknown to them, there were tactical nuclear weapons fully operational in Cuba. Our invasion would have been hit by nuclear weapons. Where would we have responded, just Cuba or the Soviet Union? Which American cities would have been destroyed in response to that?
We made it out of the Cold War without an exchange of nuclear weapons. We were lucky. Conservatives never mention that. They speak as if we could have done whatever we wanted, and everything would have turned out just fine. As lucky as we were, I wouldn’t bet on replaying the Cold War differently. But some think we should have won even more. Some think the only way they can lose is if someone stabbed them in the back, like Lyndon Johnson in mismanaging the war in Vietnam or the anti-war movement for forcing an end to it.
I’m sure that someday, after the greater mission in Iraq fails and our troops come home, someone will be saying, “We could have won that war.” I’m not the first one to realize that or to say it will be presented as true Americans being stabbed in the back. This same link brings up the greatest recent example of such propaganda, which was Germans blaming defeat in World War I on being stabbed in the back. This wasn’t just Nazi propaganda. Even Hindenburg said this was the case. Sometimes people forget about so much context behind how vicious the Nazis were to the Jews in the thirties. The Jews were as entrenched as among those who “stabbed us in the back” for World War I as Jane Fonda is for Vietnam. Conservatives are still auditioning who they are going to blame the most for stabbing us in the back for Iraq. I’m sure they’ll come to a consensus eventually.
The human need for scapegoats is very old. Nero needed a scapegoat for a disastrous fire he may or may not have been at fault for. The perception against Nero was there, whether true or not, so he made torches of Christians to emphasize they were the bad ones. How many believed that? It’s hard to say, but apparently Nero’s voice was the one that counted.
Today there are many voices. I would like to believe that no one again will be as fooled as Germans were in making scapegoats of Jews, but maybe I’m overly optimistic. I’ve always thought it was silly to compare George Bush with Hitler, but what if Mr. Bush’s lies were more effective? How bad could he be? His lies that Democrats are the enemy didn’t win him the last election. What if it had? What if conservative politicians or conservative Christians could do whatever they wanted to the rest of us? I expect whatever repression that would result wouldn’t change my life at this point, but where would that movement go? How would it be different than those throughout history who saw others as stabbing them in the back?
That’s not just about war. Bill O’Reilly thinks anyone who says, “Happy Holidays” has stabbed Christmas in the back. Traditional Christians say anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe has stabbed God in the back. Anti-abortionists see abortion as murder in part to express how abortion in the last 40 years has broken from the tradition of it being illegal. Abortion was legalized, but if you call it murder, you can say what a betrayal that is just that easily.
For anyone who believes the world is making progress, there’s someone who believes that tradition is being stabbed in the back, whether that’s Christianity or Islam, whether that’s about gender roles or about less passive attitudes toward prolonging death. I see the world as going through a great transition because of the Enlightenment and revolution in science and technology. It’s not just that some people want the world to be unchanged by this while others want everything changed. It’s that those who want their traditions are so determined that their ways are the only good ways, while progressives say that traditionalists are merely unenlightened. Both are simplistic, as human beings are naturally. If God indeed knows more than I do, then He certainly knows that such simplistic ideas are wrong.
Then on top of such strong feelings about whether change is good or bad comes something truly evil, like the Nazis, the evils of hatred, indifference toward others and lies. You can see that with or without the phrase, “stabbed in the back”. There’s so much clever rhetoric to supplement that. Rush Limbaugh was on the radio today calling the Iran Study Group the “Iraq Surrender Group”. Frank Gaffney used that insult a couple of days ago, before the report was public. Who has time to read a 160-page report? It’s much more effective to craft a short insult, because for many the only strategy to war is to do everything you can think of, for as long as possible. After all it’s not such propagandists who build a corps of volunteers to go and do the fighting. As long as you favor extreme measures, no one can accuse you of stabbing the troops in the back.
That’s not a rational choice to pretend to be the toughest guy on the block. That’s evil, evil that hates those with different beliefs, that is indifferent to the costs of being extreme, and lies that anyone has done a complete analysis that says the extreme way is the best way. I find it easiest to see this with rhetoric about war, but all of politics and religion is similar. People are people. I think culture will force us to adapt to a new world eventually. No one who actually fights wants to keep it up forever. But in the meantime there are so many people who insist they are right, so much so that if events go against them, someone must have stabbed them in the back. It’s evil. I can’t beat it, but I’m at least going to try to avoid being anyone’s human torch.