Real Lesson of Vietnam

by Victor Davis Hanson

Tribune Media Services

Under fire, the president addressed the nation Tuesday night to reassure the American people that, for all the depressing news of bombings and death, we are winning the war and a free, democratic Iraq is key to Middle East salvation.

Just recently, Congress grilled administration officials over the costs of the war, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was again asked to resign. Meanwhile, President Bush had assured the visiting Iraqi prime minister that neither a timetable for U.S. withdrawal nor a cutoff of support is planned.

All this near panic arose from continual news of bombings, beheadings and chaos in Iraq. In the roller-coaster opinion polls, the good news of the January elections, Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and an “Arab Spring” of reform is old, replaced by a long, hot summer for Americans in the Sunni Triangle.

The al Qaedists and former Ba’athists anticipate another impending U.S. retreat, like the 1984 flight from Lebanon or the 1993 exit from Somalia after the horrific dragging of American bodies in the streets of Mogadishu. Both pullouts, enshrined in al Qaeda propaganda, contributed to the pre-September 11, 2001, folklore that the United States lacked the stamina to defeat terrorists.

So the media-savvy terrorists have redirected their attacks yet again — back to American troops. Just last week, female Marines, who allay Iraqi unease over the searching of Iraqi women at checkpoints, were blown up aboard an armored truck returning to base from a checkpoint.

In response, the ghost of Vietnam is again being conjured. Given this tendency to compare the two wars, we really should re-examine the horror of Vietnam, specifically its final years.

By 1973, the goal of fashioning a South Korean-like, noncommunist entity in Indochina was supposedly obtained and the war over. The Paris peace agreements recognized two autonomous Vietnamese states. Almost all American prisoners were returned. The last few U.S. ground troops came home.

If the communist North, and its Soviet and Chinese patrons, saw 1973 as a breather rather than a peace, American officials at least promised the South material support and air cover if the communists reinvaded.

They did just that in spring 1975, barreling down Highway 1 with conventional Soviet tanks. Americans apparently did not want another quarter-century commitment to a second Demilitarized Zone to ward off a perpetual communist threat from the north. By 1974, a series of congressional acts radically cut funding of U.S. military support of South Vietnam. The Saigon government abruptly collapsed in April 1975.

More than a million refugees fled the south. Tens of thousands of boat people drowned or starved. Another million were either killed, imprisoned or sent to re-education camps. The Cambodia holocaust followed.

The perception of American weakness prompted communist adventurism from Afghanistan to Central America. Few in the Middle East thought there were any consequences to taking American hostages, or killing American soldiers and diplomats. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein alike little feared “the pitiful, helpless giant” (Richard Nixon’s phrase).

There are lessons here. When the United States has stayed on after fighting dictatorial enemies — admittedly for decades in Italy, Germany, Japan, Korea and the Balkans — progress toward democracy and prosperity ensued. Disengagement from unresolved messy problems — whether from Europe after World War I, Vietnam in 1973, Beirut after the Marine barracks bombings, Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat, or Iraq in 1991 — only left murderous chaos or the “peace” of dictators.

Fighting sometimes intensifies just before the end. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s horrible summer of 1864 almost broke the Union. The surprise of the Bulge cost more American lives than the 1944 drive from the Normandy beaches. Okinawa was not declared secure until a little more than two months before the Japanese surrender. It was the worst-thought-out campaign of the Pacific and cost about 50,000 American casualties.

Sacrifices are judged senseless by factors beyond sheer carnage. While we are, of course, tortured over the American dead of the Civil War, World War I and World War II, we nevertheless find solace that those lost ended slavery, restored the Union, stopped the kaiser, eliminated Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo, and made possible present-day South Korea.

On the other hand, we agonize as often over the much smaller losses of Vietnam, Beirut or Somalia precisely because we are not sure whether they led to any permanent improvement.

Those who evoke Vietnam should think carefully of the entire lesson of that tragedy. We hear daily how we once foolishly got into that chaos but rarely the lessons on how we got out.

This present war is not just about the Sunni Triangle, but whether reformers of the Arab world will step forward to emulate a fragile democratic Iraq that survives the jihadist counterassault. For the last three decades, Middle East autocratic regimes either attacked their neighbors or reached understandings with Islamic terrorists to shift blame for their own failures onto an apparently unconcerned United States.

That deeper pathology was at the root of the September 11, 2001, attacks on America. If not stopped now, it will result in many more attacks to come here at home.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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