Aug. 28, 2007 Bush's entire presidency has been propped up by the War Myth. By aggressively presenting himself as a war leader, by wrapping himself in the sacred robes of patriotism, the military and national honor, Bush has taken refuge in the holy of holies, the ultimate sanctuary in American life. He has made criticism of his policies tantamount to criticism of the one institution in American life that is untouchable: the military. He uses the almost 4,000 new crosses in military cemeteries as a talisman against his opponents -- notwithstanding the fact that he is wholly responsible for those crosses.
War may, as Randolph Bourne argued, in 1918, be the health of the state, but it is definitely the health of the presidency. Paradoxically, the very thing that has destroyed Bush's presidency -- his disastrous war on Iraq -- is also the only thing that is propping it up. War is an incompetent leader's Waterloo -- but also his best friend. Being a "war president," as Bush incessantly calls himself, means never having to say you're sorry. No matter how many lives you have destroyed, you are not to blame.
What is crucial to understand is that the War Myth can be effective even when reality utterly undercuts it. Myths appeal to transcendental values, shared sacred beliefs. Once we have entered the realm of myth, taboos replace rational discourse.
That irrational power explains the Democrats' recent humiliating collapse on Bush's intelligence surveillance bill. It explains why Republican politicians, whose ideology is steeped in the War Myth, have failed to rebel against a doomed war that could cost them their jobs. And it is why the American political establishment is waiting hat in hand for Gen. Petraeus' predictable report, in which he will say the surge is working and ask for more time.
Bush's latest pro-war P.R. campaign is yet another attempt to tap into it. But the magic is finally wearing off. And in his desperation to save his presidency, Bush has been forced to squeeze the Myth so hard that its irrationality has become painfully evident.
Bush's invocation of the Vietnam War was a strangely convoluted and halfhearted attempt to reintroduce one of the most venerable War Myth themes: the "stab in the back." Last week, in a speech to a Veterans of Foreign Wars group in Kansas City, Mo. -- which he opened with his favorite self-description, "I stand before you as a wartime president" -- Bush pronounced that America's withdrawal from Vietnam led to the Cambodian genocide and the Vietnamese boat exodus. Withdrawal from Iraq, Bush warned, would result in similar catastrophes.
Bush's argument -- which piggybacked on a New York Times Op-Ed piece making the same points by Iraq war supporters Peter Rodman and William Shawcross -- was a gross distortion of history. In fact, almost all historians agree that it was not the U.S. withdrawal that was responsible for the Khmer Rouge's rise to power and subsequent genocidal campaign, but the Vietnam War itself, and in particular President Nixon's massive bombing of Cambodia. The 2,756,941 tons of bombs that first President Johnson and then Nixon dropped on Cambodia -- more than the U.S. dropped in World War II -- drove the devastated rural population into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, which had not been a significant player before America blundered into Vietnam.
Why would Bush choose to bring up Vietnam, a war most Americans see as a quagmire and a mistake, to defend the Iraq war, which most Americans see as a quagmire and a mistake? Even Bush was forced to acknowledge that "[Vietnam] is a complex and painful subject for many Americans" and that "there is a legitimate debate about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left." By invoking Vietnam, Bush seemed to be going out of his way to invite unflattering reflections on how we got into his own deeply unpopular war.
The White House characterized Bush's speech as a limited argument about the consequences of premature withdrawal. Time's Massimo Calabresi quoted Bush aides as saying that Bush was not trying to "relitigate the Vietnam war," and that his reference was intended only to "deal with the current debate we're in now, weighing the consequences should America walk away from its commitment in Iraq."
But for Bush, Vietnam's real relevance to Iraq isn't the early withdrawal issue -- it's the "stab in the back."
The "stab in the back" holds that America was only defeated in Vietnam because we lost the will to fight. And those who sapped our will, those who betrayed our fighting men, were cowardly protesters and craven politicians. As Bush told "Meet the Press'" Tim Russert in 2004, "The thing about the Vietnam War that troubles me as I look back was it was a political war. We had politicians making military decisions, and it is lessons that any president must learn, and that is to set the goal and the objective and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve that objective. And those are essential lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War."
As Kevin Baker noted in an in-depth analysis in Harper's, the "stab in the back" thesis is the ur-right-wing credo. It brings together two keystone beliefs: the idea that America is omnipotent and incapable of defeat, and that any war the U.S. engages in must be noble and heroic. Therefore, if America is defeated, traitorous elites -- craven politicians, un-American punks, degenerates, longhairs, pinkos and agitators, and the cowardly elite media -- must be to blame. Nixon and Agnew's demonizing of "nattering nabobs of negativism" and Reagan's claims that war protesters were giving "comfort and aid" to the enemy sprang from this belief.
In fact, the Vietnam War was a terrible mistake, and America pulled out because politicians and the American people alike realized it was unwinnable. But the "stab in the back" myth never died: It stayed alive in the resentment-filled caverns of the American right, for whom it is an article of faith that America's wars are always justified and our military omnipotent. It is not an intellectually respectable idea, but it has currency with Bush's core supporters. Bush usually prefers not to make his ties to the far right so obvious, but his situation is so dire he felt compelled to reach gingerly into this muck of Ramboesque resentment.
The implication of Bush's speech is that there is no real difference between Iraq and Vietnam. It was our moral duty to stay in Vietnam, and we would have eventually prevailed had we done so. Our withdrawal was an unconscionable surrender. And Bush is determined not to let what happened in Vietnam happen in Iraq -- even though there is no military solution to the war. Bush sat out Vietnam in a cushy, and mysteriously absence-filled, stint at the Texas Air National Guard. But now he is implicitly arguing that we should have stayed in Vietnam, and should stay in Iraq, indefinitely.
Needless to say, this is not a winning argument. Its sole virtue is that it invokes the War Myth -- but in a form so debased that it defeats itself. That Bush felt he had to make it reveals the desperate straits he is in.