Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) noted the strong parallels between our tactics in Vietnam then and Iraq now. Now let’s look through the other end of the telescope. How does our experience in Vietnam differ from that in Iraq? I believe that in one key aspect of the war our actions in Iraq are a mirror image of those in Vietnam.
In Vietnam we sought to maintain a friendly government in South Vietnam, preventing its overthrow by insurgents or conquest by the Army of North Vietnam. Simple, clear goals – allowing relatively easy definition of progress. Our enemy, having read Sun Tzu, defeated us by attacking our weakest point. Not our invincible military apparatus — undefeated on the battlefield — but the American people’s commitment to this foreign war.
In 1964 Johnson campaigned as the peace candidate against the warmonger Goldwater — while his officials prepared to massively escalate the war in 1965. His election victory was great, winning 44 states and 486 to 52 in the Electoral College. But his mandate did not include a Southeast Asian war, especially a war whose connection with our national security was vague, despite the war’s great cost in money and lives. After four years of war his Administration collapsed amidst the fires of the Tet Offensive.
As it turned out, these concerns about the irrelevance of the war were correct, as our defeat in Vietnam had few long-term consequences. (As this Wall Street Journal op-ed shows, three decades later some remain unable to see this simple story, still re-fighting the war like Confederate vets bemoaning Pickett’s Charge.)
Bush avoided Johnson’s error in the 2004 election by clearly promising a long, difficult war in Iraq. The Administration and Congress have clearly stated our objectives (see here for a full list of our goals and benchmarks). This is textbook perfect strategy.
But – unlike Vietnam — our actions in Iraq seem disconnected from our goals. Hence the long, confused debate about “winning.” Are we winning or losing? How will we know when we have won? Here we repeat — in a different way — the fatal error that doomed our efforts in Vietnam. Confusion must result when tactics and strategy clash, weakening public support for the war.
We seek to “Build an Inclusive Democratic State.” But our closest allies are the Kurds, and they have de facto broken away from Iraq. The Kurds have the only functional polity in Iraq, having most of the attributes of a government — not just the trappings of a Potemkin village, but one with authority and power. The Kurds have an army, they defend borders, their flag flies over State buildings, they sign contracts with foreign oil companies.
In 2007 we took a fateful step away from our goals by our almost unconditional surrender to the core Sunni Arab insurgents. We stopped fighting them, ceeded full control of their territories, and began paying, training, and arming their militia. We ask nothing in return except that they continue fighting the Islamic extremists, with whatever timing and intensity they consider appropriate. What more could they have asked for?
This has decreased violence in Iraq to only horrific levels, but at the cost of further balkanizing Iraq. Does this advance our strategic goals in Iraq, or just give us more time to hope things move our way? The Associated Press ponders this…
Sunnis across Iraq – more than 70,000 at last count – are turning to the Pentagon as generous patrons and allies. Yet it could all sour quickly if the U.S. assistance to Sunnis dries up or the Shiite-led government resists Washington’s pressure to reward the Sunni militiamen with jobs in the security forces.
… But the projects and posts are worth far more than their sum total from the Sunni perspective. They represent important signs of honor and hope – which they claim have not come from the Shiite leadership that replaced Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-centric regime. “The government does nothing for us. It has kept us out of the army, the police and jobs,” al-Moaeini said at an abandoned shoe factory that his Awakening Council fighters use as a headquarters. The U.S. military wants to revive the factory.
Baghdad also has done little to improve basic services in Hawr Rajab, such as electricity and drinking water, or supply the town with heating fuel sorely needed during one of the harshest winters in years. … The Shiite-dominated government remains deeply worried the Sunni fighters will one day again turn their guns against the establishment.
With such confusion of strategy and tactics, even accomplishing intermediate steps brings us no closer bringing most of our troops home. Destruction of the Saddam’s government. Approval of a Constitution. Elections. Turning over security to national and local security forces. Improved security. With each the accomplishment we are told that the troops must stay still longer, while the explicit goals and benchmarks for the Iraq Expedition seem increasingly impossible to achieve.
Q: What I would like to know is, I’ve heard you say a million times all the reasons why we can’t leave Iraq. But I’ve never heard you say what it is you hope to accomplish in Iraq and how long it’s going to take.
A: …And then what happens is American troops withdraw and they withdraw to bases and then they eventually withdraw, or we reach an arrangement like we have in South Korea, with Japan. We still have troops in Bosnia. But the fact is it’s American casualties that the American people care about and those casualties are on the way down rather dramatically. …And what we care about is not American presence, we care about American casualties and those casualties I believe will be dramatically and continue to be reduced.
Q: I want to know how long are we going to be there?
A: Thank you sir, and I can look you in the eye and tell you that those casualties tragically continue as I made very clear in my opening remarks. But they are much less and we will eventually eliminate them.
Q: President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years…
A: Maybe a hundred. We’ve been in South Korea, we’ve been in Japan for 60 years. We’ve been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That’d be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. Then it’s fine with me, I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where Al Queda is training,
Q: I want to go back to Iraq – 50 years? What if American soldiers are being killed one per day four years from now?
A: I understand what’s at stake here. And I understand that American public opinion will not sustain a conflict where Americans continued to be sacrificed without showing them that we can succeed.
Q: So what I hear is an open-ended commitment? An open-ended commitment? –
A: I have a quote open-ended commitment in Asia, I have an open-ended commitment in South Korea, I have an open-ended commitment in Bosnia. I have an open-ended commitment in Europe.
The future of the Iraq War
We can afford to continue the war indefinitely, so long as our Asian and OPEC creditors lend us the money to do so.
Our military can continue the war for many years, albeit at the cost of slowly degrading the quality of its equipment and people.
Our primary weakness is just like that of the Vietnam War, our willingness to fight a long war for vague gains. Let us hope that Bin Laden is a student of neither Sun Tzu nor modern history, otherwise we might see another flare (like Tet) that — whatever its military significance — burns away the American people’s willingness to stay in Iraq.
The consequences might be large. Or, like Vietnam, small. Either way we face the prospect of hearing for the next thirty years how the Iraq War could have been won if only the American people had been stronger and more resolute. If we listen, we might hear Sun Tzu’s laughing in heaven.
Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).
Go here to see an archive of my posts about the Iraq War.