Recently, President Obama stated there were many differences between our actions in Afghanistan and those in Viet Nam. And no wonder – the Viet Nam war was so damaging to our country, so divisive for our society, and so destructive to our deficits that every one who supports ratcheting up our efforts in Afghanistan wants to stay away from that comparison like the plague. That is a futile effort, because in virtually every way, Afghanistan is Viet Nam! Let us count the ways.
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Viet Nam had a corrupt government that lacked broad based public support. Ngo Dinh Diem was named premier of South Vietnam in 1954 by former emperor and Head of State Bao Dai. He was fervently anti-communist and was “untainted” by any connection to the French. He was one of the few prominent Vietnamese nationalists who could claim both attributes. Historian Luu Doan Huynh notes, however, that “Diem represented narrow and extremist nationalism coupled with autocracy and nepotism“. Additionally, the notorious Binh Xuyen organized crime group was allied with members of the administration, the secret police and some military elements. Conversely, Karzai has almost the same issues. Nepotism, corruption, and lack of broad based national support. Indeed, within the past week it was announced that about $10 million per DAY leaves Afghanistan in the form of corrupt booty. Diem-Karzai, two peas in a pod.
I first joined the anti war movement when Kennedy jumped our “advisors” in Viet Nam from about 500 t0 16,000 – but little did we know, the worst was yet to come. These military “actions” seem to have a life of their own. Fast forward a couple of years. By 1968 we had 535,000 troops there. It was always the same dynamic: “victory is just around the corner…only a small number of troops need to be added…we can’t quit now”. Heard that before?
Why the escalation? Mostly it was the Generals. In this case, I submit McChrystal is Westmoreland. For those of you too young to know William Westmoreland was integral to Viet Nam operations – especially the massive addition of military. He regularly urged Johnson for more troops, at one point stating: “It is evident to me that he (the enemy) believes our Achilles heel is our resolve … Your continued strong support is vital to the success of our mission … Backed at home by resolve, confidence, patience, determination and continued support, we will prevail in Vietnam over the Communist aggressor!” Why is this similar to Afghanistan? Because the business of Generals is war! The business of the president is geo-political, and should be greater and wider. When conservatives like Cheney ask us to “listen to the Generals”, they are not only doing our country a disservice, but also flaunting the Constitution. As an added irony, neither Bush or Cheney, nor the Neocons, in the cabinet listened when the military objected to the Iraq adventure. At any rate, it is now the General(s) driving the train in Afghanistan – exactly as it was in Viet Nam.
What a joke in both cases, and exactly alike. In Viet Nam, here’s what America lost in terms of casualties:
- 58,209 KIA and other dead
- 303,635 Wounded in Action(including 153,303 who required hospitalization and 150,332 who didn’t)
- 1,948 MIAHYPERLINK \l “cite_note-10”
The next closest country, in terms of casualties, was Australia, with 426 killed in action. A coalition? Not really, about the same as our efforts now in Afghanistan, where we are about to send 30,000 more troops (bringing our total to over 100,000) with our allies reluctantly offering about 7,000 (7%), some with stipulations. Give me a break – in this regard it is Viet Nam all over again.
As an interesting sidebar, another casualty of the war was Lyndon Johnson himself – literally driven from office by a war weary, angry public, despite his many accomplishments domestically. Is anyone listening?
Robert McNamara was Secretary of Defense under Kennedy, and later Johnson. The definition of “winning” in Viet Nam was always elusive – and a basis for the anti-war movement. So McNamara created his own definition: he put in place a statistical strategy for victory in Vietnam. He concluded that there were a limited number of Viet Cong fighters in Vietnam and that a war of attrition would destroy them. He applied metrics (body counts) to determine how close to success his plan was. Similarly, I have listened carefully, I do not have any idea what Obama, and Gates, have as a measure of “winning”? Is it the McNamara plan on attrition of the Taliban? If so, like Viet Nam, we could likely never leave successfully. Bad as they are, the Taliban are indigenous – just as the Viet Cong were. Killing them all is…well you get the idea. The only redeeming quality in this part of the analogy is that in his last years, McNamara issued a mea culpa stating how wrong he was about that whole dubious venture. Are you listening Sec. Gates?
Perhaps the most frightening of the comparisons. Again back to Westmoreland. Westmoreland had little appreciation of the patience of the American people within his time frame to somehow convince Johnson to approve widening the war into Cambodia and Laos, in order to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He was unable to use the absolutist stance, “we can’t win unless we expand the war into Cambodia and Laos” he hoped for. Not satisfied with the responses he got, the United States entered into a secret war in those two countries, including bombing the hell out of them, and frequent incursions. Change “Communists/Cambodia” to “Al Qaeda/Pakistan”, and the analogy is precisely perfect! As always, in these circumstances, it is the civilians who become the victims. Here’s the tally on them:
South Vietnamese civilian dead: 1,581,000
Cambodian civilian dead: ~700,000
North Vietnamese civilian dead: ~2,000,000
Laotian civilian dead: ~50,000
Something more to think about Mr. President.
No good war story is worth reading about without…the THREAT! Now, kindly do not lecture me on my naïveté and inability to understand what is now called “the War on Terror”. I was in the USAF for 3 years…the Reserve for 10 (Captain)…ran my own businesses for 45 years…and am as patriotic and savvy about the dangers we face as anyone. But agreeing we are “threatened” and intelligently defining that “threat” are two different things. And that is where we went awry in both Viet Nam and Afghanistan. In Viet Nam, the threat always was (during the Cold War), if Viet Nam falls, there will be a domino effect, and the entire Far East will become a Communist region. Wrong! Today Viet Nam is a trading partner, and the Far East is no more Communist than Russia or China (both of whom are busy building sub Rosa Capitalism). The threat was an illusion. Similarly, in Afghanistan, the ostensible threat is that it will become a breeding ground and sanctuary for Al Qaeda. As frequently pointed out by folks much more attuned than me, Al Qaeda lives mostly in Pakistan now…it is an international movement which can reside anywhere…there is an estimated few hundred in the border region which will now be chased by 100,000+ troops…and unless we intend to be there forever, the folks who live there – Al Qaeda, Taliban, Karzai, whomever, will be there long after this expensive, wasteful venture is thankfully ended!
Afghanistan is a story we have heard before. It was called Viet Nam, Mr. President. You can try to paint it with a new color, put lipstick on it, rename it whatever you wish, or just deny it. But, as noted above, the similarities are simply too compelling. Will the outcome have all the same negative effects the disaster of Viet Nam held, as previously noted: damaging to our country, divisive for our society, and destructive to our deficits? Personally, Mr. President, I have lived long enough to say, “been there, done that”; and as our former President, G.W. Bush so wisely once said: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.”