For governments, the use of drones projects the idea that wars will be ‘free of charge’, says historian – 12/18/2021 – World

The image of soldiers coming back dead in coffins from abroad makes many Americans unwilling for the US to fight new wars. But the advance in the use of drones reduces the risk of such scenes, which could stimulate more conflicts in the future, according to British historian Max Hastings.

As a journalist, he has covered the Vietnam War on the ground and has written more than 20 books on military conflicts. This month he launches in Brazil “Vietnam – An Epic Tragedy”, an 848-page account of the history of the conflict that was marked as the worst American military defeat in the 20th century.

At the end of World War II, Vietnam was a colony of France. Communist revolutionaries managed to expel the French and, in 1954, two countries were created. However, a conflict soon arose between North Vietnam, supported by the Soviet Union, and South Vietnam, aligned with the United States. The Americans spent years supplying weapons until they decided to enter the conflict for good, in 1965. Even with the sending of thousands of soldiers and new types of bombs, the United States lost to the guerrillas.

Hastings, 75, says he has sought to paint a more balanced picture of the conflict and recalls that it is much more a Vietnamese tragedy than an American one. “Forty Vietnamese were killed for every American casualty. This approach is repeated with Afghanistan and Iraq. You see endless articles in the newspapers about how many Americans were killed, but you don’t often see how many Afghans and Iraqis died. One thing historians can do is seek a less nationalist approach,” he says.

Did the US learn anything from mistakes in the Vietnam War? One of the main mistakes is treating a political problem as a military issue. And American foreign policy has often gone wrong over the last 50 or 60 years because it has so often been dictated by the demands of American domestic policy. I spoke with a British general friend before the invasion of Iraq. It was November 2002, he had worked on plans for the invasion and he told me, “Going to Baghdad is easy. But they don’t have the remotest idea what to do next.” And them [americanos] they acted in exactly the same way in Cuba, Vietnam and Afghanistan: they treated a problem that was political as something military.

I have visited Afghanistan several times. Anyone could see the Afghans’ lack of enthusiasm for Western troops. I once interviewed an Afghan minister. He spoke very American English. He had spent most of his life in California. How could other Afghans feel about being ruled by people like that? In the end, the question is always about politics and how local people feel. They never feel good when they’re taking orders from a bunch of Yankees.

And why does the US repeat the same mistakes for so long? It’s very easy to be enchanted by your own power. When I was a correspondent in Vietnam for the BBC, I visited an air base very early. I saw the teams leaving the barracks and heading to the aircraft. There were 50, 60 helicopters lined up on the runway.

The pilots started the engines at the same time and left together, making a huge noise. I thought, “How can these people lose?” even though even in 1971 it was obvious that they were losing. And Americans felt it too: “How can these barefoot Vietnamese confront all US power?” And there was something similar in Afghanistan. But it is very difficult to compare military power against nationalist enemies.

Another issue is that democracies tend not to have a lot of patience. Around 1965, the prime minister of North Vietnam received a journalist from the New York Times, who asked him how long he was willing to fight. He said, “One year, five years, ten years, 20 years. We’ll be happy to accommodate you.” They had fantastic patience. The Taliban acted the same way and continued to wait until Western patience ran out.

I also remember the Falklands War, the last one I covered as a correspondent. What would have happened if the war had lasted six months instead of six weeks? The British people would have lost interest and started to question whether it was really worth making that effort for a piece of land in the middle of the South Atlantic.

Can we delay having a new war like Vietnam or Afghanistan? Every generation says there won’t be wars like that again, because every generation learns that again. If George W. Bush knew anything about history or the outside world, he would not have invaded Iraq. I don’t want to sound anti-American, I love going to the US, but Americans know incredibly little about the rest of the world. John Kennedy was the last president who knew the outside very well. He had spent a lot of time away as a young man. And, of course, Barack Obama was a sensitive and sophisticated president. But most American presidents know very little about the outside world and don’t care much.

And now we live in the age of drones. We have entered the era of remote murder. There is no doubt that robots will play important roles on the battlefield. One of the dangers of this is that governments, and especially the American government, which will have more robots, may decide that this is a kind of “free cost” to wage wars. The main reason for the president [Joe] Biden withdraw troops from Afghanistan is that people don’t like to see American bodies being brought home. If you only have robots, there is a danger that governments will become more willing to start conflicts.

I don’t think we’re going to see another war exactly like Vietnam or Iraq. But the president [da Rússia Vladimir] Putin can decide at any time to start a war in Ukraine, for example. I fear that the interest of governments in trying military actions abroad is still present.

How did the weight of American public opinion help change the course of the Vietnam War? At the time of European empires, it was common to have colonial wars that lasted for many years. But these were different times: wars were fought by professional soldiers, and people at home were less sensitive to death in battle. Low sensitivity is always a very important factor.

There are American soldiers who say the media lost the Vietnam war. It’s not true: the generals and the American government lost it alone. However, if you’re seeing people being killed on television, like what happened in Vietnam, which was the first war broadcast on TV, it’s very difficult for people at home to get used to it.

It is important to remember that it was just over 20 years after victory in World War II, and many Americans were not happy with the casualties, but they were confident in the US ability to win. Things changed with the protests of young people in the US, who began to feel that they did not want to die in a war that was being lost. Most operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were carried out by volunteer soldiers [que escolheram se alistar], which makes it different.

Many veterans recount how terrible it was to return to the US and be treated like outcasts, while their parents returned from World War II as heroes. Several of them came back from Vietnam at the age of 20, 21 and heard their peers say, “How could you have done all that? How could you have murdered all those kids?” They saw their acquaintances walk away and were very, very sad about it.

In the midst of this, there were also clashes for civil rights [para os negros] In the USA. The other day I was reviewing a film I made in Vietnam in 1971 with an American detachment in the forest. I spent several days with them. And only now did I notice that, in every scene, the white men were in one corner and the blacks in another. Even on the field, the two groups didn’t mix. In some units there was more interaction, but in many of them it was like that. In the last years of the war, in addition to the sense of imminent defeat, there was also a kind of moral collapse in the army.

How do you see the current US advance in the Pacific through military partnerships? Many countries in the region are getting very tense about China and are more willing to move closer to the US. Japan, which was heavily unmilitarized, is becoming much more interested in self-defence. There are some people talking about Japan acquiring nuclear weapons, which is a very sensitive issue. But the Japanese are very frightened of China.

I wrote a book about the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Some time ago I spoke with a Chinese general, and he asked me if I saw any parallels between that situation and the present one. I said yes. None of the big powers wanted a big war, but the Germans were willing to have a small war and thought they could manage it. And, by accident, it turned into a huge war. The irony is that Germany was on the way to dominating Europe through peaceful economics and technological means, but the big mistake was that the German emperor and his generals interpreted power in military terms. So they went to war.

I told the Chinese generals that perhaps their government could assess whether, as they are achieving enormous economic success in the industry, it would be worth risking everything for something in the South China Sea? And this general said, “But we have claims.” It is frightening that the Chinese think of exercising power in a military way, while they could use their economic and industrial power very effectively and with less risk.


Max Hastings, 75

Born in London, studied at Oxford and made a career as a journalist. It covered the Vietnam War and ten more conflicts for the BBC. In the 1980s, he became editor-in-chief of The Daily Telegraph newspaper. In 2002, he received the title of British gentleman, for his services to journalism. In all, he has written 26 books, most of them about wars.


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