Lessons (of Vietnam)? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Lessons!

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The Vietnam War ended in the spring of my senior year in college, but most of us paid little attention to the tanks that rolled into Saigon or the last helicopter taking off from the U.S. Embassy there. For the most part, our war had ended two years earlier at the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, and the abolition of the draft three months later, when those draft cards we carried in our wallets were to become historical oddities.

After that, the public debate was on about the "lessons of Vietnam." When President Ronald Reagan mentioned the "lessons" in his 1981 interview with Walter Cronkite, the outgoing CBS News anchorman rhetorically asked Reagan, "What were the lessons of Vietnam?" From what I remember, the president repeated the "conservative" canard of clear mission, political will, and the belief in the rightness of our "cause."

A decade later, as U.S. troops were triumphantly marching into Kuwait City, having routed the "vaunted" Republican Guard of Iraq, President George H.W. Bush crowed that this country somehow had expunged the "ghosts of Vietnam." Today, as it is painfully obvious that while the Iraqi insurgents are not wearing black pajamas, they have been as effective in blocking U.S. military initiatives as the Viet Cong and their North Vietnam allies were in demoralizing the Yankee invaders two generations ago. Indeed, there are lessons of Vietnam to be learned, and we will learn them — yet, not learn them — again and again.

If Karl Marx was right and history repeats itself as farce, then we are seeing farce come to life as the bogus mission of the political classes unravels. What makes the whole thing even worse is that those who made the decision to invade Iraq, and those who keep this military fiasco going are like the bandits in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, who arrogantly declare: "Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges." Today’s neocons of the Bush White House tell us that they don’t need no stinkin’ lessons of Vietnam. Unfortunately, they don’t even know what those lessons are.

While readers will disagree on the "real" lessons of Vietnam, I would like to cite what I believe are some lessons that we should have learned from that fiasco there many decades ago — and what we should have learned from all of our military escapades, and especially those invasions since 1898.

Lesson #1: An occupation is not a "liberation."

In 1944, U.S., British and "Free French" troops "liberated" Paris from its German occupiers. The French did not want the Germans to be there, and by the time the Third Reich forces had pulled out, most of the Germans did not want to be there, either. However, U.S. forces did not remain in France (at least in large, formalized bases, as was the case elsewhere in Europe), and to this day, many survivors of the German occupation have at least some appreciation toward U.S. troops. People in lands that U.S. troops have occupied since the end of World War II 60 years ago, however, do not have the same gratitude towards Americans, and it is no mystery why this is so.

Contrast the French example with the escapades of U.S. forces elsewhere, beginning with the Philippine insurgency in the early 1900s. Our "distorians" tell us that the USA "liberated" the Philippines from Spain in 1898; Filipinos see things quite differently. We are the people who drove out a set of occupiers and became the new occupiers, and to this day, the U.S. Government meddles in Filipino affairs.

In 1950, U.S. forces "liberated" what is now South Korea from the North Korean communists. However, whatever appreciation the South Koreans might have had for and good will towards the Americans is long gone as the USA continues to keep troops and weapons in the country, ready to renew the conflict, if need be. (However, neoconservative pundits such as Ann Coulter and William Kristol have another "solution" to the Korea problem: just nuke North Korea and be done with it.)

Whatever elation some Iraqis might have felt with the ouster of Saddam Hussein is long gone. The Americans are not liberators; they are not the wonderful people who hand out chocolate to children. They are invaders and occupiers, and no amount of "democracy" rhetoric is going to change that fact. As witnessed in the latest U.S.-backed Iraqi "constitution," the document that the Bush Administration wants to force on Iraq is not a re-creation of the U.S. Constitution, but rather a modern welfare state contraption. Steven Greenhut was right when he wrote that most modern Americans probably are incapable of envisioning a truly free society.

