FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. -- It was a gentle rebuke while I stood in line to pay for a cup of coffee at a truck stop just off Interstate 95 a few miles from Fort Bragg: "You folks in the media have a hard time getting things right, don't you?"
"How's that?" I responded to the bearded gentleman behind me. I had seen him dismount from the cab of a Peterbilt over-the-road, long-haul 18-wheeler. He looked to be about my age and was wearing a gray T-shirt emblazoned with one word: "Army."
"You're Ollie North," he said, acknowledging that my sunglasses and a black "Fox News" baseball hat weren't much of a disguise.
He introduced himself as a U.S. Army veteran of the war we had shared four decades ago in Vietnam. He kindly noted that I had been embedded with his son's unit in Afghanistan, and as we exited the restaurant, he got to the nature of his complaint. Pointing to a newspaper vending machine on the sidewalk, he said: "That headline, 'Afghanistan Now Longest U.S. War,' is wrong. And I've been hearing the same thing on the radio for the past 500 miles. Anybody who thinks Afghanistan is our longest war doesn't know history, and that means we're doomed to repeat it. I've crisscrossed the Trail of Tears a couple of dozen times with this rig. My great-great-grandfather fought the Apach'es for better than 20 years. And Afghanistan is nothing like Vietnam. You set 'em straight, Colonel."
I replied, "Roger that," and with his challenge ringing in my ears, we shook hands, mounted our metal steeds and rode off in different directions.
It didn't take much research in readily available archives to confirm that my truck driver historian was right about Afghanistan's not being America's longest war. The U.S. Army's campaigns against Geronimo, Cochise and other Apache leaders in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas went on continuously for nearly 40 years. Though Afghanistan has surpassed Vietnam in duration, it isn't even our longest foreign military engagement. That distinction belongs to U.S. military operations during the Philippine Insurrection -- which began concurrently with the end of the Spanish-American War, in 1898, and lasted until 1913. Notably, the number of U.S. casualties suffered in the Philippines -- more than 7,100 -- is approximately the same as the number of U.S. casualties to date in Afghanistan.
All of this begs the question: Why all the false comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan? The short answer -- mainstream-media ignorance -- is too easy. The stark differences between Afghanistan and Vietnam -- how they started, the nature of our enemies, and how they were, and are, being fought -- ought to be obvious to anyone.
In Vietnam, we went to war to support a beleaguered ally that was being overrun by a foreign-directed insurgency and an invading army that was directly supported by two superpowers, the Soviet Union and Communist China. The military force we sent to fight in Southeast Asia was largely conscripted and eventually disheartened by dissention at home. During the war, more than 58,200 U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardsmen and Marines were killed and another 153,000 were wounded. Nearly 2,500 remain missing in action.
We went to war in Afghanistan because radical Islamic terrorists who launched from there killed 3,000 innocents on U.S. soil on 9/11. The enemy we face there today is an opium-financed insurgency that obtains support from elements in Pakistan and Iran -- but nothing on the scale of what our enemies received in Vietnam. The all-volunteer U.S. military deployed in the shadows of the Hindu Kush is the best-educated, most technologically advanced and now the most combat-experienced fighting force the world ever has seen. To date, more than 1,080 Americans have been killed in action; more than 6,200 have been wounded; and we have one MIA.
My trucker-cum-media critic was right; there are few parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan. The only real similarity is in the possible outcome. We had better pray they are not the same, for the disaster wrought in Vietnam nearly wrecked our military.
The T-shirt the trucker's son gave him says it all. The U.S. Army will celebrate its 235th anniversary June 14. Like the Army George Washington was appointed to command, it is an all-volunteer force, and therefore morale and winning are crucial.
During the brutal winter of 1777-78, Washington wrote that he was "sorely vexed" by politicians unwilling to provide essential equipment, supplies, medicine and uniforms to his troops. Today in the city that bears his name, politicians are dickering over how "deep" they can go in cutting our defense budget. The present commander in chief has decided to treat the young men and women of our military like lab rats in a radical social-engineering experiment. These actions could well prove more lethal to our military than the winter at Valley Forge -- and determine the outcome of the present and any future war.
Finally, my veteran-historian, long-haul trucker-philosopher's admonition about not knowing history was only a little bit off. George Santayana actually wrote, "Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it." Let's hope those we elect to Congress this November won't allow our military to be doomed.