No More Greek Tragedies

My father, who strongly opposed the Vietnam War from the start, used to say that Lyndon Baines Johnson was destroyed by that war. The war ended Johnson’s presidency, and it ended his dream for what he called the Great Society.

He (my father) saw the Johnson story line as having all the elements of a Greek tragedy — noble hero, favored by the gods (or events), encounters reversals of fortune and finally is brought down through a fatal flaw in his nature or by fate itself.

Of course — to emphasize the point — Johnson did it to himself. No one forced him to escalate the war or make any of the disastrous decisions he made about Vietnam.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s dream, and his belief in it, were genuine — and in fact he achieved a significant part of it in the first two years of his first term in office. Which is, of course, the whole point: The massive expansion of the Vietnam War starting around the middle of his first term destroyed a good for which the seeds had already been planted, and that could have come to fruition if it had not been killed by Johnson’s own actions.

Bob Herbert is worried that something similar could happen to Barack Obama:

We invaded Afghanistan more than seven years ago. We have not broken the back of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. We have not captured or killed Osama bin Laden. We don’t even have an escalation strategy, much less an exit strategy. An honest assessment of the situation, taking into account the woefully corrupt and ineffective Afghan government led by the hapless Hamid Karzai, would lead inexorably to such terms as fiasco and quagmire.

Instead of cutting our losses, we appear to be doubling down.

As for Iraq, President Obama announced last week that substantial troop withdrawals will take place over the next year and a half and that U.S. combat operations would cease by the end of August 2010. But, he said, a large contingent of American troops, perhaps as many as 50,000, would still remain in Iraq for a “period of transition.”
In short, we’re committed to these two conflicts for a good while yet, and there is nothing like an etched-in-stone plan for concluding them. I can easily imagine a scenario in which Afghanistan and Iraq both heat up and the U.S., caught in an extended economic disaster at home, undermines its fragile recovery efforts in the same way that societies have undermined themselves since the dawn of time — with endless warfare.
Much of the country can work itself up to a high pitch of outrage because a banker or an automobile executive flies on a private jet. But we’ll send young men and women by the thousands off to repeated excursions through the hell of combat — three tours, four tours or more — without raising so much as a peep of protest.

Lyndon Johnson, despite a booming economy, lost his Great Society to the Vietnam War. He knew what he was risking. He would later tell Doris Kearns Goodwin, “If I left the woman I really loved — the Great Society — in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs… All my dreams…”

The United States is on its knees economically. As President Obama fights for his myriad domestic programs and his dream of an economic recovery, he might benefit from a look over his shoulder at the link between Vietnam and the still-smoldering ruins of Johnson’s presidency.

I’ll be honest: This analogy had not occurred to me before reading Herbert’s column. And obviously Lyndon Johnson always had a dark, tormented side to him that does not seem to be part of Obama’s nature. Still, I think this is a perspective worth considering.

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