Iraq and Vietnam

March 20th, 2013

By Jan Barry

m_113Nearly 6 years ago, I shared these thoughts as part of a panel discussion at The New School university in New York City, on May 10, 2007… Much of it still applies as Americans mark the 10th anniversary of invading Iraq.

They are two different countries in different parts of the world. What unites Iraq and Vietnam are American attitudes and actions. After supporting the disastrous military campaign in Vietnam, a majority of Americans did the same thing all over again and supported invading Iraq. Indeed, the war in Iraq was a continuation of the bitter battles here at home over Vietnam.

As my friend, and fellow Vietnam vet, Ken Campbell, wryly notes in his new book—A Tale of Two Quagmires: Iraq, Vietnam, and the Hard Lessons of War—“Some have said we failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam. This is not quite true. The United States did, in fact, learn lessons from Vietnam. The problem is we learned too many lessons, and they frequently contradict each other.”

Perhaps the most disturbing lesson of all is that Americans are addicted to war. Even in the current climate of public dismay over what’s happening in Iraq, there is no civic groundswell to wage a diplomatic campaign to resolve issues that inflame the Middle East. Despite the horrendous carnage in Vietnam and its bloody sequel in Iraq, Americans are still primed to wage war against somebody. So much so, that an unusual coalition of retired generals, admirals and ambassadors has felt compelled to issue public warnings about the consequences of military action against Iran.

Is anybody listening to these voices of experience? Previously, a number of high ranking retired military leaders, vowing to never repeat their experience in Vietnam, publicly warned against invading Iraq—and were ignored by Congress, the Bush administration, the news media and the American people.

And now some of the fiercest critics of the war in Iraq are soldiers who fought there.

“Americans generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq,” a two-tour veteran of Iraq, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, recently wrote in the Armed Forces Journal. “No one leader, civilian or military, caused failure in Vietnam or Iraq. Different military and civilian leaders in the two conflicts produced similar results,” he concluded in a devastating critique of the war he fought in. His proposed solution: choose better trained military leaders. Other veterans are calling for a reexamination of America’s fixation with finding military solutions to international disputes and ideological differences.

The Vietnam war, as the late great New York Times reporter David Halberstam insightfully noted, was a product of America’s “best and brightest” military and strategic shakers and doers. After Vietnam, the US military reorganized, retrained and redeployed its best units and commanders—and came up with the war in Iraq. Consequently, many veterans of Vietnam and Iraq are seeking a different strategy.

A grassroots perspective that challenged the war policy was drafted by a group of Vietnam veterans who opposed the invasion of Iraq and issued a statement in spring 2003 signed by thousands of veterans, from World War II to the first Gulf War. Based on experience, these veterans said “we do not believe that the American military can or should be used as the police force of the world by any administration, Republican or Democrat. Consequently, we believe that the lives and well being of our nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines should not be squandered or sacrificed for causes other than in the direct defense of our people and nation.”

A year later, as the first wave of invasion troops came home, a new organization was formed—Iraq Veterans Against the War. The group modeled itself on Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The sobering legacy of Vietnam and Iraq, these veterans hope, will be a transformation in America’s involvement in the world, from sending military expeditionary forces blundering blindly into other people’s homelands to true international cooperation and security.

Retired general William Odom, a Vietnam veteran and former head of the National Security Agency, tried to explain this call by veterans and others for a different course of action in a recent radio address:

“The challenge we face today is not how to win in Iraq; it is how to recover from a strategic mistake: invading Iraq in the first place,” Odom said. “The war could never have served American interests. But it has served Iran’s interest by revenging Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in the 1980s and enhancing Iran’s influence within Iraq. It has also served al Qaeda’s interests, providing a much better training ground than did Afghanistan…. We cannot ‘win’ a war that serves our enemies interests and not our own. Thus continuing to pursue the illusion of victory in Iraq makes no sense.…

“No effective new strategy can be devised for the United States until it begins withdrawing its forces from Iraq…. Withdrawal is the pre-condition for winning support from countries in Europe that have stood aside and other major powers including India, China, Japan, Russia. It will also shock and change attitudes in Iran, Syria, and other countries on Iraq’s borders, making them far more likely to take seriously new U.S. approaches, not just to Iraq, but to restoring regional stability and heading off the spreading chaos that our war has caused.”

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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