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The Jungle in the Desert: Vietnam in Iraq

Stewart Nusbaumer, Intervention Magazine


Having never learned why we lost the Vietnam War, America is now losing another Asian war.


January 3, 2005 - With the proliferation of the Internet and the spread of political polarization, there has been an explosion of know-it-alls in America. Those who know what America should and shouldn’t do, what will happen tomorrow and what won’t happen next year. They know everything.

Yet, those who claim the greatest certainty often possess the least knowledge. In full hubristic certainty, the Neocons and others in the Bush Administration guaranteed the Iraq War would be "quick and easy." That was two years ago, and before 1,300 Americans and 10,000 (actually more than 100,000) Iraqis were dead.

First we were told that when Saddam Hussein was overthrown, the fighting would stop. That was twenty-one months ago. Then, when Saddam Hussein the fugitive was captured, the insurgency would collapse. He was captured over twelve months ago. Then, when authority was transferred to the Iraqi government, the Iraqi military would take over the fighting. That was nearly ten months ago. Then, when Fallujah was occupied, the resistance would be defeated. The city was destroyed over two months ago.

From defeating the Iraqi military to capturing Saddam Hussein to Iraqi control to destroying a city, each promise has disappeared in fresh pools of American and Iraqi blood.

Desperate, the U.S. is still pinning its hope on Iraqi troops becoming the security forces and on the upcoming elections creating a credible local government. But Iraqization has shown itself to be an utter failure, as Vietnamization was an utter failure, and elections under the control of foreign occupiers never deter exploding resistance movements.

But the United States has its accomplishments in Iraq. It has fueled a vicious insurgency and it has greatly expanded the number of corpses throughout the country. This is not, howver, what the advocates of the "quick and easy" so confidently predicted.

"There was no adequate operational plan for stability operations and support operations," writes Major Isaiah Wilson, a former researcher for the Army’s Operation Iraqi Freedom Study Group and later the chief war planner for the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq.

At Cornell University, discussing the Iraq War, Major Wilson said: "U.S. military planners, practitioners and the civilian leadership conceived of the war far too narrowly." Scheduled to teach at the U.S. Military Academy next year, the historian and strategist believes that the top war-planners suffered from "stunted learning and a reluctance to adapt."

"Similar criticism has been made before," writes Thomas Ricks in the Washington Post, "but until now [has] not been stated so authoritatively and publicly by a military insider positioned to be familiar with top-secret planning."

The Roots of the Mistake

"There was too much of an analogy with the occupation of Germany and Japan," former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger complained to Wolf Blitzer on CNN. What Henry Kissinger did not complain about was there was too much of an analogy with the Vietnam War, and how that past quagmire could be reproduced in Iraq. For Henry Kissinger and the Neocons, the Vietnam War is forgotten history.

"Sir," an email to me began:

As a Canadian I am totally puzzled why Americans never learn from their past mistakes, unless Americans cannot admit their mistakes. Has anyone in Washington come out publicly and said the Vietnam War was a mistake, beside the mothers who lost their sons and those soldiers who came home minus an arm or leg? What was that war all about anyway? To this day I still have not heard a satisfactory answer.

More than 58,000 Americans killed in a losing war against "a rag-tag 3rd rate military force" (as the Vietnamese resistance was described by self-confident U.S. officials), and the post-war discussion during the 1970s and 1980s in America was obscurant, distorted, and terribly short. Instead of a dialogue to understand why 58,000 Americans died in vain in Vietnam, Americans had a vicious blame-game to obscure the reasons why 58,000 Americans died in vain in Vietnam. Instead of the truth, it was obfuscation; instead of accountability, scapegoats.

It was claimed that those long-haired antiwar demonstrations, "the war at home," brought about our defeat in Vietnam. That the press was complicit: the liberal press was defeatist, and this defeated our noble effort in Southeast Asia. And the politicians, those back-stabbing Washington politicians, refused to allow our military to win the war.

Not blamed were those who advocated the failed U.S. intervention in that far-off civil war; those who designed the bankrupt U.S. strategy that was more fantasy than realty; those who ignored the great power of Vietnamese nationalism, which in the end defeated our internationalism, or if you prefer our imperialism.

It was their country and they outlasted us in their country. Never underestimate the power of nationalism, even in this global world, to ignite "rag-tag armies." Never forget.

George Santayana wrote, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." It is an old adage, yet contemporary for an arrogant nation that continues to overestimate its own power and underestimate the power of the "rag-tag armies."

Santayana, however, was too kind for German philosopher George Wilhelm Hegel: "What experience and history teach is this--that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles."

As we look at the unfolding disaster in Iraq, we see that America never learned from the Vietnam War. Americans never learned that you do not commit troops to a war that has not been thought through. This is more than not acting on principle, Hegel would say this is a crime. Shame on America.

Back to Vietnam

The U.S. war planners underestimated the Iraqis’ will to resist and they underestimated the insurgents’ ability to develop a viable strategy. After "shock and awe," the resistance would surely be reduced to a "rag-tag resistance," right? The planners overestimated the U.S. military’s technology and firepower, which they always do. So twenty-one months into this war, the world’s most powerful military is stymied, unable to halt the expanding Iraqis insurgency and the rising number of American dead.

Those who planned this war knew as much about Iraq as those who planned the Vietnam War knew about Vietnam, which is why Iraq will end as Vietnam ended. In America's defeat.

For those of us who fought in Vietnam and reflected on that disastrous war, we knew America could not win in Iraq. Many Americans came to that conclusion without having served in Vietnam. But not the Bush Administration and the Neocons, and not most Americans, who went along with the invasion and occupation of Iraq. For these Americans, the Vietnam War never happened and Iraq would be "fast and easy."

The Canadian asked, in reference to the Vietnam War, "What was that war all about anyway?"

Major Wilson said, the Iraq War planners had "stunted learning."

And now retired Army General Donald Shepperd, speaking on CNN, says: "It doesn’t look like there is light at the end of the tunnel."

Yes, the Iraq tunnel is dark. As dark as the Vietnam tunnel was dark.

Stewart Nusbaumer is editor of Intervention Magazine. He served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam on the DMZ. You can email him at Stewart@interventionmag.com

Posted Monday, January 3, 2005




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