Badtux the Snarky Penguin

In a time of chimpanzees, I was a penguin.

Religious fundamentalists are motivated by the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere, is having fun -- and that this must be stopped.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Vietnamization of Iraq

One of the things I've done in my past is teach special education. One of the pitfalls of special education that we were trained to carefully watch for was "learned helplessness". Children could get addicted to the attention they got from being helpless, and genuinely become helpless. We were taught never to do for children what they could do for themselves, even if they did it very badly and with much effort.

Looking at the events of the last two years of the Republic of South Vietnam, I am reminded of that training. For almost ten years, American soldiers had fought along side of and in place of South Vietnamese soldiers. For almost ten years, American air power, American maintenance resources, American logistical transport resources, American Herky birds and choppers, and, most importantly, American leadership, had been available to the South Vietnamese government. Now those were gone, a casualty of Richard Nixon's failing presidency and a hostile Congress. Yet... yet... the South Vietnamese just kept along the same way they'd been keeping along, as if the Americans would intervene and bail them out yet again. And when the Americans didn't, in early 1975, then President Thieu swiftly fled the country with most of the South Vietnamese treasury packed in his luggage and bitterly blamed the Americans for "betraying" South Vietnam.

But did America "betray" South Vietnam?

Much is made of the fact that South Vietnam had only half the number of tanks that North Vietnam had when North Vietnam invaded. But South Vietnam had a significant and powerful Air Force that could -- and did -- offset that numerical disadvantage in tanks. Tanks are necessary for offense, but as defensive weapons they're not as useful. Much is made of the fact that major formations of the ARVN literally ran out of ammunition. But in many cases that was because of logistical issues caused by poor decisions on the part of the South Vietnamese government, rather than because of lack of ability to buy bullets.

In the end, South Vietnam had the means to resist the 1975 invasion. They had fewer means than the North Vietnamese had, but they had more compared to North Vietnam than the Confederacy had compared to the Union during the American Civil War, and the Confederacy successfully prevented the Union from capturing their capital for four long years of continuous warfare with no significant outside assistance. What they lacked was the mentality. They were still expecting the Americans to bail them out all the way to the end. In the meantime, the North Vietnamese were proudly pointing out that not a single Soviet or Chinese soldier fought on their side during the entire war. As a result, once the NVA was re-equipped with modern weapons by the Soviet Union, they knew how to put them to effective use. They weren't waiting for anybody to bail them out. They were going to war, and they were going to war to win.

In the long term, South Vietnam was doomed anyhow. Logistics in South Vietnam was always a nightmare due to settlement patterns -- the majority of South Vietnamese were either stretched along the coast or in the Mekong delta, leaving the sparsely-populated central highlands as an easy avenue for infiltration of major NVA military units capable of striking at Highway 1 and cutting off the northern regions of the country from the southern regions. Furthermore, South Vietnam had a smaller population than North Vietnam. But in the long term, we're all dead. In the long term, Israel is doomed for similar reasons, but Israel has successfully held off multiple invasions by numerically superior and often better-armed forces during the course of its existence, and if South Vietnam had possessed the proper mentality, they could have done so too. But they did not. Ten years of American assistance had trained them in learned helplessness -- had taught them that they were helpless without American assistance. When the request for massive B-52 bombing along the lines of what ended the 1972 NVA invasion was turned down by Congress, the streets of Saigon were swiftly lined with the cast-off uniforms and rifles of ARVN soldiers who literally ran for home in their underwear, and South Vietnam collapsed.

What brings this to mind is what's going on with the Iraqi Army. The ARVN was actually quite effective against an invasion just as bad as the 1975 invasion while led by American military advisors in 1972 and given massive bombing assistance from hundreds of B-52's flying round-the-clock bombing missions. General Abrams proudly proclaimed that the policy of Vietnamization was a success. Well, it was a success while ARVN soldiers were being lead by American leaders, and while American logistical supply trains were keeping bullets in the guns of ARVN soldiers, and American bombers were dropping tens of thousands of tons of bombs onto NVA heads. But at least it was ARVN fighting and dying by the thousands, not American GI's.

