Sunday, July 05, 2009

Review of Vietnam in Iraq: Tactics, lessons, legacies and ghosts

Vietnam in Iaq: Tactics, lessons, legacies and ghosts, edited by John Dumbrell and David Ryan, has a publication date of 2007. But the 11 essays in this collection predate the announcement of The Surge. But there is real value to looking at contemporary commentary on the Iraq War. Because just as with the Vietnam War, later claims of new perspectives and revisionist history on the war in general can be checked against publications like this.

As the title indicates, the book explores the similarities and differences between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. One striking thing about both is both involved nation-building and counter-insurgency efforts for which the military were not prepared. Overestimation of American power in those particular situation was a particular problem in the initiation of both wars. Sadly, even with the lessons of the Tonkin Gulf incident and other situations in front of them, the Congress of 2002-3 was just as deferential to Presidential claims, though the falsehoods involved with the Cheney-Bush buildup to the Iraq War make the Tonkin Gulf claims look almost honest. At least there actually were enemy boats in the water in the Tonkin Gulf! A contrast to the non-existence of the Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" and the equally non-existent operational ties between Saddam and Al Qa'ida.

Trevor McCrisken of the University of Warwick (UK) has an essay on "No More Vietnams: Iraq and the analogy conundrum" that reminds us that making foreign policy by analogy can be a very perilous business, common as it is. The "Munich analogy" as it has been simplified to near-meaningless in the American political vocabulary has become especially treacherous. McCrisken calls attention a very meaningful lesson from the Vietnam War now there to be relearned from Iraq (and, in 2009, from the escalating "AfPak" War):

If there is an ultimate lesson of the Iraq War it is that it reiterates one of the central lessons of the Vietnam War: there are limits to the power of the United States, particularly in terms of the utility of the use of force.
This is a criticism that both military planners and civilian officials need to take very seriously. Not all of them will.

David Ryan Of University College, Ireland, explores a related problem in "'Vietnam', Victory Culture and Iraq: Struggling with lessons, constraints and credibility from Saigon to Falluja". But Ryan is far too impressed with the underlying assumptions of the so-called Weinberger Doctrine, better known as the Powell Doctrine, that aimed at setting prudent conditions for American military intervention. He doesn't seem to grasp that, in practice, the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine was largely a justification for the Pentagon to focus its training, equipment and planning on fighting the Soviet Union - even after the USSR no longer existed - and avoiding future counterinsurgency wars. Worse, he seems to buy the assumption that American public opinion is the great weakness of American military might, and that the Powell Doctrine assumption of short, quick wars is still basically the solution to that perceived problem. He at least notices some of its weaknesses, such as the fact that in the "shock and awe" approach at the beginning of the Iraq War, "US tactics and use of overwhelming force on the ground and from the air was counterproductive." If the goal involves the complete conquest and reconstruction of a country, the military strategy has to take that fully into account.

Marilyn Young concludes her essay, "The Vietnam Laugh Track", with an observation about the idea that ending a war short of total victory somehow dishonors the dead:

A final thought: in Iraq, as in Vietnam, many people are convinced that only victory gives meaning to the (American) lives lost. To stop fighting short of victory is to render meaningless the deaths and maiming suffered thus far. More deaths, more grievous wounds are required to one end only: the making meaningful of the deaths and wounding already suffered. After the war, William Ehrhart asked a Vietnamese general what he thought of the Americans as warriors. After politely praising their bravery, the general named what he saw as their military shortcomings: fixed positions, dependency on air support, and ignorance of the country. 'Would it have mattered if we had done things differently?' Ehrhart asked. No, the general replied, 'Probably not. History was not on your side. We were fighting for our homeland. What were you fighting for?' Ehrhart answered, 'Nothing that really mattered'. George Swiers, returning directly from the battlefield to San Francisco in 1970, remembered how he had 'set out to speak to his Fellow Americans. To share with them his hideous secrets, to tell them what went on daily in their names'. For a short time, the message Swiers and other veterans like him brought home to America, aka the Vietnam syndrome, served as a prophylactic against another Vietnam. In the decades that have passed since Swiers' return home, the hideous secrets have been forgotten, or worse, transformed into memories of virtue, sacrifice and service.'

Americans, the late Gloria Emerson wrote, have 'always been a people who dropped the past and then could not remember where it had been put'. This time, they've put it in Iraq. [my emphasis]
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