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The BG News
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September 21, 2023

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Ill-defined enemies yield strong opposition

In October, a Letter to the Editor of The BG News titled, “Give dignity to troops, bring them home,” was published.

In this submission, the author likened his experience of the Vietnam War to the current wars in the Middle East, specifically comparing their futility and tremendous cost. I found his letter particularly moving and believe it warrants an echo this week.

The Vietnam War was a facet of a much larger Cold War-era conflict and can largely be viewed as a struggle between the so-called “American way of life” and communism insofar as it was a threat to it.

Regardless, whether one deems that a noble cause or not, America experienced tremendous loss. Department of Defense reports reveal some 58,000 Americans were killed while another 303,000 were wounded. Understanding this period is imperative if we’re to mitigate another loss of that magnitude. As they say, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, before the Vietnam War, communism was perceived as a threat to American values and way of life. The fear mongering induced by anti-communist propaganda perpetuated a narrative that some sort of enemy existed and that patriotism, or support for one’s government, were necessary to protect one from such a formidable threat.

In this sense, patriotism and anti-communism became interchangeable. For little justification is necessary when one’s patriotism is in question: If you’re not for the war, you’re an enemy to your neighbor, to your family and to your government.

American citizens may not have known exactly what or who the enemy was, but they certainly knew there was an enemy. Keeping the enemy faceless provides an advantage to a nation’s government for a number of reasons.

The more specific the cause, the easier it is to gauge success. The opposite is also true: The more faceless or ambiguous the enemy is, the harder it is to measure. In other words, it provides cushion for failure. Philip Giraldi from the American Conservative agrees that this tactic “protects against failure by making it more difficult to advance any actual inquiry either to learn what motivates [the enemy] or to explore the apparent inability of the federal government to respond effectively.”

Keeping an ill-defined enemy also casts a wider net in terms of public support. If we give an enemy a name, a family, a personality, etc., it becomes increasingly difficult to support action that would kill him.

However, if he’s kept masked and referred to with simple labels like “communist” or “terrorist”, little inquiry is made into what the enemy’s motivations are. Perhaps the enemy has fairly good reason to take issue with us, but to entertain this thought is unpatriotic.

Unfortunately, these same arcane tactics are at play in Middle Eastern conflicts.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the federal government captured the immediate hatred of “the enemy”. President Bush referred to those behind the attack as “those evildoers” while also claiming that they “hate us because of our freedom” (read: the American way of life, values). Our “noble cause” was no longer a fight against communism, but on a declared war on terrorism — and that, readers, is as vague an enemy as I can imagine, for terrorism is defined as “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.”

Could war, then, be considered an act of terrorism? Donald Rumsfeld also told reporters that the wars “will take time. It’s not a matter of days or weeks. It’s years. It’s going to take the support of the American people and I have every confidence it’ll be there.” Fast forward more than a decade later.

We are still at war. The narratives of the conflict and “the enemy” have shifted but the futility and hopelessness are the same.

To put things into perspective, consider that the Civil War lasted for a measly four years, World War I lasted five and even World War II only lasted six. My nation has been at war for over half of my life.

I’ve grown up with war. In fact, I don’t remember it being any other way.

My generation is a generation of war.

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