Iraq? Afghanistan? Pakistan? Is Arabic for Vietnam

That old “Vietnam is Arabic for Iraq” bumper sticker is still on my car. Am I out-of-date? The continuing presence of Cheney’s sneer on U.S. TV, as though he should be considered a legitimate public figure instead of a discredited national disaster, suggests that I am not. The pattern of errors from the French Indochina War to the American Indochina War to the War Against Islamic Independence (if I may be permitted to assign the sort of names that may become generally accepted by historians of the future) is ominous. By failing unambiguously to denounce the mistakes of their allies and predecessors, American politicians ensure the repetition of their mistakes.

Overconfidence. The French, being in Vietnam first, led the way in making fundamental mistakes. According to The Pentagon Papers:

In May, 1947, Minister of War Coste-Floret announced in Paris that: “There is no military problem any longer in Indochina . . . the success of French arms is complete.” Within six months, though ambitious armored, amphibious, and airborne drives had plunged into the northern mountains and along the Annam coast, Viet Minh sabotage and raids along lines of communication had mounted steadily, and Paris had come to realize that France had lost the military initiative.

Military Solutions to Political Problems.

The record shows that through 1953, the French pursued a policy which was based on military victory and excluded meaningful negotiations with Ho Chi Minh.

Simplistic Analysis of the Adversary. The following classic oversimplification is of course a self-fulfilling prophesy of which politicians seem never to tire:

American thinking and policy-making was dominated by the tendency to view communism in monolithic terms.

It is ironic that this Washington attitude toward the Viet Minh existed, since relations between the anti-Japanese Viet Minh and the U.S. had been cooperative during World War II.

Creeping Commitment.

From 1946 to 1954, France became increasingly engaged in a major counter-insurgency campaign in Indochina. At first, the threat was not immediately recognized as being serious, but it soon became a strategic imperative for France to keep its colony, and prevent a precedent to be emulated across its colonial empire. Furthermore, after its defeat in June 1940 by Germany, France was engaged in reinstating itself as a major power, and would not allow a colonial conflict to be lost to a gang of insurgents. Over time, the French military commitment, including auxiliaries and Vietnamese allies, reached nearly 450,000 troops.. Source.

Take Key Assumptions for Granted. The surest path to disaster is the failure to question fundamental assumptions, and the classic assumption is of course that everything you want is essential for survival. Whatever you do, never waste time trying to figure out an alternative way of achieving one’s goal.

The U.S. Government internal debate on the question of intervention centered essentially on the desirability and feasibility of U.S. military action. Indochina‘s importance to U.S. security interests in the Far East was taken for granted.

Making Historic Decisions Too Quickly. Truman’s decision only three days after the North Korean attack on South Korea in 1950 to provide significant military aid to the French war against the Viet-Minh, who had assumed power, declared Vietnamese independence, and requested international recognition following Japan’s surrender, is a classic. The US military aid surge notwithstanding, by the end of the year, a Viet-Minh campaign to destroy French forts on the Vietnamese-Chinese border had inflicted what has been called the worst colonial defeat of French forces since the 1767 loss of Quebec.

Where, in all the conflict, is any Western awareness of the natural preference of societies for making their own decisions? Regardless of right or wrong, once a society perceives a domestic conflict as being dominated by foreigners, those foreigners begin to lose momentum. Perhaps the key fact about the whole post-WWII Western experience in Vietnam is that the French had to reinvade after Japan’s defeat, e.g., the 1946 naval shelling of Haiphong and consequent slaughter of thousands of Vietnamese and provocation of the French Indochina War following the unilateral French decision to modify its previous recognition of Vietnamese independence by limiting the Viet Minh regime to the north.

The Meaning of Colonialism

Just for the record, when an imperial state needs to use its regular armed forces to keep the peace in a colony, its colonial adventure is in real trouble. That is not how colonialism works. The idea is for the army to conquer and as quickly as possible turn the colony over to a lackey regime, which will maintain domestic peace with its police force on behalf of the imperial ruler. Imperial troops mostly leave the colony altogether! And the rest (this is a secret), return to their barracks and stay out of sight (that’s the secret part, as in ‘they secrete themselves away out of sight). An alternative approach is for the imperial power to recruit locals into its army and post them, with imperial officers, to maintain local control. Still another approach is to put a minority in control, since, being the minority, it will be totally dependent on the imperial power to maintain its authority.

Perhaps the above was unclear. Let me make the case in different words: the movement of imperial forces off the streets of the colony has nothing to do with returning sovereignty. On the contrary. It is precisely about institutionalizing the colonial adventure.

The last thing a great global imperial power can afford is to have its army mucking around fighting battles against its colonial subjects. Battles can be fought – but by mercenaries, not by the imperial forces. The imperial forces will inevitably be needed for new wars (e.g., against still independent countries on the borders of the colony).

The withdrawal of imperial troops from conquered cities to distant rural outposts of a colony constitutes a critical victory for the empire and a defeat for the colonial people, who will lose their target without gaining their freedom.

Of course, the above is just the theoretical musings of a political scientist. You figure out whether or not it bears any relationship whatsoever to any real-world events!

Collateral Damage: Vietnam Analogies to Iraq

Few debates can be more important for Americans concerned about the course of our involvement in Iraq than the issue of how and to what degree analogies to the American war in Vietnam can teach relevant lessons for the American war in Iraq. The two wars are obviously in some ways very different, in particular the glaring distinction that South Vietnam was fighting both a civil war and a defensive war against a North Vietnamese invasion before the U.S. intervened. The Lebanese war against the Israeli invasion of 1982-2001 and the Algerian effort to end French colonialism are probably much closer analogies to Iraq, but it is only the Vietnam War that one can hope many Americans will be conscious of, so drawing analogies from Vietnam is important.

I have tried repeatedly in this blog to stimulate thinking about this infinitely complex and so very poorly understood issue. My point here is simply to focus attention on the real impact of large-scale U.S. attacks on a highly mobile enemy with the following intriguing quotation from a Vietnam War website:

Westmoreland’s operational concept emphasized the attrition of North Vietnamese forces in a “war of the big battalions”: multi-battalion, and sometimes even multi-division, sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy. Such “search and destroy” operations were usually unsuccessful, since the enemy could usually avoid battle unless it was advantageous for him to accept it. But they were also costly to the American soldiers who conducted them, and to the Vietnamese civilians who were in the area.

Now, replace sparsely populated jungle with densely populated cities, and consider the import of the remark that such mass attacks were “costly” to the local population. One can easily hypothesize about the meaning of the word “costly” in terms of friends losing their ability to help because their lives have been ruined, neutrals turned into enemies, propaganda bonanzas for the other side, and the impact of on the rate of recruitment of volunteers from the local population to join the rebels. It would be valuable to collect and assess confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence for this hypothesis either from the Vietnam or Iraq War, not to mention other conflicts, in particular Israel’s wars on Gaza and Lebanon.

Whatever the truth about the impact of “collateral damage” on the ultimate outcome of wars may be, it is pretty obvious (e.g., from recent harsh U.S. tactics in Sadr City) that Washington has not accepted the hypothesis that it is critical. We will all no doubt discover over the next few years to what degree this may turn out to be the key issue deciding the outcome of Washington’s war in Iraq.