Andrew Meyer: The Complex Specter of Vietnam





[After living in mainland China and Taiwan for four years and in Japan for one year Mr. Meyer returned to the U.S. and earned a doctoral degree in Chinese history, which he teaches at the City University of New York.]

Comparisons to Vietnam began haunting the Bush administration's Iraq policy even before the Coalition invasion was launched in 2003. The specter of Vietnam is not a simple or univalent influence on the US political climate surrounding the Iraq conflict, however. It impinges upon the perceptions of both opponents and supporters of the Bush policy in complex ways that reflect the vagaries of memory and its perceived reverberations in future policy.

Opponents of the Iraq policy (among which I count myself) are frustrated not only or least by the sense that "the lessons of Vietnam" have been ignored, but that in certain political circles those lessons themselves remain ambiguous more than thirty years after the fall of Saigon. The image of "the last helicopter" leaving the US embassy in April 1975 leaves no doubt that the US Vietnam policy was a failure, the reasons for that failure, however, remain contested.

For those who opposed the Vietnam War (with whom I retrospectively agree, having been born at the conflict's height) the Vietnam policy ultimately failed because it was flawed at the outset. Certain pundits, however, insist that the Vietnam War was "lost" not because of any prior deficiency in US policy but because of domestic opposition among the American public and political leadership. This latter argument manifests in several forms, the most empirically plausible of which is the assertion that at the conflict's tail end the Nixon administration's policy of "Vietnamization would have worked" had it not been undermined by withdrawal of funding by a Democratic Congress in 1974 and 1975.

Arguments that US Congressional miserliness doomed the Thieu regime are dubious at best. Congress did barter down the executive's proposed package of aid in fiscal year 1974, but this was not an exceptional case of appropriational wrangling. A supplemental request for additional military aid made by the Ford administration never reached the appropriations stage before the collapse of the Thieu regime. Despite failing to meet Nixon administration targets (which were likely inflated in anticipation of Congressional bargaining) US aid to South Vietnam was expansive- 4 billion dollars from the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, with an additional 1 billion dollars of donated equipment. By 1974 South Vietnam, a nation of 20 million people, had the world's fourth largest army and air force and fifth largest navy. The South Vietnamese military initially enjoyed a 4 to 1 superiority in heavy weapons over that of the North. Under these conditions the idea that the South was defeated for lack of bullets is a stretch of the imagination.

Moreover, the notion that Congress was ultimately responsible for the collapse of South Vietnam rests on two false assumptions. The first is a misunderstanding of what role any legislature may play in the conduct of an armed conflict. Any battle that depends on particular action by a legislative body is lost from the outset- a body like Congress simply cannot be relied upon to respond with the kind of alacrity that warfare demands.

Secondly, the "Congress lost Vietnam" myth assumes a degree of control over events in Southeast Asia that the United States never had. At most Congressional action helped catalyze a crisis of confidence within South Vietnam that hastened the collapse of the Thieu regime. But a government whose legitimacy balanced so precariously on perceptions of the American political climate was bound to collapse sooner or later, the idea that a further infusion of cash could have precluded such a crisis altogether is a fantasy. In the end the fate of the Thieu regime is not best epitomized by the fabled "last US helicopter," but by the South Vietnamese F-5E jet flown by Lt. Nguyen Thanh Trung that made three bombing passes over President Thieu's residence on April 8, 1975. Any regime so lacking in coherence and political control that it would find such an expensive and destructive asset turned against itself could not stand long. Ultimately South Vietnam was not defeated by a lack of US volition or even a failure of South Vietnamese leadership, but by the aggregate unwillingness of the Vietnamese people themselves to live in a partitioned nation.

The "Congress lost Vietnam" myth does not have enormous traction in the American public perception of Vietnam and its legacy. Even so, opponents of the Bush policy in Iraq may be forgiven for fearing that such myths continue to distort foreign policy. Structurally similar myths to those that precipitated and persist in the wake of Vietnam are propounded in support of the decision to invade Iraq and by way of apology for the mission's setbacks.

