Ignoring, once again, the lessons of Vietnam

    The similarities between Vietnam and Iraq are obvious to me, but
    there are differences, as well, and I’ll leave it to the experts _
    historians, political scientists _ to eventually tweeze out comparisons
    between one war and the other. However, they have at least one thing in
    common: In the earliest stages of both wars some journalists and
    scholars recognized the complexities and dangers ahead, but their
    warnings were generally ignored by our leadership.

    For example, David Halberstam spent 14 months in South Vietnam during
    1962 and 1963, reporting on the highest levels of the government and
    trudging with the army through the soon-to-be-familiar rice paddies of
    the Mekong Delta. Lyndon Johnson’s “Americanization” of the war was
    still a couple of years away, and our commitment in Vietnam was
    discharged by relatively few advisors to South Vietnamese troops and
    plenty of money, supplies, and ordnance. By 1965, when Halberstam
    published the prophetically entitled “The Making of a Quagmire,” the
    United States had only 56,000 soldiers in Vietnam. but was unwittingly
    stumbling toward eight more years of war and 58,000 American deaths.

    Reading Quagmire forty years later, it’s hard to escape a vague sense
    of a theatrical tragedy in which the audience knows more than the
    characters and can see the bad events ahead foreshadowed in every
    circumstance. The South Vietnamese government was hopelessly weak and
    corrupt, thoroughly associated in the minds of nearly all Vietnamese,
    North and South, with the abhorred heritage of French colonialism. It
    was Catholic, elitist, and oppressive, while the people were Buddhist,
    poor, and amazingly resilient.

    But Halberstam’s most valuable
    insight involves the motivations of the enemy. He understood that both
    the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong were driven by nationalism and
    anti-colonialism more than by pro-communism, a perspective shared by
    many South Vietnamese, as well. The enemy recognized that the conflict
    was political rather than military and knew how to fight the war
    accordingly. The United States, beguiled by its overwhelming military
    superiority, thought of the war primarily in military terms. The enemy
    was tough and motivated, on his own turf, and well supplied with local
    intelligence and support. U.S. soldiers, many of them draftees, were a
    long way from home, fighting in brutal terrain in support of a dubious
    theory of anti-communism. In short, well before the United States was
    inextricably involved in Vietnam,