The late Sen. George Aiken, R-Vt., provided prescient advice on how the U.S. could extricate itself from Vietnam. He reportedly said we should declare a victory and bring our troops home.
What Aiken actually said, in October 1966, was that "the United States could well declare unilaterally ... that we have 'won' in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam," and that "would herald the resumption of political warfare as the dominant theme in Vietnam ... It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked."
Ultimately, that's pretty much what eventually happened. In 1973, seven years after Aiken's remarks and nearly a decade after Lyndon B. Johnson ordered a major escalation of the campaign against Communist forces in South Vietnam, American troops finally came home.
The Paris Peace Accords, negotiated by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, had led to our withdrawal under the pretext that the situation had stabilized, giving our allies a shot at remaining independent.
That was poppycock. Few knowledgeable observers believed that the weak, corrupt Republic of South Vietnam government could long stand without Uncle Sam's military and monetary backing.
Indeed, within two years, RVN forces began to collapse toward Saigon, and Americans soon watched news coverage of helicopters rescuing personnel from atop the U.S. Embassy.
Paul Simon had a hit song in 1975 called "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," which included such gems as "Get out the back, Jack," and "Get on the bus, Gus." These days, Simon could write his catchy lines by fashioning tongue-twisting rhymes out of such names as Barack Obama, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
When President George W. Bush unleashed a "shock and awe" attack against Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, he failed to explain what victory might look like or how we could leave Iraq once it had been achieved.
A photo of the commander in chief, clad in a flight suit on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, standing under a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," is a bitter memory. Years after that display of hubris, approximately 4,500 U.S. servicemen and women have died in Iraq and 32,000 have been wounded, many crippled for life. More than 11,000 have been killed or injured in Afghanistan.
Even though U.S. combat operations are all but over in Iraq, a large number of our troops will remain there to train Iraqi forces, and the U.S. civilian presence has been increased - putting hundreds of diplomats and other government employees in harm's way.
President Obama recently announced a drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, beginning with 30,000 by late 2012. Last week, it was reported that phase would not take place until after the fighting season has concluded.
As for our involvement in Libya, the Obama administration has sought to skirt the War Powers Act by claiming the use of airpower doesn't constitute "hostilities."
Although none of the ongoing military involvement in the Middle East has drawn the sort of anti-war protests and counter demonstrations that marked the Vietnam War, public opinion polls and recent actions in Congress indicate a growing sense that Americans have wearied of what President Bush called the War on Terrorism.
The trend is fueled both by the death of bin Laden, mastermind of the 9-11 attacks, the catalyst for the U.S. presence in the first place, and by articles indicating our allies don't want U.S. troops over there any more than we do. When Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, refers to American troops as an occupying force, perhaps it's time to cut our losses. The duplicity of Pakistan leaders, whose protection is a major reason for our continued involvement in Afghanistan, is another disincentive for continued engagement.
In 1917, shortly after the U.S. declared war on Germany, George M. Cohan wrote a popular song called "Over There." The chorus ended with the line, "And we won't come back till it's over over there."
Perhaps we need a new version that asks: "How will we know when it's over over there?"