First among these is the idea that the invasion of Iraq was a necessary blow against the global power and influence of Al Qaeda. This notion persists despite being demonstrably false- even with the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last week Al Qaeda enjoys far greater purchase in Iraq now than it did in April of 2003. The consistent invocation of the "war on terror" in defense of the Bush Iraq policy echoes calls for "containment" during the Vietnam War. Both arguments overestimate the degree to which the perceived threat (global Communism or political Islam) expresses itself universally uniformly and to which local conditions are shaped by larger geopolitical forces. Just as the expense and destruction of the Vietnam War could not be justified in terms of its impact on global Communism, the human and material costs of Iraq will not be worth the damage inflicted on Al Qaeda (assuming that, in the best case scenario, Al Qaeda's strategic position is ever materially degraded by events in Iraq at all).

The second disturbing myth current in the Iraq crisis is the structural doppleganger of the "Congress lost Vietnam" myth: the idea that the current Iraqi insurgency would not exist (or would be much attenuated) if there were no domestic US opposition to or criticism of the war. This latter myth rests upon the same faulty reasoning of the former, an assumption that the US enjoys far greater control over local political developments internationally than it ever actually has. The Iraqi insurgency exists because a certain critical mass of Iraqis are intrinsically opposed to the Baghdad government the Coalition is trying to establish, and that opposition is not reducible to nationalistic anger at US imperialism. If the US departed tomorrow the insurgency would continue and even intensify, because the Baghdad regime embodies forces (multiethnic rule, democracy, relative secularism, protection of Shi'ite religious freedom) with which the insurgents (to varying degrees) will not be reconciled.

Given the eery parallelism between the myths surrounding Vietnam and those surrounding Iraq, opponents of the Bush administration's policy might reasonably fear the long-term consequences of any degree of success in Iraq. Despite the clear failure of the Vietnam policy, myths such as the "Congress lost Vietnam" canard seem to have had just enough traction to bring those who propound them back into control of the US' foreign policy apparatus for another bite at the apple. If such a costly and misguided policy could be launched on such a flimsily established precedent one trembles at the prospect of what might be attempted on the basis of even provisional success in Iraq.

Such reasoning must be tempered by two considerations, however. First is that it rests on an overestimation of the degree to which Vietnam precedents figured in to the initiation of the Iraq policy. The policy pundits who gave us Iraq never wholly subscribed to US strategic doctrine during the Cold War, at the time they were advocates of "rollback" rather than containment. The Rumsfeld Defense Department knew full well that the very structure of the 21st century all-volunteer US military was predicated on the assumption that it would never be engaged in a prolonged occupation such as Vietnam. Their decision to go ahead with the invasion of Iraq was rooted in the conviction that it would not develop into an extended occupation, they did not so much ignore the lessons of Vietnam as obstinately insist those lessons were irrelevant.

Moreover, in contemplating Iraq one must hold in mind that the complexion of total failure there would look very different than the previous case of Vietnam. If the current insurgents could be expected to form a coherent state that would be bad enough, as they do not have anything approaching the nationalist goals or credentials of the Viet Cong or the NVA. Instead, however, the more likely outcome of a complete failure of the Bush policy would be total, destructive anarchy. A failed state in Iraq would result not only in untold misery for the Iraqi people and a vastly amplified terror threat to the United States, but might well spill over into a broader regional conflict that could make prior events in Laos and Cambodia pale by comparison.

Ultimately provisional success is the best possible scenario for which the US and the Coalition might hope, and even that outcome is beyond the power of the US or its allies to guarantee- it can only be brought about by courage and skill on the part of Iraq's leaders. Even so, the possible future ramifications of provisional success in Iraq are troubling to consider. If even Vietnam can be spun as a worthwhile and all-but-won cause, should Baghdad win through to stability one cannot but fear what expenditure of blood and treasure might be advanced on that precedent in years to come. In the final analysis, however, such thinking amounts to an abdication of the duty of citizenship. Baghdad will hopefully establish its authority over a stable Iraqi state and the violence in that beleaguered country will subside. If and when that happens US proponents of the current Iraq policy will trumpet it as a great victory and a vindication of the policy from its outset. Such a political climate will place a great burden upon those of us who know how ill-conceived this policy was. We will have to redouble our commitment to remain politically engaged, to insist on a clear and factual assessment of the Bush administration's policy and its consequences, and to see that future foreign policy is not predicated on the same faulty thinking that prevailed in March of 2003.

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