Wednesday, April 25, 2007
The Dolchstosslegende, Vietnam, and Iraq
The word Dolchstosslegende in German roughly translates to "stab-in-the-back myth". This originated amongst the right-wing generals and aristocrats of Germany in the years after WWI to explain their loss of the war. As they were fond of pointing out, at the time the Armistice was signed, Russia had been defeated and there were still German soldiers on French and Dutch soil. It was the leftists -- the Communists, the socialists, the labor unionists, etc. -- who literally "stabbed the nation in the back" and signed the humiliating Treaty of Versailles and lost the war for Germany.
When the last helicopter lifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, shortly followed by Pol Pot's final takeover of Cambodia, the same basic dynamic came into play. We were winning when we left, the right wingers said. It wasn't the Communists who defeated us in Indochina. It was the leftists -- the socialists, the labor unionists, dirty unwashed hippies, radical peace and civil rights movements, etc. -- who literally stabbed the U.S. war effort in the back and made victory impossible. It wasn't Communist bullets that placed those 58,195 names on the Wall. It was Jane Fonda.
The same dynamic is currently in play in Iraq. When we inevitably leave in Iraq, it will not be because our soldiers found themselves in a situation where they were too few in number and not properly trained and equipped. It will not be because we have no definition of "victory" that makes any sense given the culture and history of the region. No. It will be because "the left" has stabbed the U.S. war effort in the back and made victory impossible.
One thing I would warn you about, however, is making a direct comparison between Iraq and Vietnam. In Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government that we supported had a clear external enemy, i.e., the government of North Vietnam, which in turn was supported by a clear existential threat to the United States, i.e., the Soviet Union. There were clear and achievable goals stated, including the overriding strategic goal of a non-Communist government in South Vietnam capable of maintaining its territorial integrity, a strategic goal that the majority of the American people supported even after support for U.S. troops in Vietnam collapsed, a goal the public supported until 1974 when the majority of Americans decided that the costs of maintaining such a government in South Vietnam outweighed the benefits to America.
By contrast, in Iraq there has not been a clear attainable strategic goal stated -- the stated goal of "a pro-American democratic government in Iraq" is as achievable as human flight via flapping of arms. Might as well wish for a pony. Furthermore, there is no external enemy in Iraq. We are fighting the Iraqi people, not an external threat to the Iraqi people. Worse yet, we are fighting factions of the Iraqi people, factions that support us, factions that oppose us... and factions that support us one day and attack us the next day (and vice versa) as required to attain their factional goals. We are basically sitting in the middle of the Lebanese Civil War writ large, except even bigger and with more factions making it even harder to keep track of who is your friend and who is your enemy on any particular day. When Ronald Reagan got us into that situation in 1984, it took only a few months and one barracks bombing to convince him that these people were effin' nuts and then he got the Marines out of there. Even Ronald Reagan wasn't dumb enough to pop us into the middle of an Arab civil war and expect miracles to happen.
Furthermore, there is just enough of a factual kernel to the Dolchstosslegende regarding the Vietnam War to render it not entirely ridiculous: Congress cut off military assistance to the South Vietnamese government just as the North Vietnamese were preparing a massive military invasion with hundreds of tanks and hundreds of thousands of troops. But this merely hastened the end. The end would have happened eventually anyhow, sooner or later. North Vietnam was larger than South Vietnam and would always win a war of attrition. . It is possible for a small highly educated state with a competent military leadership class and a committed populance to hold off larger states lacking said competent military leadership and committed populance, Israel has done it since 1948, but South Vietnam never had many highly-educated people and its top military leadership was incompetent and corrupt politicians appointed by the civilian government rather than being professional highly-trained military men who rose through the ranks by merit. Furthermore, South Vietnam's population as a whole was not heavily committed to the notion of fighting off North Vietnamese aggression. When I read the accounts of South Vietnamese who later fled after the war as refugees (as vs. those who left before the final collapse), one thing that strikes me about all of these accounts is their passivity. In no cases did they ever think of taking up arms themselves and going and helping fight off the North Vietnamese. No. They simply sat around their drugstore or beauty parlor or whatever business they ran and waited for the North Vietnamese to take over, "just another government, no better or worse than any other", they thought. They found out differently, but only after being sent to "re-education" camps for the crime of being a shopkeeper or beauty parlor operator or whatever.
