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
Labels: iraq, politics, vietnam
Posted by: BadTux / 5/22/2007 08:17:00 PM
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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