In the immortal words of U.S. philosopher, poet, George Santayana (1863–1952), “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In the news this week was a story about the Democratic primary race going on in Connecticut between incumbent Senator, Joseph Liebermann and challenger, Ned Lamont for the party’s nomination. The fight, which Liebermann seems to be loosing at this point, is over whether America should stay the course in Iraq or start bringing our troops home now. As I understand it, the three-term senator (Lieberman) isn’t saying we were right to go into Iraq in the first place, he’s just saying that it would be irresponsible for us to “cut and run” now. There’s an article about this, published just this morning, in the Houston Chronicle.
This all brings to mind a discussion I had with one of my sons shortly after President Bush made his now-famous speech from the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln on May 1st 2003, the one in which he announced “major” combat in Iraq finished. During our exchange of e-mail messages, I expressed a serious concern I had about Iraq turning into another Vietnam — by that, I meant a quagmire, both in a military and a political sense. Of course, my son, at that time an avid supporter of Mr. Bush and his administration’s decision to take Saddam out and establish “democracy” in the region, argued that Vietnam and Iraq have nothing in-common. Well, just look at it now, son.
Historically, Vietnam was a quagmire waiting to happen even before Eisenhower handed over the reins to Kennedy. How was Iraq different? Anybody? Anybody?
Kennedy saw Vietnam for what it was, and started laying the groundwork for our disengagement. Now, some conspiracy theorists believe that it was this objective, coupled with his brother’s running battles with Hoover and the intelligence community, that eventually led to his assassination… the industrial-military complex that Eisenhower tried to warn us about.
Vietnamization was Nixon’s brainchild early-on in his administration, four administrations after the conflict and our involvement in it began. Vietnamization, which sounds a lot like what Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is arguing as the current plan for Iraq (see this recent Fox News report on the face-off between Senator Clinton and Secretary Rumsfeld), was Nixon’s strategy for getting us out of that mess. This, coupled with our country’s waning support for a continued military presence there, is what makes Vietnam, in my mind, similar to Iraq. The problem with the whole idea of Vietnamization was that the government we had engineered for the Republic of Vietnam became too corrupt for its own good, and the RVN forces, to include their leadership, could never be trusted to conduct independent operations. Sound familiar? All the billions that were spent to help the country stand on its own never built anything better than a house of cards.
Now, corruption may not be a major problem with the Iraqi government, but dissention between major factions there certainly is.
Today, the Bush administration argues that the Iraqi government is functioning well. But then, for all the American public knew about the government of the Republic of Vietnam back in the early 70s, it was functioning well too, right up until the day it surrendered to North Vietnamese forces. In case you’re interest in the history of Vietnam… http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/South-Vietnam.
Vietnam proved beyond a doubt that success in war depends upon more than economic power and an edge in technology. Carl von Clausewitz (German general and oft-quoted authority on modern war), years before the war in Vietnam, pointed to the importance of “moral factors” — fear, the impact of danger, and physical exhaustion — observing that “military activity is never directed against material forces alone; it is always aimed simultaneously at the moral forces which give it life, and the two cannot be separated.” Our adversaries in Iraq are well aware of this and they are growing increasingly effective by appealing to moral forces according to fundamentalist interpretations of the Islamic faith. This, to the majority of the people in the region, justifies, their use of terrorist tactics against us and their own countrymen.
Another requirement for success in war, of which the Bush administration must be painfully aware, is the commitment of the people behind the opposing forces. Call it, the will to win. In Vietnam, long before we had endured ten years of bloody battle scenes on the nightly news and suffered 47,410 recorded battle deaths, 10,789 other deaths in-theater, and 153,303 non-lethal battle casualties, we lost the will to win. And so we lost the war. As a nation, I fear that we are already losing our will to win in Iraq too.
In March 2003, when Operation Iraqi Freedom was first launched by the U.S., one of my geography students asked, “Mr. Garry, will we win this war?”
I answered that I had no doubt that we would win the war. I hedged, however, by also saying that I questioned whether we would ever be able to win the peace. Was I wrong? Is it time yet to admit our mistakes, cut our loses, and come home? Lieberman doesn’t think so. I wonder what you think?
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