The only way to save South Vietnam, given the qualitative equivalence of its armed forces with those of the North Vietnamese and its smaller population base, was to either a) provide U.S. troops or b) take out its external enemy -- North Vietnam -- and doing that would have risked WWIII. Re-fighting the Vietnam War is like re-fighting the American Civil War -- in the end, the North always wins unless some foreign power sends troops to help the South. And the American people, in the end, decided that the overall strategic goal of deterring Communism in Southeast Asia simply did not provide benefits to America that would justify the cost of sending troops to help the South.
Meanwhile, nobody has even defined victory (or defeat, for that matter) in Iraq. If you define "victory" as "no armed resistance to U.S. rule of Iraq", that's attainable, but we're not acting like that's our goal. Defeat of the insurgency via conventional military means is not possible given our military's abysmal lack of knowledge of the culture and language, a lack of knowledge that is far more dire than anything that ever confronted us in Vietnam where at least we had a reliable anti-Communist satrap class to handle the hard work. We could defeat the insurgency the same way the Brits defeated the Boers in South Africa or the same way we defeated the Filiponos in the Filipino-American War where we "liberated" them from their own rule, but concentration camps (a central aspect of those anti-insurgency campaigns) got sort of a bad rap after Hitler's abuse of them during WWII. And while we've tried to Chechnya a few places (Fallujah is a pile of rubble much like Grozney now), we just don't seem cut out for that genocide bit. We could withdraw like in Vietnam and simply send massive amounts of military assistance to the government but the "government" in Iraq isn't even as capable as Thieu's shaky military junta in South Vietnam was, not even controlling its own capital city (something that never happened during Thieu's rule of South Vietnam, with the exception of a brief period during the Tet Offensive when VC guerillas took over a few buildings). In short, Iraq is not Vietnam, and if there were ever any grain of truth underlying the Dolchstosslegende in Vietnam, conditions in Iraq are such that the whole notion of the war effort being "stabbed in the back" by liberals and leftists is utter nonsense. The war effort was "stabbed in the back" by a Bush Administration incapable of formulating clear achievable strategic objectives and a workable plan for achieving them, not by MoveOn.org organizing a few thousand people to demonstrate in the streets.
Not that this will stop the right wingers from revving up the Dolchstosslegende machinery once again on the day the last American soldier departs Iraq. You can see it at work already. Just turn on Fox News.
- Badtux the History Penguin
Labels: dolchstosslegende, iraq, vietnam
Posted by: BadTux / 4/25/2007 06:47:00 PM
Apparently Pat Lang gets rather touchy when you mention the Dolchstosslegende promulgated by the neo-conservatives rewriting history regarding why the U.S. lost in Vietnam (i.e., it was all those lefty's fault, it wasn't Vietnamese communists who killed tens of thousands of our soldiers, it was Jane Fonda!) or why the U.S. is losing in Iraq (we were stabbed in the back by those lefties again!). Pity. And thus I am banned from yet another forum. This one, alas, I shall not treasure as much as my bannings from places like Corrente and Red State, since despite his blind spots Pat is a good source of information regarding happenings in Iraq and their military significance, but so it goes.
Lesson learned: Do not use the word "Dolchstosslegende" to describe stab-in-the-back rewritings of history when you submit to a blog whose proprietor in part subscribes to said Dolchstosslegende. It's rude and he will merely discard your comment and be offended.
- Badtux the Rude Penguin
Labels: dolchstosslegende, iraq, navel-gazing, vietnam
Posted by: BadTux / 4/25/2007 05:47:00 PM
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