The Arrogance—and Emptiness—of Power

Vietnam and Iraq War ComparisonAs I watch events unfolding in Iraq over the last weeks, I find myself wondering if Iraq War veterans are feeling the way I felt in March and April of 1975 when the fiction that was South Vietnam collapsed like a house of cards.

Eight years earlier, I had arrived in Vietnam as an 18-year-old Marine, convinced of the rightness of our cause, and eager to save the Vietnamese from the scourge of communism.  I left Vietnam thirteen months later, wounded in body and spirit, struggling to process the reality that our Saigon allies were corrupt and incompetent, their soldiers largely unwilling or unable to fight, while my Viet Cong enemies were dedicated and relentless.

When, seven years after my return, the entire edifice crumbled in a matter of weeks, even after more than twenty years of US support and a decade of massive US military effort, I was neither surprised nor angry nor jubilant.  I just felt empty.  Utterly empty.  Fifty-eight thousand dead Americans, some of them my friends.  Millions of Vietnamese and Laotians and Cambodians.  And for what?

Years later, Dean Rusk blamed our defeat on the failure of the American people to have the will to soldier on to victory.  Peter Braestrep blamed it on the liberal media who, he argued in his book Big Story, made the US victory at Tet 1968 look like a US defeat.  The redoubtable Col. Harry Summers, Jr. (Ret.) argued that we never lost a single battle.  Others blamed the antiwar movement or the meddling politicians who made the military “fight with one hand tied behind its back.”

It never seems to have occurred to any of these very bright and powerful people that Vietnam was not and never had been ours to win or lose.

It never seems to have occurred to any of these very bright and powerful people that Vietnam was not and never had been ours to win or lose.  It never occurred to them that Vietnamese dedication, motivation, and determination—an ancient proclivity to resist the presence of armed foreigners in their midst—might have had something to do with the US defeat.  One might reasonably argue: not something, but everything.

Now, once again, we are witnessing the incompetence, corruption, and inability of a government we created and have supported for over a decade.  And once again, according to a June 14, 2014, op-ed piece in the Washington Post written by a prominent counterinsurgency expert, “by declining to provide a long-term security assistance force to an Iraq not yet able to handle the fight itself, we pulled defeat from the jaws of victory.”

He goes on to argue, “We are reaping the instability and increased threat to U.S. interests thatwe [emphasis in the original] have sown through the failure of our endgame in Iraq . . . There is a clear lesson here for those contemplating a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.”

When you send scared and heavily armed kids into a hostile environment they have no hope of understanding or navigating, nothing good will result.

It does not seem to occur to him or those who agree with him, as it did not occur to the politicians and generals who created and persisted in the disaster that was the Vietnam War, that Iraq was never ours to win or lose.  Just as we could not train our Saigon allies to become self-sufficient in spite of massive US aid and intervention, now we seem to have failed to create a viable and self-sufficient government in Baghdad—and it’s all our fault because we pulled out too soon instead of having the moxie to stay the course.

It has nothing to do, according to this point of view, with the motivation, composition, determination (or lack of determination) of our allies and their opponents; it is all about us:  US.  U.S.

The Iraq War is not, of course, the Vietnam War.  The differences are myriad.  But there are two similarities, and these two trump all the differences:

  • Bill-EhrhartIn each case, US policymakers tasked the military with achieving goals that were and are unattainable by force of arms; and
  • When you send scared and heavily armed kids into a hostile environment they have no hope of understanding or navigating, nothing good will result.

Oh, yes, there is one more similarity, and that is the arrogance of bright and powerful people who persist in imagining that American military might can accomplish whatever they desire, and in blaming their failures on anything and anyone but themselves.

W. D. Ehrhart


  1. Ryder says

    The reason for the feeling of waste… is waste.

    There are any number of events that lead to conflict (just look at the history of your own relationships), and some of those reasons lead to armed conflict.

    It’s natural (and costs us nothing) to say, when things *don’t* go the way we want, “well, we never should have… ” (fill in the blank). Its’ a variation of sour grapes.

    But convenient rear view mirror reasoning aside, success goes to those that don’t give up easily. That’s just a fact of life. Any success… in parenting, in school, in weight loss, in careers, in invention, in business… a literally endless list, shows us that giving up is fatal, 100% of the time.

    In armed conflict, this is ESPECIALLY true.

    Those with a propensity to give up will be the losers… and as the Iraqi forces that have dropped their weapons and run for the hills… they are losing.

    What we know for sure, is that America proved that one can fight and win, if they don’t give up. Does it mean there can be times of struggle and loss? Sure.

    But like a life that chooses one path over another… like giving up parties and hanging out with friends and generally ignoring studies… the student that puts the nose to the grindstone and perseveres, the degree they earn puts them on a different path. One may have led to poverty, addiction, jail time, even death. The other to a comfortable and secure life.

    The problem is, we cant’ see the path we didn’t take.

    The same is true for armed conflict. Occasionally we can see the difference between giving up and staying the course. Korea is one such laboratory. In this case, we have N. and S. Korea. The difference is literally black and white. Satellite pictures of Korea at night show a brilliantly lit S. Korea, and a pitch black N. Korea, all except for the capitol, where, surprise, the dictator lives. The North has astounding brutality… slave labor and concentration camps, state murder and mass graves… The people experience regular famine, and their lives are dictated by the state that rules through fear.

    The South, by any objective measure, is a paradise by comparison.

    This is a result of American resolve. Instead of an entire nation plunged into darkness, resolve proves the difference.

    America stayed in Japan and Germany, with 10s of thousands of troops each. We *never* left… and those are two tremendous success stories… with two formerly hostile nations, now our allies. The nations are prosperous.

    On the other hand, when we cut and run, we can see the result. All that was spent in Iraq, will show no result. 100% waste, unlike Japan, Germany, and S. Korea.

    This is not to advocate policing the world. That is a different issue (and i am sure we should not), but it is to say, that resolve is the only possible path to success in life, and that quitting is a guarantee of failure.

    We will never know what Iraq COULD have been, had we done something different. It could have been the difference between N and S Korea.

  2. says

    Hasn’t anyone in government read a goddamned history book? Eleven years ago most of us knew this was Vietnam all over again.

    And no one seems to have realized that people since Alexander the Great have been trying to “civilize” Afghanistan with no success. More recently, of course, there are the Brits followed by the Soviets.

    Support our troops. Bring them home.

      • Ryder says

        That’s actually a very, very good idea… to the point that really, we shouldn’t leave it to them to “figure out” how to do it. If we could figure out a way to do it, then we should.

        In fact, shouldn’t we be ready to be sure that the peaceful enjoy a clear path to wealth?

        Of course, the flip side of this is to be sure that the violent pay a price… but then we are back at it… Iraq was an aggressor against Kuwait… so we make them pay a price… and there you go, we’re back at war.

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