Sunday, September 12, 2004

Another Vietnam?

For the past several months I've been hearing people describe Iraq as "another Vietnam." We all know what "Vietnam" means, don't we? The American armed forces leaving the field of battle with their tail between their legs, whipped and defeated. Our first loss in warfare. The mightiest nation on earth humbled.

But from what I've read of the history of the war (as opposed to the feelings associated with it), this picture is highly inaccurate. My main source has been Lewis Sorley's Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America�s Last Years in Vietnam. The book tends to be repetitive, and thus longer than necessary, but the picture it gives of the war is very different than the "Vietnam" that lingers in public consciousness.

Sorley presents the work of Vietnamization - the plan to equip and enable the South Vietnamese to provide their own defense against the North. Under General Creighton Abrams, this strategy proved very successful. In theory, this strategy, combined with the treaties we signed with the North Vietnamese, left the South Vietnamese in fine shape. Every North Vietnamese offensive as far back as Tet 1968 (roughly the time Sorley's coverage begins) had been stopped - with devastating effects on the North Vietnamese. Abram's approach was also characterized by a concern for the security of ordinary South Vietnamese people. Sorley's contention is that this effort was so successful that by the time of the American withdrawal in 1973, the Viet Cong was no longer a force to be reckoned with. So if we and the South Vietnamese were victorious on the battlefield, what happened?

First, the success of the policy of Vietnamization depended not only on the rise of the South Vietnamese armed forces in numbers and fighting capacity, but also in the continued support of the US in terms of money and war materiel. Although the US leadership promised to do this, they didn't.

Second, the treaty specified that the North Vietnamese would withdraw all their troops from South Vietnamese territory. Makes sense, doesn't it? After all, it's a lot easier to conquer a territory if you already have troops there. But our leadership pretended that the North Vietnamese were honest on this - or engaged in wishful thinking.

Third, North Vietnam continued to receive aid from its allies - China and the Soviet Union. If it was only the South versus the North, the South might have won without us. But with the combined effort of such powerful patron's, the North prevailed.

So - if this is a more accurate picture of Vietnam, what might it mean to say that Iraq is "a Vietnam?"

First, it would mean that we were unwilling to stick with our allies and keep the promises we made to them. The new Iraqi government, like the old South Vietnamese government, will most likely fall well short of our American ideals of democratic government. But in both case promises were made to those governments. We didn't keep our promises to the South Vietnamese. If we fail to keep our promises to the people of Iraq (and I take a key element of those promises to be something like: "Democracy will not only work in Iraq, but it will be a blessing to your people. It will be lots of work, but it will be well worth it. And we will help you achieve that goal") then we can truly say that Iraq has become another Iraq.

Second, if Iraq were to become "another Vietnam" it would mean that we stopped speaking the truth about the situation there and let sentiment and mere ideology (and perhaps even electoral popularity) prevail. Like the South Vietnamese, the Iraqis have multinational forces arrayed against them. These forces are quite different than what the North Vietnamese had, in terms of fighting capacity, but they are very numerous.

Am I saying the the war in Iraq was the right course of action? No - I'm just saying that it is not yet "another Vietnam" though we could very easily turn it into one by disengaging and leaving the Iraqis on their own.

One more piece of historical analogy before I quit. With the help of US armed forces, the allies prevailed in World War 1. We won! But then we disengaged. We left the Germans facing huge reparations. After years of postwar devastation Hitler came in and picked up the pieces, restoring Germany to its former glory - but more bellicose and dangerous than ever. We again mobilized, working with our allies to defeat Germany. This time, we didn't disengage. We did the hard - and extremely expensive work of rebuilding Germany. We might have more clarity - and less emotion - if we face the decision in Iraq as whether it will be another World War 1 or another World War 2.


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