VE Plus 70 and Vietnam Plus 40

Our troops need to be war-ready, even as our allies carry more weight.

Today: Lessons from wars

CAL: In recent weeks we observed two anniversaries: the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day and the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. The first is still celebrated and those service members honored; the second remains controversial, the "lessons" from which we seem to still be learning.

LARRY: A lesson from Vietnam is that we should not fight a war we do not intend to win. Vietnam ended up as a total mess, and we abandoned many of our friends who ended up in Vietnamese concentration camps. I opposed our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan based on the Vietnam lesson. Our country made the mistake of repeating itself.

CAL: Former Virginia Democratic senator Jim Webb, who is contemplating a run for president, was quoted by Time magazine: "A 'very liberal, anti-war Congress' cut off funding to the South Vietnamese shortly before Saigon fell to the Vietcong, Webb argued. 'If our political leaders had done a better job with their duty, we may have seen a different situation in Vietnam.' " His is a view conservatives have long held.

LARRY: Webb is correct. I served two combat tours of duty in Vietnam. When I first went to Vietnam in 1966, I thought we were winning. President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said so. Earlier, President Kennedy had told us we should go to any part of the world to defend liberty. I left behind a Rhodes scholarship to volunteer for Vietnam. At the time, I thought we were fighting for a great cause and were winning. Our leaders lied. They had no victory plan.

CAL: Almost everyone respects the military, but we can't afford to go it alone. Whatever one thinks of President Obama's retreat from the world, it is producing one significant result: Other nations are beginning to accept responsibility in fighting the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the various terrorist offshoots, and the threat from Iran. It isn't enough. If America doesn't lead, no one else will. We need a coalition, especially of Arab partners, to confront these threats. The rest of the free world, too, must be awakened to their responsibilities in answering challenges from Russia and China, which grow worse if the U.S. is regarded as weak and indecisive.

LARRY: I am serving on the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission. The commission is taking a hard look at military spending. We have had over 13 years of war but must maintain the same degree of readiness as if we were in a worldwide war. It is my projection that over 10 to 20 years we will not have enough money. Thus, we will have to either: 1) reduce military pensions/pay and reduce spending on the military; 2) substantially increase taxes and other forms of revenue; or 3) persuade our wealthy allies to pay more.

CAL: I vote for No. 3.

LARRY: The commission recently met with President Obama. I admire his tackling such a messy problem before he leaves office. However, the numbers of what we are spending on our military, foreign aid, etc. do not add up. We must do something different.

CAL: A recent New York Times editorial said: "It is essential that further expansion of the campaign against (ISIL) and other militant groups be debated rigorously and openly by Washington and its coalition partners." I agree. Too often, an administration expands a war without debate, especially in Congress. Wars are won when the country is united.

LARRY: Right. The biggest hypocrite in this debate is Congress, which has the power to authorize and appropriate money. Congress is constitutionally almost a co-equal with the president in defining foreign policy. Congress makes speeches but doesn't act. I would like to see the War Powers Act enforced with all of our military operations overseas. Congress should take roll-call votes on what it wants and doesn't want. I want to get members of Congress on record, and they can do that by limiting appropriations or authorization expenditures.

CAL: When you were in the Senate, what was the talk among your colleagues about fighting and winning wars? To many voters, political considerations seem to come first. While bravery is acknowledged on the battlefield, it seems in short supply among the political class.

LARRY: I have been a sometime critic of both Obama and George W. Bush, but I am most critical of Congress. In fact, I am a friend of President Obama and have shared with him in the past couple weeks the pain he must have in ordering the ISIL strikes. Although I am generally opposed to any boots on the ground, I feel he is doing about the only thing he can when the other side is chopping off the heads of our citizens.

CAL: That's where we disagree, Larry. The president refuses to label ISIL for what it is, Islamic, and labeling your enemy is a necessary step in defeating him. But, otherwise, I agree with much of what you have said.

Larry Pressler is substituting for Bob Beckel.