As the recent PBS documentary on the American War in Vietnam acknowledged, few American officials ever believed that the United States could win the war, neither those advising Johnson as he committed hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, nor those advising Nixon as he escalated a brutal aerial bombardment that had already killed millions of people.
As conversations tape-recorded in the White House reveal, and as other writers have documented, the reasons for wading into the Big Muddy, as Pete Seeger satirized it, and then pushing on regardless, all came down to “credibility”: the domestic political credibility of the politicians involved and America’s international credibility as a military power.
Once the CIA went to work in Vietnam to undermine the 1954 Geneva Accords and the planned reunification of North and South through a free and fair election in 1956, the die was cast. The CIA’s support for the repressive Diem regime and its successors ensured an ever-escalating war, as the South rose in rebellion, supported by the North. No U.S. president could extricate the U.S. from Vietnam without exposing the limits of what U.S. military force could achieve, betraying widely held national myths and the powerful interests that sustained and profited from them.
The critical “lesson of Vietnam” was summed up by Richard Barnet in his 1972 book Roots of War. “At the very moment that the number one nation has perfected the science of killing,” Barnet wrote, “It has become an impractical means of political domination.”
Losing the war in Vietnam was a heavy blow to the CIA and the U.S. Military Industrial Complex, and it added insult to injury for every American who had lost comrades or loved ones in Vietnam, but it ushered in more than a decade of relative peace for America and the world. If the purpose of the U.S. military is to protect the U.S. from the danger of war, as our leaders so often claim, the “Vietnam syndrome,” or the reluctance to be drawn into new wars, kept the peace and undoubtedly saved countless lives.
Even the senior officer corps of the U.S. military saw it that way, since many of them had survived the horrors of Vietnam as junior officers. The CIA could still wreak havoc in Latin America and elsewhere, but the full destructive force of the U.S. military was not unleashed again until the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the First Gulf War in 1991.
Half a century after Vietnam, we have tragically come full circle. With the CIA’s politicized intelligence running wild in Washington and its covert operations spreading violence and chaos across every continent, President Trump faces the same pressures to maintain his own and his country’s credibility as Johnson and Nixon did. His predictable response has been to escalate ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and West Africa, and to threaten new ones against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela.
Trump is facing these questions, not just in one country, Vietnam, but in dozens of countries across the world, and the interests perpetuating and fueling this cycle of crisis and war have only become more entrenched over time, as President Eisenhower warned that they would, despite the end of the Cold War and, until now, the lack of any actual military threat to the United States.
Ironically but predictably, the U.S.’s aggressive and illegal war policy has finally provoked a real military threat to the U.S., albeit one that has emerged only in response to U.S. war plans. As I explained in a recent article, North Korea’s discovery in 2016 of a U.S. plan to assassinate its president, Kim Jong Un, and launch a Second Korean War has triggered a crash program to develop long-range ballistic missiles that could give North Korea a viable nuclear deterrent and prevent a U.S. attack. But the North Koreans will not feel safe from attack until their leaders and ours are sure that their missiles can deliver a nuclear strike against the U.S. mainland.
The CIA’s Pretexts for War
U.S. Air Force Colonel Fletcher Prouty was the chief of special operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1955 to 1964, managing the global military support system for the CIA in Vietnam and around the world. Fletcher Prouty’s book, The Secret Team: The CIA and its Allies in Control of the United States and the World, was suppressed when it was first published in 1973. Thousands of copies disappeared from bookstores and libraries, and a mysterious Army Colonel bought the entire shipment of 3,500 copies the publisher sent to Australia. But Prouty’s book was republished in 2011, and it is a timely account of the role of the CIA in U.S. policy.
Prouty surprisingly described the role of the CIA as a response by powerful people and interests to the abolition of the U.S. Department of War and the creation of the Department of Defense in 1947. Once the role of the U.S. military was redefined as one of defense, in line with the United Nations Charter’s prohibition against the threat or use of military force in 1945 and similar moves by other military powers, it would require some kind of crisis or threat to justify using military force in the future, both legally and politically. The main purpose of the CIA, as Prouty saw it, is to create such pretexts for war.
The CIA is a hybrid of an intelligence service that gathers and analyzes foreign intelligence and a clandestine service that conducts covert operations. Both functions are essential to creating pretexts for war, and that is what they have done for 70 years.
