I happened across the above video recently where Maher was defending the Vietnam war and Hitchens was criticizing it. It is a bizarro moment because in more recent discussions I have seen between Hitchens and Maher about the Iraq war, they are in the opposite position. Hitchens is for the war; Maher is against. It floors me particularly because the arguments are essentially the same for the war, the actors are different.
Maher, when supporting the war in Vietnam, feels the need to stop the advance of communism. Hitchens, when supporting the war in Iraq, feels the need to stop the advance of Islamic extremism. In both pro-arguments, the particular war is seen in the context of a larger war of civilizations.
In truth, both wars were started for essentially imperial reasons. Vietnam was, to a first approximation, an ideological war. Iraq was, to a first approximation, a resource war.
The fear of Vietnam was a type of domino theory, although not as it is usually described. The fear was that a colonial or client state would obtain some degree of prosperity through nationalistic or socialistic reform and would become a model for popular uprisings in other colonial or client states. I’m somewhat surprised when people say the United States lost the Vietnam war. Lost? Lost what? It isn’t like the Vietnamese invaded Washington D.C. Not a single U.S. city was even attacked by the National Liberation Front. Vietnam was bombed and devastated to such an extent that it did not become a model for countries elsewhere. The United States failed towards one goal, the country did not relent and submit to a puppet regime, thus proving armed resistance could succeed if one was willing to endure massive casualties and mass devastation for the principle of self-determination. What a Pyrrhic victory for the Vietnamese! Why the United States continued the war, even after its government knew that the installation of a puppet regime was not going to work, was to increase the cost of this victory.
The Iraq war was a war of opportunity. After September 11th, 2001, the Bush administration saw a historic opportunity to establish American power in the heart of the world’s energy reserves, and they took it.
As Bertrand Russell put it in The History of Western Philosophy: “The stages in the evolution of ideas have had almost the quality of the Hegelian dialectic: doctrines have developed, by steps that each seem natural, into their opposites (pg. 643).”
For both Maher and Hitchens, both of their respective pro-war arguments are equal in merit in principle, and equally divorced from the particular circumstances of the actual conflict. The role-reversal is so stark, it seems unlikely they are even aware. Although, it is said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.