The original U.S. Constitution (which today is little more than parchment under glass) was created to protect Americans from their government. Iraq’s U.S.-created "constitution" is a document that empowers the government against the rights of the people. And no one from either the Democrats or Republicans in Washington (with the lone exception of Dr. Ron Paul) has made that point. (But, then, Washington is full of people who believe that "rights" are something that the government gives to us.)

Lesson #2: A standing army is no match for determined guerrilla fighters.

I can think of no long-term occupation by the armed forces of any country that successfully defeated a guerrilla insurgency. Moreover, in contrast to what the neoconservatives have been claiming, absolute ruthlessness will not defeat an opposition that refuses to lose. The Soviets were ruthless in their occupation of Afghanistan, and the Afghans did not roll over. The Germans were just as murderous in their occupation on the Balkans, but that did not quell the insurgency against them.

Furthermore, most Americans do not have the stomach to do what the neoconservatives are demanding. The issue is not the lack of "political will;" it is the lack of absolute ruthlessness that still (and I emphasize "still") is not considered acceptable to Americans. (I fear that the basic decency that has characterized American society for more than two centuries is being lost, but for the time being, most Americans do not want to engage in the psychopathic murder that the neocons are telling us is the hallmark of their vaunted "national greatness.")

One of the things that turned many Americans against the Vietnam War was the revelation of the day-to-day cruelties and outright murder being committed by U.S. soldiers, many of whom could never have imagined themselves doing what they had done. Guerrilla wars do this to people, as the occupying soldiers cannot tell the difference between a guerrilla and a civilian; in time, everyone is seen as a guerrilla. The American atrocities in Vietnam did not happen because of lack of training or a short supply of chocolate bars to hand to children, but rather because soldiers realized that they needed to be absolutely ruthless in order to survive.

Charley Reese recently noted that psychopaths are most likely to survive war with their mental faculties intact. While war may dull the conscience, it will not eliminate it from those people who are not psychopaths, which is why a guerrilla war often scars the survivors for life. We know that already is happening to U.S. troops.

Middle Easterners have long had the reputation of hating occupiers, even though they rarely have had success when organized into standing armies. The exploits of T.E. Lawrence in World War I were seen as astonishing because no one believed someone could organize the Arabs in a way that would result in driving out the Turkish occupiers. Thus, when U.S. forces easily crushed the standing Iraqi army twice in less than 15 years, people mistakenly believed that any military operations in that region would be a cakewalk. But just as insurgents drove the Americans out of Lebanon in 1984, the rebels in Iraq will do the same to the U.S. forces. This is inevitable.

Lesson #3: The "sunk costs" argument is not a viable reason for continuing a war.

In recent speeches, President Bush has been reduced to endorsing current military operations in Iraq as a means to "honor" those who have been killed. (Of course, as our troops remain in that country, they will have the opportunity to "honor" even more of their compatriots, who surely will fall to bombs and bullets in the coming months.)

Economists (and especially the Austrians) have long pointed out that all meaningful decisions take in present and future criteria, and cannot be based upon attempts to recover those costs that cannot be recovered. When I was in high school and college, supporters of the Vietnam War were reduced to declaring that we must fight on because we could not permit the fallen U.S. soldiers to have "died in vain." One would have hoped that such a lesson would be remembered. Instead, we have Bush going to that dry well one more time.

The best way to "honor" those who have died in Iraq is for those who made the decision to invade to resign their positions and to apologize to the families of the dead, the nation, to the Iraqis, and to the rest of the world. Instead, we have people scrambling for political cover while they continue to speak of the "heroes" of Iraq, as though they were mere political pawns and not the sons and daughters of real people.

When this military excursion ends — and it will end — people are going to be trotting out the "Lessons of Iraq." Present and future generations will be told that we "lost" Iraq because people listened to the Cindy Sheehans and other "peaceniks" who made the American public "go wobbly" and lose its "political will."

No, we have "lost" Iraq because we never could "win" there in the first place. The political classes might be able to shape the rhetoric of war, but they cannot spin its reality, and reality is here to greet us in all its horror and madness and death.

August 25, 2005

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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