The Real Lessons of Vietnam


No one could ever accuse our elected leaders, whether in the White House or in Congress, of being scholars and intellectuals, but when such people start prattling on about the “lessons of Vietnam,” it becomes even clearer that we’re talking here about people who would have flunked their high school history tests.

Take Pennsylvania’s junior Republican Senator Rick Santorum. One lesson of Vietnam which he says we should be applying now to the mounting crisis in Iraq is that “we shouldn’t let politicians decide how to fight a war; we should let the war fighters fight the war.”

Santorum, who like many a right-wing militarist, ducked military service himself as a young draft-age man during the Indochina conflict, clearly doesn’t know or has conveniently forgotten that the top brass during the Vietnam War, like Gen. Westmoreland and Gen. Abrams, consistently and intentionally misled the civilian leadership in Washington about the progress of the war. Unwilling to admit that they were losing, they lied about enemy “body counts” (as they are doing again now in Iraq by never separating civilian deaths from deaths of Iraqi combatants and by continuing to pretend that the U.S. in Iraq is fighting Baathist “die-hards” and “terrorists,” not Iraqi nationalists), kept claiming that they could win if they just had more troops, and argued for widening the war, first to the North and then into Cambodia and Laos. Heck, if the military had had its way in Indochina, the whole place would have been nuked.

Arizona’s Sen. John McCain, who unlike Santorum, did fight in Vietnam, and who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison of war camp, also misstates the “lesson” of Vietnam. In his case, he says Iraq is not like Vietnam because in Iraq “we have the capability militarily and politically to prevail.”

First of all, McCain is forgetting that this is exactly what the hawks—civilian and military—always said about Vietnam! One version popular back in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and still dredged up by die-hard defenders of that war, had it that we had the military ability to prevail but the damned politicians kept making the military fight with one hand tied behind its back (a ludicrous claim, given that the U.S. poured more weaponry into Vietnam than it used in the entire Second World War, and that with one hand behind its back it killed over two million Indochinese and turned much of the country into a moonscape of craters and defoliated lands). The other version was that we could have won militarily, but our host, the South Vietnamese government, was just too weak and corrupt to allow us to win.

The truth, of course, is that the “host government” as in Iraq, was a sham creation of the U.S., and that the U.S. was simply whipped in Vietnam, militarily and politically. The reason the Vietnamese won was not, as McCain suggests, because they had “big power” backing from the Soviet Union and China (backing that was always in fact half-hearted at best and never crucial), but because the Vietnamese people were fighting for their country and had been for half a century.

McCain’s argument that somehow Iraq is different—that because it has no superpower backing, and no neighboring country sanctuary, America can win this one–actually sounds lifted right out of a 1970 political debate.

Iraq’s resisistance may not have superpower backing, but it has much of the Arab and Islamic world supporting it, which may actually be more substantive backing than Vietnam ever got from its Communist “friends.” And as for sanctuary, how different are the porous borders of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and Jordan from those of Laos and Cambodia?

McCain’s claim that America can “win” in Iraq actually sounds frighteningly and depressingly like the claims by cheerleaders of America’s war in Indochina over the years that America could win there. Increasingly it is becoming clear that winning in Iraq means the same thing it meant in Vietnam: killing and cowing the people of the country into submission.
McCain and Santorum also fail to mention another very real “lesson of Vietnam” which should be relevant to the current war in which the U.S. military finds itself increasingly mired. That is the lack of support of the war effort back home. After the Vietnam War, a common refrain was that never again should America get itself involved in a conflict without the clear support of the American public. This lesson was jettisoned by the Bush gang from day one when they began a campaign of deception to convince Congress to authorize an invasion of Iraq. By using lies, exaggeration and deception to achieve the goal of an invasion, they ensured that the American public would never back the war, especially if and when it began to go badly, as it is now doing.

So here we are back again to 1968, when the Tet Offensive first made it apparent to the American public that the war could not be won. The new Shite offensive in Iraq is making the same point to a new generation of Americans. It doesn’t matter if the U.S. military, by sheer power of its 21st Century weaponry, can defeat the 19th Century fighters of Iraq’s insurgency. This current uprising across much of Iraq has made it clear that the U.S. has already lost the war.

While we’re talking about similarities between 1968 and 2004, we should also recall the unfortunate parallelism of the dispiriting presidential campaigns and the similar lack of any real anti-war alternative. In 1968, we had Democratic Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, who had knocked out genuine anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy in the primaries, running on a platform of support for Lyndon Johnson’s still escalating war, and Republican Richard Nixon, touting his deceptive “secret plan” for “peace with honor”—a secret plan that in fact saw the war and the killing expand dramatically before leading to an ultimate U.S. defeat. This election year, we have Bush the incumbent defending his war, and Democrat John Kerry, who won his party’s nomination by defeating anti-war candidate Howard Dean, also supporting continued American war against and occupation of Iraq. Kerry, meanwhile, a Vietnam Veteran who once condemned the U.S. war in Indochina as both criminal and hopeless, seems now to think that the lesson of Vietnam is that the U.S. needs to get the U.N. to provide a fig-leaf of international cover for its indecent imperialist aggression—as if Iraqi’s and the rest of the world won’t know who’s really firing off the deadly ordnance.

The only question left, as in Vietnam in 1968, is how many U.S. and Iraqi lives will have to be extinguished before President Bush, or perhaps President Kerry, can sneak off mumbling “peace with honor.”

Of course, after that finally happens, we can expect to have to endure people like McCain, Santorum, Bush and Kerry continue to claim that we “could have won” if only the politicians had let our brilliant military leaders have their way, if only we’d sent in more troops, if only those treasonous war critics hadn’t sapped America’s will, if only we’d brought in the U.N.…etc., etc.

The real lesson of Vietnam: nobody seems to learn anything in Washington.

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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