Saturday, August 26, 2006

Rewriting the Vietnam War

One of the many disturbing themes emanating from the neoconservative cabal in Washington is the idea that we could have — and should have — won the Vietnam War if only we hadn't lost our nerve. The views these people express about Vietnam shine considerable light on their approach to Iraq, and the parallels are much more than superficial.

Read more...C–SPAN is running an American Perspectives segment from 2006-06-23, featuring Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Rush Limbaugh, and some of the cast and crew of the television series 24, discussing the image of U.S. counter-terrorism efforts in light of the fictional Jack Bauer. Secretary Chertoff slid in this quote amid praise for the steadfastness of the real people working to prevent terrorist attacks:

The fact of the matter is, American history shows we cannot be defeated in a fight unless we lose our nerve or we lose our will. We have only lost those conflicts where we have withdrawn from the field of battle before we prevailed.
In the Vietnam War, the U.S. military withdrew from South Vietnam without having driven the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong guerrillas back across the 17th parallel. The question is, could the United States have prevailed militarily if we had remained in Vietnam? My answer, and the clear answer of the American public, was that the Vietnam War was not only not worth the sacrifice, but it was unwinnable.

The Vietnam War was manifestly not worth the sacrifice, because the doomsday predictions about what would happen if we allowed South Vietnam to fall were completely off the mark. The toppling of that domino did not lead to the sweeping spread of communist revolution around the world. Three decades on, the United States is seeing the advantages of reestablishing trade with Vietnam, even though it is nominally still communist (rather like China). That still leaves the question of what it would have taken to defeat the communist forces of the North Vietnamese army. We had already bombed North Vietnam extensively, with no discernible effect on their determination to press the fight. The Tet Offensive largely removed the Viet Cong as a major factor, but the North Vietnamese army was still in play. In the meantime, the South Vietnamese government and army were in substantial disarray, and utterly unable to stand up as U.S. forces stood down.

Should we have sent in hundreds of thousands of troops for an infantry march all the way to Hanoi? How many American soldiers would have been lost in such an exercise? How many Vietnamese soldiers and civilians? And to what purpose? Should we have reunited Vietnam under the flag of the south? I don't think that China would have taken that lying down; despite the historic hatred between China and Vietnam, the PRC strongly supported North Vietnam. What if we had just pushed the North Vietnamese back north of the 17th parallel? We would have had to remain indefinitely to hold the border.

In Vietnam, the United States didn't lose its nerve, it woke up and realized that it was squandering its blood and treasure on a fool's errand. Likewise, the United States will not prevail in Iraq simply by determinedly standing our ground until the bad guys give up. To defeat the insurgency, we need better intelligence, in both senses of the word: we need more knowledge of the enemy, and we need better planning. We can't bomb them into submission, any more than Israel was able to bomb Hezbollah into oblivion. The battle in Iraq, much like the battle in Vietnam, is first and foremost a matter of hearts and minds. If the people over there support what we are doing, we will succeed; if the broad middle opposes us or is apathetic, we are doomed to failure. Most of all, if we succumb to the temptation to refight the last war, to show that withdrawing from Vietnam was a mere lapse of judgment, we will find the desert of Iraq no more hospitable than the jungles of Vietnam.

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