Andrew Bacevich: Vietnam's real lessons

Roundup: Talking About History

[Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is a Vietnam War veteran.]

FINDING IN THE DEBACLE of the Vietnam War a rationale for sustaining the U.S. military presence in Iraq requires considerable imagination. If nothing else, President Bush's speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars earlier this week revealed a hitherto unsuspected capacity for creativity. Yet as an exercise in historical analysis, his remarks proved to be self-serving and selective.

For years, the Bush administration has rejected all comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. Now the president cites Vietnam to bolster his insistence on "seeing the Iraqis through as they build their democracy." To do otherwise, he says, will invite a recurrence of the events that followed the fall of Saigon, when "millions of innocent citizens" were murdered, imprisoned or forced to flee.

The president views the abandonment of our Southeast Asian allies as a disgrace, deploring the fate suffered by the "boat people" and the victims of the Khmer Rouge. According to Bush, withdrawing from Iraq constitutes a comparable act of abandonment. Beyond that, the president finds little connection between Vietnam and Iraq. This is unfortunate. For that earlier war offers lessons of immediate relevance to the predicament we face today. As the balance of the president's VFW address makes clear, Bush remains oblivious to the history that actually matters.

Here are a few of the lessons that he overlooks.

In unconventional wars, body counts don't really count. In the Vietnam War, superior American firepower enabled U.S. forces to prevail in most tactical engagements. We killed plenty of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. But killing didn't produce victory -- the exertions of U.S. troops all too frequently proved to be counterproductive.

So too in Iraq -- although Bush insists on pretending otherwise. His speech had him sounding like President Lyndon Johnson, bragging that, in each month since January, U.S. troops in Iraq have "killed or captured an average of more than 1,500 Al Qaeda terrorists and other extremists." If Bush thinks that by racking up big body counts the so-called surge will reverse the course of the war, he is deceiving himself. The real question is not how many bad guys we are killing, but how many our continued presence in Iraq is creating.

There's no substitute for legitimacy. Wars like Vietnam and Iraq aren't won militarily; at best, they are settled politically. But political solutions imply the existence of legitimate political institutions, able to govern effectively and to command the loyalty of the population.

In the Republic of Vietnam, created by the United States after the partition of French Indochina, such institutions did not exist. Despite an enormous U.S. investment in nation-building, they never did. In the end, South Vietnam proved to be a fiction.

So too with Iraq, conjured up by the British after World War I out of remnants of the Ottoman Empire. As a courtesy, we might pretend that Iraq qualifies as a "nation-state," much as we pretend that members of Division I varsity football programs are "scholar-athletes." In fact, given its deep sectarian and tribal divisions, Iraq makes South Vietnam look good by comparison....

Bush did not even allude to the condition of Vietnam today. Yet the question poses itself: Is it not possible that the people of the Middle East might be better qualified to determine their future than a cadre of American soldiers, spooks and do-gooders? The answer to that question just might be yes.
Read entire article at LAT

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Dalek S Wu - 9/13/2007

Colonel Bacevich is "iron on target" in his analysis of the situation and his emphasis on the oft-overlooked fact that Iraq and Vietnam, unlike the WWII of "Saving Private Ryan" and "Sands of Iwo Jima," is an unconventional war that cannot be won by conventional means.

In "The Sands of Iwo Jima," it was a specific geographic area that was the battlefield. In Vietnam and Iraq, as Colonel Bacevich pointed out, and as Dr. Bernard B. Fall, Colonel Roger Trinquier and Jean Lartéguy have pointed out before him, it is the hearts and minds of the population, rather than terrain held or bodycount that is the battleground. As Dr. Fall said in "Streets Without Joy" (before he was killed by a landmine in Vietnam in 1967), "A dead guerilla is spontaneously replaced by his environment. A dead special forces sergeant is not."

Colonel Bacevich also does well to point out a significant difference between Vietnam and Iraq (something Max Boot, for all his degrees, missed), namely that "given its deep sectarian and tribal divisions, Iraq makes South Vietnam look good by comparison."

In Vietnam, there was effectively one enemy, Uncle Ho's Little Bastards, as they were called back then, who were divided into the non-uniformed Viet Cong partisans and the uniformed NVA regulars. Indeed, there are some who say that Operation Phoenix succeeded in wiping out whatever VC infrastructure was left after the catastrophic losses of Tet.

Such a thing could not be replicated in Iraq, and neither could General Massu, Colonel Trinquier and then-Commandant Aussaresses' winning strategy in the 1957 Battle of Algiers. There is no one enemy organisation of which the security forces can construct an organigram and destroy, but there are several different partisan groups, not to mention all the independent bandits who kidnap Westerners ostensibly in the name of Islam, but, in reality, to get cash.

The only chance there is for the Phoenix/Massu-Trinquier-Aussaresses method to work in Iraq is to have a specialised team to carry out such an operation in every Iraqi city in which anti-Americans find active sanctuary. Combine America's demographic decline (as reported in Samuel Huntington's "Who Are We?") with the fact that the umma churns out jihadists faster than America can churn out 5.56mm rounds, and the prospects of having enough personnel to do this on the requisite city-by-city basis are dim.