“The lesson of Vietnam is that we refuse to learn any lessons from Vietnam.”

Even to dare mention the lesson of Vietnam is to risk painting oneself as weak-willed and lily-livered — to say nothing about being old enough to actually remember Vietnam.

But I think there was a lesson, no matter how unlearned, nonetheless: We poured troops and weaponry into a unwinnable war in order to prop up a despotic government for reckless and unfounded political reasons — the domino theory, which stated that if we didn’t defeat the communists in Vietnam, we would someday be battling them on the Golden Gate Bridge.

As it turned out, after the deaths of more than 58,000 U.S. combat troops, we lost the Vietnam War and evacuated our embassy employees off the embassy roof in Saigon by helicopter in April 1975, in one of the most humiliating film clips in U.S. history.

The dominoes did not fall. Vietnam has bought nearly $2.5 billion in U.S. goods so far in 2014. The red menace is now our red trading partner.

So it goes. Having “left” Iraq after the deaths of 4,500 U.S. troops and an incredible $2 trillion spent, we are now heading back to prop up a murderous despot, who has carried out a religious war against his enemies in part by using U.S. arms.

If Baghdad Falls

27 Replies to ““The lesson of Vietnam is that we refuse to learn any lessons from Vietnam.””

  1. Mitch Wagner: David Dvorkin The Boer War is hardly a positive example then.

    Also to be fair, it’s hard to know what our strategy should be in Iraq and Afghanistan should be. Simply walking away does not seem to be a good option. Nor does making a full commitment to victory, with the accompanying cost in money and blood. But partial commitment is ineffective, expensive *and* bloody.

    Reminds me of an interview I heard a few years ago with an Asia expert who said the reason we continued the war in Afghanistan even after taking down the Taliban is because we had tried literally everything else and none of it worked. via facebook.com

  2. William Terdoslavich: Calling Vietnam an error is the easy answer based on the outcome. Not seen were the alternatives: not going in, going in with a different conventional strategy, going in with a different commander, or going in with a true counter-insurgency strategy.

    Each strategy would have produced a different outcome. Worse, any debate about Vietnam is done only from the American perspective. Not seen are the debates and dissents from Hanoi that also counseled against the war–in 1965 and 1966! Those elements were purged. Ho Chi Minh was sidelined by Le Duan, a hardliner who was going to make war in the South and later against the US at whatever the cost. For North Vietnam, what meant suffering 100,000 KIA every year–for eight years. And it meant fighting the war n borrowed money, as North Vietnam was also one of the 10 poorest nations on the globe at that time. Resources burned in the war could have been better spent nation-building, but fighting the war was a choice Hanoi made, too. via facebook.com

  3. David Dvorkin: I think the Boer War is a perfect example of what I said — that it’s often (always?) hard to tell until after the fact whether the war is winnable with sufficient investment. There were long-term negatives for the victor, as is often the case, but it still makes my point. via facebook.com

  4. William Terdoslavich: It was unexpectedly expensive for the British. They lost all the conventional battles at the war’s opening, then won a bunch to take it all back, then had to fight an 18-month anti-guerilla campaign to finally exhaust the Boers and eek out a political settlement.

    The problem with insurgencies is that three times out of four, the insurgents lose. via facebook.com

  5. David Dvorkin: Public sentiment back home in Britain turned against the war as the cost and casualties mounted. (Especially when combined with public horror at the deaths from disease of Boer dependents in British concentration camps.) Politically, it was a close thing. Had the war gone on a bit longer, political pressure at home would probably have become so great that Britain would have had to give up and let the Boer republics go their own way. via facebook.com

  6. David Dyer-Bennet: We didn’t understand the environment and didn’t have a reasonable strategic objective to work towards. How could that possibly end well? That’s why Vietnam was exactly like Iraq, in particular, and a lot like Afghanistan. (Korea I have some doubts about the importance to the US of our strategic goal, but we did at least successfully protect the independence of South Korea from the North. And, surprising I suspect nearly all of us, it has developed into a nicer place over time. Some.) via facebook.com

  7. William Terdoslavich: Whenm the US commits to war, it only has three or four years to win it. Public support will wane over that time, but you can keep a majority behind the war policy provided you show results. War without end or victory is corrosive in this context.

    As for cultural misunderstanding and Vietnam, this is a semi-true cliche, often applied to the United States but not North Vietnam, China and the USSR.

    The US had a chance to force a favorable outcome in the years following the Tet Offensive, which was probably its last chance for gaining anything. The Viet Cong were already destroyed by massive US firepower in the 1968-69 fighting. South Vietnam also acceded to US requests to arm local village militiars to keep any VC/NVA out. These were more successful at cultivating local security than any harebrained US schemes like “strategic hamlets” and “search and destroy”.

    Finally, Abrams put a stop to US air strikes and artillery, which killed many local people not involved in the fighting. Abrtams chose to concentrate on finding rice and ammo caches–the needed pre-requisites for an NVA deploy,ent–and rip those out instead of seeking combat with elusive NVA units. This proved to be far more effective.

    But Abrams’ strategy was too late. It was already past the third/fourth year of the war. American support waned after Tet. Abrams could buy a breathing space for the Saigon regime, but little else.

    In 1975, when North Veitnam finally conquered SVN, it was done with a conventional army, well-equipped with artillery and tanks, a bit ironic since we romanticized their war effort as a guerilla war. via facebook.com

  8. Richard Adhikari: Let’s see: Never fight a battle when your supply lines are extended (Viet Nam, Napoleon’s march on Moscow); never intervene in a civil war in a country far, far away with totally different sociocultural values from yours; If your local allies don’t fight, don’t do the grunt work yourself…and the list goes on… via plus.google.com

  9. Flavio Carrillo: +Richard Adhikari Thing is, we actually did conquer Iraq. We just lost the peace. So Vietnam imo doesn’t really have a whole lot to teach us here. (Where we just plain lost.) Vietnam doesn’t have the kind of chronic sectarian divisions of Iraq, which is well on the way to being partitioned 3 ways and whose borders never did reflect the political reality on the ground. Vietnam was an outgrowth of the Cold War, now over, whereas Iraq is one of the New World Order, which is really more like the Old World Disorder.Iraq is a mess. But it is an entirely different sort of mess than Vietnam. And when I look at, say, Syria, what I have in mind isn’t Vietnam at all. It’s Iraq. Iraq gives us cautionary lessons that are more up to date. via plus.google.com

  10. Flavio Carrillo: +Richard Adhikari Oh, it’s definitely losing, but in a different way and for a different reason. As for Vietnam’s sectarian divisions, my sense is that it’s not to the same degree as in parts of the Middle East and Vietnam just hangs together as a country better than Iraq ever has or will. I don’t see partition in Vietnam’s future; and partition may be the only future available for Iraq.I guess my main concern is that we draw the right lessons from the right cautionary tale. Vietnam doesn’t offer near as much guidance as Iraq (and Afghanistan for that matter, a similar mess) for the sorts of places we seem to be getting involved with. via plus.google.com

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.