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,