Prouty described how the CIA infiltrated the U.S. military, the State Department, the National Security Council and other government institutions, covertly placing its officers in critical positions to ensure that its plans are approved and that it has access to whatever forces, weapons, equipment, ammunition and other resources it needs to carry them out.
Many retired intelligence officers, such as Ray McGovern and the members of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS), saw the merging of clandestine operations with intelligence analysis in one agency as corrupting the objective analysis they tried to provide to policymakers. They formed VIPS in 2003 in response to the fabrication of politicized intelligence that provided false pretexts for the U.S. to invade and destroy Iraq.
CIA in Syria and Africa
But Fletcher Prouty was even more disturbed by the way that the CIA uses clandestine operations to trigger coups, wars and chaos. The civil and proxy war in Syria is a perfect example of what Prouty meant. In late 2011, after destroying Libya and aiding in the torture-murder of Muammar Gaddafi, the CIA and its allies began flying fighters and weapons from Libya to Turkey and infiltrating them into Syria. Then, working with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Croatia and other allies, this operation poured thousands of tons of weapons across Syria’s borders to ignite and fuel a full-scale civil war.
Once these covert operations were under way, they ran wild until they had unleashed a savage Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra, now rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), spawned the even more savage “Islamic State,” triggered the heaviest and probably the deadliest U.S. bombing campaign since Vietnam and drawn Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Hezbollah, Kurdish militias and almost every state or armed group in the Middle East into the chaos of Syria’s civil war.
Meanwhile, as Al Qaeda and Islamic State have expanded their operations across Africa, the U.N. has published a report titled Journey to Extremism in Africa: Drivers, Incentives and the Tipping Point for Recruitment, based on 500 interviews with African militants. This study has found that the kind of special operations and training missions the CIA and AFRICOM are conducting and supporting in Africa are in fact the critical “tipping point” that drives Africans to join militant groups like Al Qaeda, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram.
The report found that government action, such as the killing or detention of friends or family, was the “tipping point” that drove 71 percent of African militants interviewed to join armed groups, and that this was a more important factor than religious ideology.
The conclusions of Journey to Extremism in Africa confirm the findings of other similar studies. The Center for Civilians in Conflict interviewed 250 civilians who joined armed groups in Bosnia, Somalia, Gaza and Libya for its 2015 study, The People’s Perspectives: Civilian Involvement in Armed Conflict. The study found that the most common motivation for civilians to join armed groups was simply to protect themselves or their families.
The role of U.S. “counterterrorism” operations in fueling armed resistance and terrorism, and the absence of any plan to reduce the asymmetric violence unleashed by the “global war on terror,” would be no surprise to Fletcher Prouty. As he explained, such clandestine operations always take on a life of their own that is unrelated, and often counter-productive, to any rational U.S. policy objective.
“The more intimate one becomes with this activity,” Prouty wrote, “The more one begins to realize that such operations are rarely, if ever, initiated from an intent to become involved in pursuit of some national objective in the first place.”
The U.S. justifies the deployment of 6,000 U.S. special forces and military trainers to 53 of the 54 countries in Africa as a response to terrorism. But the U.N.’s Journey to Extremism in Africa study makes it clear that the U.S. militarization of Africa is in fact the “tipping point” that is driving Africans across the continent to join armed resistance groups in the first place.
This is a textbook CIA operation on the same model as Vietnam in the late 1950s and early 60s. The CIA uses U.S. special forces and training missions to launch covert and proxy military operations that drive local populations into armed resistance groups, and then uses the presence of those armed resistance groups to justify ever-escalating U.S. military involvement. This is Vietnam redux on a continental scale.
Taking on China
What seems to really be driving the CIA’s militarization of U.S. policy in Africa is China’s growing influence on the continent. As Steve Bannon put it in an interview with the Economist in August, “Let’s go screw up One Belt One Road.”
China is already too big and powerful for the U.S. to apply what is known as the Ledeen doctrine named for neoconservative theorist and intelligence operative Michael Ledeen who suggested that every 10 years or so, the United States “pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show we mean business.”
China is too powerful and armed with nuclear weapons. So, in this case, the CIA’s job would be to spread violence and chaos to disrupt Chinese trade and investment, and to make African governments increasingly dependent on U.S. military aid to fight the militant groups spawned and endlessly regenerated by U.S.-led “counterterrorism” operations.