Looking back on US history, I think it’s fair to say that the 60’s were the Left’s highest point, the time when they were in their full flower. And I don’t mean the chronological years, but the period thought of as “the 60’s,” which I tend to date from 1963 through 1975 or so — from the explosion of the civil rights movement through the US withdrawal from Viet Nam. (Likewise, I consider “the 70’s” to have run from about 1972 until 1981 or 1982 — eras seldom tend to match up evenly with decades.)
It was during the turbulent 60’s that the Left really reached its peak. They took the civil rights movement away from the Republicans, who had held the high ground on it for almost a century. As the death toll rose in Viet Nam, so did the power and prominence of the anti-war movement. The sexual revolution blossomed and exploded. The Great Society set forth to destroy poverty. It was the era when the People marched forth and demanded their government stop trying to kill others abroad, and instead turn its focus towards helping people at home.
And they won.
One president gave them virtually everything they wanted, but wouldn’t do their bidding in Viet Nam, so they hounded him from office in disgrace. The next one promised them what they wanted in Viet Nam, but didn’t do it as quickly as they wanted, or in the way they wanted. He also gave them what they wanted domestically, but again nowhere near enough. And when that president let his own paranoia and venality lead him into grave errors in judgment and corruption, they destroyed him, too.
They wanted a war on poverty, and they got one. It was the domestic version of Viet Nam — they won every single battle they fought, but eventually lost. They lost because they never looked at the long-term consequences of their efforts — they managed to raise nearly everyone out of the starkest depths of privation, but settled for creating a permanent underclass of people dependent upon the government for their ongoing subsistence, financially punishing those who might strive for self-sufficiency. And between ruinous attempts at social engineering and the sexual revolution, they virtually destroyed the family unit among the lower economic strata — especially among blacks, countless of whom are still suffering today from those misguided attempts to “improve” their conditions.
Eventually, America grew tired of the turbulent 60’s. While the United States Constitution has been described as “institutionalized revolution,” so much change, so much passion, so much anarchy in such a short time takes its toll. After a decade-long bender, America finally called it a night and passed out on the bathroom floor. When we awoke, we desperately tried every hangover cure we could imagine, including such absurdities as disco, pet rocks, and Jimmy Carter.
But many of those who lived through those days forget the morning after, and only remember the good times. And they recall the days when they were at the center of all the attention, when they held the reins of power, when they were the toast of the town. And what was their strongest, most unifying element?
Why, Viet Nam. It was the “perfect” war for them. Viet Nam posed no direct threat to the United States. We were fighting people of a completely different race. And the people we were fighting were backed by Communists, the ultimate “For The Masses” movement. And they won.
But after the 60’s wound down, the Left found themselves being shut out of the Presidency. Their last gasp was in 1976, when they managed to capitalize on people’s lingering disgust over Watergate and get Jimmy Carter elected. The next three elections went to Republicans (including twice to Ronald Reagan, who embodied all the 60’s Left-overs loathed). In 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton, former anti-war protester and certified draft dodger, won, but by running as a “centrist,” “new Democrat,” not by embracing his past. And when they ran a genuine anti-war leader for president in 2004, I and a lot of other people looked at John Kerry and asked “what the hell has he achieved in the last 30 years?” — a question that still remains unanswered.
They want that power back, and the only way they can see that it might work is to re-engineer the circumstances that led to it. And that means they need a new Viet Nam War. So that means that the fighting in Iraq has to be
forced into the round hole marked “Viet Nam,” forced to conform to their rigid model of how things must be, in order to become what they want to be.
It’s not so easy the second time around. Both sides have learned the folly (and obscenity) of “blaming the troops” for the war. The cries of “baby killers” and of praising the enemy have been thoroughly repudiated, and only sneak through when they get careless or swept up in the moment. They also lack a steady supply of disaffected veterans to hide behind — the troops this time are all volunteers, and the vast majority of them have a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment in their missions.
Another element that’s thwarting their plans is the populist explosion of the media. Nowadays EVERYONE’S a news source. There’s no longer a monopoly on news — even soldiers in the field can have as big (or bigger) an audience as anyone else — and their message not only often contradicts the main stream’s “big picture,” but adds in the credibility of being right in the thick of things.
They ain’t making enemies like they used to, either. The Viet Cong had quite a bit of supporters in the US, as well as the backing of two superpowers. The terrorists in Iraq have very few open backers in the US (Michael Moore and “equivalent of our founding fathers” garbage aside), and their PR instincts just stink — every new video of them beheading their victims while proclaiming the glory of Allah just angers more and more people. Also, whereas China and the Soviet Union backed North Viet Nam, the biggest backers of the terrorists are Iran and Syria. Syria, though, is finding itself facing more and more of its own problems (even the UN is giving them grief over their occupation and oppression of Lebanon), and Iran isn’t doing this out of mischief, but survival — they desperately need attention turned away from their burgeoning nuclear program, and the idea of a Muslim democracy right next door to their brutal theocracy scares the crap out of the mullahs.
If the Left wants to survive, they need to wake up and smell the coffee. The 60’s are gone, and they ain’t coming back. Nearly all the ghosts of Viet Nam are at peace now. They need to, to coin a phrase, “MoveOn” and let go of the past, and start looking to the future. They need to figure out just what they want to do, present a clear and competing vision as an alternative to the Right.
In that light, John Kerry was the perfect symbolic candidate for the Left. He was a Viet Nam veteran, and a veteran of the anti-war movement. He hadn’t accomplished hardly a damned thing since then. His most distinguishing qualifying trait for the presidency was stuff he had done 30 years ago. And his entire platform seemed to be either “I wouldn’t have done what the other guy did,” or “I would’ve done the same, but better.” For once, give the people something to vote FOR, not AGAINST.
Folks, I just turned 38 last Monday. I am, statistically, halfway through my life. I was five when the last US soldier left VIet Nam, and it just doesn’t have the same resonance for me as it does to those who lived through it — and there’s roughly a whole generation and a half of Americans who are the same way. We’ve heard it all before — and we’ve seen the consequences of listening to it.
Iraq is NOT Viet Nam. It’s desert, not jungle — a lot less places to hide. It’s got a lot of cities, not zillions of little hamlets. We occupy the entire country, there’s not a huge hunk of it that’s politically “safe ground.” Our troops are not disaffected, stoner draftees and psycho butchers — they’re the guys AND GALS next door, who signed up willingly and proudly. And no matter how hard you try to make it, it just won’t happen.
(Update: I made a huge blunder in that last paragraph. See details, clarification, and apologies here. My thanks to robert, epador, old soldier, and Allen Yackey for calling me on it.)
(I’d like to thank the left-leaning cartoonist/blogger who inspired this piece, but the last time I singled out one of those it ended up with him posting a final “FU” to me and taking an indefinite break from blogging, and I need to keep a few of them around just for the inspiration they provide.)