The Vietnam war is separated by both historical time and geographic space from our current war in Iraq.
Still, at the end of the long and bloody war in Vietnam, it appeared that if we had accomplished nothing else there that Americans had learned some valuable lessons. But in January of 2007, When President Bush announced his new plan to increase the deployment of troops in Baghdad by 21,000 , he gave clear indication that somewhere in the intervening years the lessons of Vietnam had clearly been forgotten. U. S. Policy in Iraq needs rethinking and the best guidelines for that process might include these three important lessons from the Vietnam War.
1. The political concept known as the Domino Theory is just that, a theory. During the 50’s John Foster Dulles and other State Department gurus developed the Domino Theory as an explanation for the likely results of allowing Communism to spread into a single nation in Southeast Asia. According to this theory, if one nation was overrun by communists it would inevitably set off a chain reaction of nations in the area tumbling one after another like so many dominoes. While this theory helped people to visualize the State Department’s concerns, somewhere along the way it took on the status of reality rather than theory. In the end Vietnam did fall but, dramatically , the domino effect never occurred .
President Bush has made his plans for Iraq based in part on that same type of domino theory. He seems to accept that if Iraq falls outside of the control of American sponsored government officials, then immediately there will be a domino effect in the Middle East. Every nation in the region is always effected by what happens within the others, but the effects are in no way predictable. He seems to miss the point that each of the countries in the Middle East has its own history and makeup and each will react in its own way to whatever happens in Iraq. To establish a workable U. S. Policy in Iraq, Mr. Bush needs to remember the lesson of Vietnam. The Domino Theory is a theory, policy needs to be built on the unique needs and concerns of the people of Iraq and on reality not theory.
2. Sticking to failed policy only magnifies the failure U.S. involvement and combat in in Vietnam continued well beyond a reasonable time frame. Americans were so committed to the idea of winning in Vietnam that they dismissed all the signs of military and political failure. A key lesson coming out of Vietnam was the recognition, after the fact, that staying the course, as a strategy, is only laudable and effective if the course is working.
There is no shame in re-deploying or retreating but there is shame in senselessly continuing on a course of action which consistently ends in failure, while producing high civilian and American military causalities. Leaders discovered after Vietnam that sticking to failed policy there had only magnified the failure.
What’s missing in U. S. policy in Iraq today is this very recognition. In Iraq the death toll mounts daily and after some four years the city of Baghdad continues to experience fire fights on a regular basis. There is no credible evidence that adding more “boots on the ground” is going to do anything but add more fuel to the fire. On the contrary, leaders on the ground gave solid advice to President Bush that adding more troops would have little or no positive effect and could result in the loss of more lives.
President Bush believes he is doing the right thing by beefing up the forces and continuing the same failed policy of U. S. involvement. In setting U. S. policy in Iraq, what is missing is the understanding gained in Vietnam that by sticking to failed policy one only magnifies the failure.
3. Local insurgency does not respond to traditional fire power On paper, the Vietnam war should have been over in two weeks. Given the size of the population of Vietnam and its lack of sophisticated weaponry, Vietnam should have been a a quick police action for U. S. troops with limited casualties. The history of the Vietnam War indicates that what happened was anything but quick . The weeks stretched to months and the months to years and the casualties topped out at over 50,000.
When the war was finally over, American tacticians acknowledged that the war was a highly localized village by village conflict. The enemy was illusive and highly mobile. The lesson learned was simple: local insurgency does not respond well to traditional fire power.
Still U. S. policy in Iraq to reestablish law and order and a fledgling democracy continues to be based on high tech weaponry and now a major troop surge. For reasons that are unclear, the U. S. policy in Iraq ignores the fact that, as in Vietnam, the enemy is often intermingled effectively with active insurgents. Insurgents are incredibly fluid and simply disappear from one spot only to reappear when the threat to them has eased.
The current U. S. policy in Iraq is doomed to failure because , in a city as populous as Baghdad, there is too much wiggle room for insurgents. Superior firepower in this instance does not equal victory. Planners in the Bush administration have forgotten the lessons learned about fighting insurgency in Vietnam. Insurgency can be controlled during occupation but insurgents simply bide their time until traditional fire power is withdraw, then reemerge to claim the territory once more.
U. S. policy in Iraq has failed and will continue to fail for many reasons: poor leadership, the civil war aspects of the conflict, uncertain goals, changes in American leadership, failure of the Iraqis to take control of their own security. But certainly among the causes of failed U. S. policy has been America’s unwillingness to think back and remember the lessons of Vietnam.