Friday, November 17, 2006

The Lesson of Vietnam

President Bush is in Vietnam for an economic summit. A reporter asked him if Vietnam has any lessons for the war in Iraq.

I think one thi — uh, one lesson is that we tend to, uh, want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while. ... It's just gonna take a long period of time to — for the ideology that is hopeful, and that is an ideology of freedom, to overcome an ideology of hate. ... We'll succeed unless we quit. — President Bush, Hanoi, 2006-11-17
No, Mr. Bush, the lesson of Vietnam can be summed up in one simple, succinct sentence:

If you pick the wrong fight, you will lose.

Read more... President Lyndon B. Johnson and his administration engineered the dramatic expansion of U.S. involvement in what amounted to a Vietnamese civil war. The country had been partitioned, with the north communist and the south nominally democratic and capitalist, but North Vietnam sought to reunify the country. Johnson cooked up a provocation in the Gulf of Tonkin, exaggerating an incident between the North Vietnamese navy and the U.S. ships USS Maddox and USS Turner Joy to give a reason for American attacks against North Vietnam. Over the next decade, the United States sent more than half a million troops to Vietnam, more than 57,000 of whom were killed. The American public saw that the South Vietnamese government lacked the support of its own people, and that victory by the North was inevitable. We saw that our own soldiers were committing atrocities in the name of our nation, and that they were beginning to mutiny. The United States could never outlast the Vietnamese people, because they have an obviously greater vested interest in their own country than we have in a country 6,000 miles [almost 10,000 km] from the nearest U.S. soil. We had reached a point where every day that U.S. soldiers remained in Vietnam diminished America's standing in the world.

However, many among the Bush Administration and its friends (notably former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger) steadfastly believe that the United States' mistake in Vietnam was that we lost our nerve and turned tail and ran. Back in June, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this:
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 We have only lost those conflicts where we have withdrawn from the field of battle before we prevailed. — Michael Chertoff, 2006-06-23, emphasis added
The question then becomes, what would it have taken for the United States to win the Vietnam War? At the beginning of Richard Nixon's term — and of Kissinger's tenure as National Security Advisor — the United States had more than 553,000 troops in Vietnam, and we were unable to achieve victory. We bombed North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and we were unable to achieve victory. Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam, was more popular in the South than many of the South Vietnamese leaders.

I submit that even if we had sent a million troops to Vietnam, and doubled the peak of bombing raids in the North, it would not have been enough to overcome the resistance of the North Vietnamese people to what they viewed as an occupying power. Therein lies the lesson we should take to Iraq: we will never outlast the insurgents, because they are fighting for their own country. We have picked the wrong fight, and we have already lost, never mind the upbeat assessments from President Bush and Secretary Rumsfeld.

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