New takes on the history of Vietnam War
November 24, 2006
History is written by the victors.
It is with this notion that I am trying to understand the statements of President George W. Bush during his recent visit to Vietnam, in the shadow of the ongoing war in Iraq.
Bush stated there are lessons we can learn from Vietnam to help us achieve victory in Iraq. His two lessons: That it takes time for freedom to triumph, and that “We’ll succeed, unless we quit.”
Trying to make sense of these lessons requires a greater leap from reality than I am willing to take.
Are we to assume that Bush thinks the U.S. could have won the war in Vietnam, and that country would be a better place today, if we hadn’t left, if we were still there bombing them into oblivion?
But then, that contradicts Bush’s other statements, on how Vietnam has improved since we quit the place 31 years ago.
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“For decades, you had been torn apart by war,” Bush said. “And today, the Vietnamese people are at peace and seeing the benefits of reform.”
All of these statements are even more surreal when you add in the image of Bush standing in front of a bust of Ho Chi Minh, visiting with government officials who defeated the American forces, handing the U.S. its most serious military defeat to date.
Yes, there are lessons to be learned from mistakes of the past. But first, we must recognize the mistakes, or we will be doomed to repeat them.
And when it comes to the war in Iraq, we are in a serious déjà vu state of mind.
Let’s take Bush’s central strategy for victory, that “as the Iraqis stand up, we’ll stand down.” Boiled down, this means we train the Iraqis to take over the fighting so American forces can start coming home. This is Richard Nixon’s Vietnamization doctrine with a new coat of paint, but the same tired engine under the hood.
If you want a lesson from history, here’s a good one: Vietnamization didn’t work, even with a far more cohesive military force than we have in Iraq, armed to the teeth with our best weapons. Meanwhile, the U.S. military is afraid to hand over any heavy weapons to the Iraqi forces for fear they will use them on each other, and on coalition forces.
What do you say when your current policy is failing worse than the old failed policy it was based on?
Maybe we should ask Henry Kissinger. He had a front-row seat for Vietnamization. He has also been one of the main figures advising Bush to stay the course in Iraq. Yet now, he has come out to say the war in Iraq cannot be won militarily. Maybe this old warhorse has started to learn from his own history.
Perhaps the real lessons of history need to come from the winners of these conflicts. In The Associated Press story of Bush’s visit to Vietnam, the reporter spoke to Huynh Tuyet, 71, a veteran of the war who lost a hand fighting against American forces.
“Even though the Americans were more powerful with all their massive weapons, the main factor in war is the people,” he said. “The Vietnamese people were very determined. We would not give up. That’s why we won.”
The Iraqi people seem very determined as well, and there is no sign of them giving up. A recent poll taken in Iraq shows that a wide majority of respondents feel American troops provoke more violence than they prevent, and they want us to leave.
Maybe another important lesson to learn from Vietnam is that the country didn’t start getting better until after we left.
Bush didn’t set out to repeat the Vietnam War game plan, yet it seems that is exactly what he has accomplished so far. The only real debate left is whether Iraq will end the same way Vietnam did. Are we doomed to defeat, or is there a way to put the pieces back together?
Whatever your viewpoint, it’s clear we aren’t going to achieve a result different than Vietnam unless we stop following the same script.
And that’s the best lesson we can learn.