Winning: The Twisted Lessons of Vietnam


May 3, 2007: One of the more annoying aspects of the war in Iraq are the comparisons to the Vietnam war. The problem there is the two great myths of the Vietnam war that keep getting brought up, and misapplied to Iraq. Myth Number One is that the communist Tet Offensive of 1968 was a U.S. defeat. At the time, even reporters on the scene described the great damage that had been done to the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. Analysts noted that the attack accomplished nothing, for the communists, in real terms. After a few years, it was clear that Tet was a disaster for the Viet Cong. We know that because, after Tet, the United States implemented a counter insurgency plan that finished off the Viet Cong. By the time American troops left in 1972, the only threat to South Vietnam was invasion by the North Vietnamese army. That happened twice. First, in 1972, North Vietnamese tanks and infantry divisions crossed the border. With some U.S. air support, that invasion was thrown back. The second invasion, in 1975, succeeded. The reason for that was not just a lack of any American air support, but the absence of much U.S. support at all. Congress had cut off nearly all American aid to South Vietnam. This included things like ammunition and spare parts. By 1975, American troops were gone for several years. The pictures of American helicopters evacuating people, showed American citizens and diplomats being taken out, along with South Vietnamese who could expect harsh treatment from the communists.

The U.S. didn't lose the war in South Vietnam, the South Vietnamese did. Tet was a victory for the United States, and a major defeat for the Viet Cong. For years, you had to go dig up old newspapers, or obscure books, to find the evidence that Tet was an American victory and Vietnam was not an American defeat. But now you can just use Google. All the facts are there. All you have to do is go look. Many prefer not to, which is another problem.

That said, it should be noted that the Iraq and Vietnam situations have little in common. In Iraq, the enemy is largely a Sunni Arab coalition (of secular Baath Party diehards trying to regain power, and Islamic radicals like al Qaeda, trying to make Iraq the first conquest of a global Islamic empire), not a broad coalition trying to unite a divided country under a communist dictatorship. Vietnam was all about nationalism and politics. Iraq is about supporters of tyrants who won't accept defeat, and religious zealots who believe they are on a mission from God. The degree of irrational behavior is much higher in Iraq, but it's not politically correct to dwell on that, at least not in the West. The Iraqi media dwells on the irrational elements of their political situation, and they do it quite a lot.

In Iraq, it's popular to blame the United States for everything, but most Iraqis understand that the Sunni Arab violence is basically an Iraqi problem. The Iraqis most intent on keeping the American troops around are the Sunni Arabs, who know that the years of Sunni Arab terror (both before and after Saddam fell) have made the Sunni Arabs an endangered group in Iraq. For some reason, Westerners have a hard time accepting that.

The United States won its war in Iraq. What's happened since is Iraqis working out whether they want a democracy, or a return to tyranny. This is a bloody argument that the United States is trying to ameliorate. The majority of Iraqis would prefer to deal with the Iraqi Sunni Arabs in the traditional fashion. They still might, even with the presence of U.S. troops, and definitely will if the American forces leave soon. That would be an American defeat of ethical proportions.


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