In Iraq, there isn't even an attempt at that kind of Iraqization. Most American soldiers in Iraq are conducting combat operations, not leading Iraqi troops. Most military operations have American soldiers fighting and dying, not Iraqi soldiers. President Thieu of South Vietnam at least held his capital city up until the last day of the war. Can anybody say that the Iraqi government controls Baghdad, when American soldiers are still being killed there and major portions of the city are "Indian country"? While you could get mugged in Saigon in 1971, it really wasn't that dangerous for an American soldier to walk around the city with a few of his friends. Any armed civilian you ran into almost 100% certainly was one of Thieu's very effective secret police. In Baghdad, if you see an armed civilian there is a 50-50 chance that he's an insurgent and is about to kill you, and in certain areas that certainty rises to 100%. If Iraq is Vietnam on crack, the effectiveness of the Iraqi army and police forces is Vietnam on methamphetamines. If learned helplessness were water, Iraq would be drowning in it.

South Vietnam's government fell because, unlike Israelis, the South Vietnamese had become accustomed to being bailed out by the Americans and literally didn't know what to do when the Americans were gone. Iraq's government will fall for the same reason -- but much faster. Vietnam on crack. No kiddin'. When will we ever learn that giving too much help can be worse than giving no help at all? How many Americans fought on Israel's side in the 1973 war? How many Soviets fought on North Vietnam's side in the 1975 invasion? Who won? Hmm?

-- Badtux the History Penguin

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Posted by: BadTux / 5/22/2007 08:17:00 PM  


Great post. My parents are originally from South Vietnam, and they're still bitter about how everything went down.

God, reading this was like a triple soy latte. Thanks for shaking me out of my hangover.
# posted by Evil Spock : 23/5/07 9:28 AM  

The learned helplessness theme is interesting because it is so intuitive. One additional point you failed to bring forth is the broadbased corruption at all levels of the RVN government. It existed all the way down to hamlet level. Outside the three or four large cities Vietnamese lives in villages and their loyalty was based there. Saigon was as familiar to them as Saturn, and rated as much loyalty. One of the few good points about communism was its proven track record of involving the peasants and workers in support. Lenin's and Stalin's Soviet Union doesn't apply because of the inherent racism and loss of private farmland featured in the various collectivization projects. The lesson was learned; peasants were permitted private patches.

To compare RVN and Iraq is correct in some areas, but very poor logic in others. There was no intention by the USG to maintain a strong military presence in Nam, other than for Cam Ranh naval base and Tan Son Nhut air base. These two facilities would have required a modest military fore of ground troops to provide additional security.

Iran OTOH was designed from the jump to require a massive ground effort since it was to be the springboard for US control of the Mideast oil resources. (Yes, not massive enough, but that's what happens when you allow foolish politicians to construct military campaigns.)
# posted by Lurch : 23/5/07 10:52 AM  

Of all that's been written comparing 'Nam and Iraq, this is the best. If only you had a nationally syndicated column that more people could read ...

I am not blowing smoke up your ass. I am absolutely sincere.

I want to find out from more special ed teachers about the needed awareness of "learned helplessness." The term is new to me and seems to be so very logical.
# posted by Falco : 23/5/07 10:53 AM  

Lurch, the corruption bit occurred because, with the American soldiers propping up the government, they could. Yet when the Americans left, the top RVN officials still behaved as if it was okay to loot the precious resources needed to defend their nation because, well, it had always been okay before the Americans left. In short, it was a learned behavior enabled by the American presence.

As far as Communism and its proven track record of involving the peasants and workers in support, I live in the midst of one of the largest communities of Vietnamese refugees in America. Most came here, however, after the Chinese invasion of Vietnam led the Vietnamese to crack down on their minority populations. During the war, they frankly did not care who ruled them. Saigon *or* Hanoi were about as familiar to them as Saturn. They just wanted to run their pharmacy or work their land or whatever. They weren't supporters of Communism, they simply didn't care, though towards the end they started caring slightly more only because the NVA had this habit of seizing all their comestibles for supplies whenever they infiltrated an area. Still, by and large, they didn't care because nobody gave them any reason to care. The Communist crackdowns in 1977 and 1978 are what gave them reason to care.

