Opinion: Is Syria Another Vietnam Moment?

September 20, 2013 4:24 AM - Updated: September 20, 2013 7:58 AM



It is starting to feel like America’s reluctance to get involved in Syria is an echo of the Vietnam War. One of the more interesting things to emerge from the recent national debate over whether America should involve itself in the Syrian civil war is the degree of war fatigue being expressed by the majority of Americans. That anti-war sentiment is kinder and gentler than the angry protests of the 1960s and ’70s, but it stems from the same cultural roots.

Perhaps it should not come as a surprise that Americans are tired of war. Despite the fact that the average nonmilitary American family shouldered no risk or financial burden for the wars that have now dragged on for 12 years, the American public seems to be sharing the feeling of war fatigue. Perhaps the dissonance created by the need for people to “do their part” during the post 9/11 wars took form in the many offerings of love and support for their military. For example, anyone who has served in a forward base in Afghanistan or Iraq could always find a stash of paperback books, candy, and other comforts of home that were packaged and shipped to the front lines by the good citizens of America. This type of material support and the heartfelt “thank you for your service” salutations so often offered to those in uniform remain a clear indication that the American people stand behind their military.

That warm sentiment is decidedly unlike the experience of those who served in the later stages of the Vietnam War when many servicemen and women returned home to a hostile public. Yet, in the recent Syria debate, there is an echo of at least one aspect of the national sentiment of the Vietnam era. Specifically, it appears that Americans are beginning to flex their antiwar and isolationist muscles. Those muscles have atrophied from a lack of exercise for the past several decades and that is perhaps why this moment feels so awkward. That national attitude is seen in opinion polls and heard in a chorus of voices across the political spectrum saying things such as “We don’t need to play sheriff of the world” and “Our military doesn’t need to get involved in this mess.”

History shows us that a world without a sheriff to enforce international norms and keeping tyrants at bay can quickly become an unstable place. The post-Vietnam era is an example of what happens wh America withdraws from the world. Our near-decade-long reluctance to get involved in another messy situation only encouraged our enemies to take advantage of the situation: Palestinian terror groups went on an aircraft hijacking spree; Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviets; and the Shah of Iran was deposed from power while the United States was unable or unwilling to get involved. Britain’s post–World War I fatigue is another example of the dangers of a world without a sheriff willing to enforce international norms and stop evil men before their deeds can metastasize.

Clearly there is no appetite in America for another war. The public sentiment to not get involved in Syria is understandable, but it should not guide our policy decisions. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have long served as America’s mythical Cassandras warning us of the dangers unfolding in Syria while no one would listen. Because it now appears we are stumbling toward peace rather than marching toward war, the need for a coercive military option to motivate the Syrians to abide to measures in the Chemical Weapons Convention is more important than ever. So strap on your holster America, dust off your badge, and get ready to confront an evil man making mischief in the Levant. The world sometimes needs a sheriff and like it or not, we are it.

Cmdr. Daniel Dolan, USN (Retired)

Cmdr. Dolan teaches Strategy & War with the Naval War College’s Distance Education program, and history as an adjunct professor at the University of Maine. He is a former EP-3E/Special mission P-3 naval flight officer, and frequent contributor to USNI News and Proceedings. 

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox