If the United States government had drones during the Vietnam war, would it have stayed in Vietnam?
“What-if” questions may cause us to roll our eyes with impatience. But this one offers perspective on the significance of the current controversy over the drones. The question leads to another: why did the United States abandon its Southeast Asian venture? One answer lies in the public protests that pressed our officials in Washington to bring the troops home. In some way protest was sparked by the draft and the steady increase in American dead. There were other reasons, but these are two good places to begin.
The Vietnam catastrophe taught government leaders important lessons. First, avoid a draft. Second, avoid foreign adventures that disturb voters to ask provocative questions and that undermine support for their leaders. Thus the government fights in the Middle East without a draft and with volunteers. Large sectors of the public are not affected directly. Yet the volunteers do die. And public concern remains as long as young Americans return home in coffins. And so at first the government attempted to prevent photography of the coffins.
If policy makers pursue overseas adventures that require shedding blood and wish at the same time to shield Americans from the human consequences, then mechanized warfare is the answer. Machines do the fighting. American soldiers are less likely to be put in danger. Thus the deterrent to pursuing a violent foreign policy is diminished. The military in Vietnam invested in technologies for this end but did not succeed. Drones represent the fulfillment of that dream.
Today’s discussion of the drones is, however, distracted by attention to questions of transparency and accountability. These are important questions. But if demands for transparency and for accountability were satisfied, even completely, would we be addressing underlying questions: should our government use such instruments of death so that it can meddle in the lives of other peoples and do its meddling by violence?
Such questions were being asked during the Vietnam War. To tell the story of the anti-war movement by focusing on the draft and dying Americans is to tell a portion of the story. Consciences were pricked by the photograph of the little girl running naked, screaming in terror from her village that had been turned to a blazing inferno by American forces. They were numbed by the photographs of the dead women and children at My Lai. And this rousing of conscience was also part of the story that roused an opposition.
Questions about the drones that focus on constitutional issues of accountability, while important, do not yet bring us to the human costs that are daily being paid by families in the Middle East. We do not yet see the photographs. Perhaps we do not because of the nature of this war. But we know enough to know that children and parents live in daily terror of these unknown instruments that descend from the sky. They see the mangled bodies.
And so there are continuities between Vietnam and Afghanistan. The continuities are traced easily when we look at the objectives of policy makers to wage wars that appear bloodless. Other continuities seem less obvious but are implicit and call for revived attention. These are the moral questions that guided a significant portion of the opponents of the Vietnam carnage. They focus on the children like that Vietnamese child fleeing her village in terror. How then will we address these enduring questions? This task will require far more sensitivity and wisdom than is needed to answer the constitutional questions. The answers will not emerge from documents pried from government agencies. They may come as we look within ourselves and learn to talk with our neighbors.
Next: Part Two – ways that meetings might attend to this issue.