The Thieu government did not make any real effort to make them care -- to create a cult of national unity, or otherwise create the sort of climate that would allow Napoleon's observation that soldiers are more willing to die for an idea than for money to be put into play. Unlike Park Chung Hee in South Korea, the Thieu government made no attempt to create the sort of national unity needed to insure national survival. Instead, the RVN government fiddled while South Vietnam burned, playing petty politics all the way to the end -- because they could. Because they would be bailed out by the Americans. But they weren't. The politics were so bad that when the NVAF bombed the RVAF base outside of Saigon only days before Saigon fell, the majority of Saigonese assumed it was just another coup attempt. It wasn't -- it was the death knell of the RVN. But that's how it was.
# posted by BadTux : 23/5/07 12:36 PM  

Thanks, BT, for that fill-in. I think if you can find some Viets my age, (or older) who were big city dwellers, or who lived in some of the more prosperous provinces they'll confirm the gov't was rotten to the core before we arrived in 63 with our big long noses and big wallets. And it's true the farmers from the smaller villages just wanted to be left alone. In the cities where you'd find pharmacists you'd probably find they were more interested in not having an unwanted "partner" in the business.

They learned the looting by the way, not so much from the Americans, but more often from the educated Catholic class that the French established as the front men fr the regime. This was the case pre-WWII, by the way.

You're right about the Thieu gov't failing to instill a sense of unity, but then neither did the Ky gov't, not Big Minh, nor Diem, nor the Emperor Bao Dai, for that matter. National unity had slightly more meaning in the cities, because you actually got to see some of the tangible manifestations such as electricity, running water, radios, regular mail delivery, etc.

But if you could really get inside a Viets head yu'd see it was the against the Catholics, and against the Han Chinese, the Meo, the Hmung, and especially against the French and Americans, because we smelled bad, and talked too loud, and were boorish.

"Thank you for building electricity plants, and putting in sewer and water pipes. Now go home."

Strangely enough, about what we heard when we first toppled Saddam's statue.
# posted by Lurch : 23/5/07 3:47 PM  

"Learned helplessness." That sounds a lot like that crazy shit you acquire after converting to a fundamentalist sect that is Christian in name only. You know, those cheap "all emotion and no reason" knock-offs -- the ones whose members applaud enthusiastically whenever a Republican candidate for president hauls up before a microphone and openly endorses waterboarding.

Learned helplessness. If I were an experimental psychologist (as opposed to a lousy shrink), I would say that that goes a long way in explaining Slappy Codpiece's two notorious My Pet Goat moments -- the first one in that Florida classroom in 2001, the second aboard Air Force One above the wreck of New Orleans in 2005.

Learned helplessness.

Very interesting subject...
# posted by Mimus Pauly : 23/5/07 8:29 PM  

Mimus, the problem with Commander Codpiece isn't learned helplessness. The problem with Commander Codpiece is that he just doesn't give a shit. Lack of a conscience != learned helplessness. Lack of a conscience == one evil sonofabitch.

- Badtux the Definition Penguin
# posted by BadTux : 23/5/07 10:39 PM  

also into the iraq/viet nam comparison is that hostilities were entered into and extended without the constitutional process for war. it is war in the sense that armed americans are somewhere being shot at and shooting the hell out of a place, but not a war in that there has been no congressional declaration. then again, when i search for historical parallels i find myself with thucydides, reading about sciliy.
# posted by The Minstrel Boy : 24/5/07 9:21 AM  

This is an awesome post. I've posted a linky-winky to it. It's not just learned helplessness that will doom Iraq, but also the lack of national identity. Remember, if it weren't for a bunch of nosy Westerners drawing maps, Iraq wouldn't exist at all.
# posted by The Truffle : 25/5/07 10:50 AM  

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