By: Terry Garlock
When I hear the first words of a comparison between Iraq and Vietnam, I brace myself for nonsense.
It isnít that there arenít any similarities. The problem is conventional wisdom about Vietnam is usually wrong because the truth has been hidden for decades by a shroud of myths, half-truths and feel-good baloney. In the words of 19th century humorist Samuel Clemmons, "It ainít what you donít know that gets you in trouble . . . itís what you know for sure that just ainít so!"
It is popular to think of Vietnam as an immoral war, a monumental mistake, an unwise intrusion into a civil war, that America had no strategic interest in that region and that Vietnam veterans are either villains or victims. Those things are widely believed, and yet none of them are true.
The truth is Vietnam was an important mission that went terribly wrong, with the real reasons lost in all the political jockeying.
When I hear the argument that the Vietnamese people didnít always want U.S. troops there, or that the South Vietnamese government was corrupt, I roll my eyes because we werenít there for the purity of their government or to please their people. We were there because it was in our strategic interest to stop the spread of Communism.
After WWII the Soviet Union took East Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia, and the chokehold of Communism continued to spread. The free west struggled with the Communists behind the new Iron Curtain in a Cold War for influence throughout the world.
Vietnam had long since been colonized by the French for rubber and other resources. Ho Chi Minh led an underground movement named Viet Minh to eject the foreigners. Before the Viet Minh morphed into a Communist insurgency, the U.S. WWII intelligence agency OSS supported Ho Chi Minh when he was resisting the Japanese occupation at the end of WWII.
After WWII Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel. North Vietnam became a Communist client state of Russia with Ho Chi Minh as leader while South Vietnam became a free client state of the West. The North Vietnamese built an army to invade South Vietnam and join with the Viet Cong guerillas in the south to "reunify" Vietnam by force under Communism.
The folly of "limited war"
By the time Vietnam emerged as a focal point of spreading Communism in the early 1960s, we had recently fought the Chinese Communists to a stalemate in Korea, and had stared down the Soviet Union at the nuclear brink over the Cuban missile crisis.
The U.S. was cautious about a war that could trigger larger hostilities with the Soviets and Chinese, but Communism was threatening to spread throughout Southeast Asia and the U.S. decided to take a stand in Vietnam.
President Johnson imposed a "limited war" strategy in Vietnam to prevent the war from spreading and involving China directly. His concerns were real but the effect of his "limited war" screwed up our mission to a fair-thee-well.
Limited war meant we were not permitted to (openly) cross the borders of Cambodia or Laos, so our enemy built their sanctuary, training facilities, supply routes (the Ho Chi Minh Trail) and other resources across the border of these countries, which were too weak to resist the use of their territory. Our enemy would strike, then withdraw to their sanctuary and probably laugh at the stupid Americans who stopped at the border.
Limited war meant we had controls, like having to radio higher authority for approval to fire on the enemy unless they fired first. The enemy often escaped while troops waited for multiple levels of approval to engage the enemy.
Bombing targets were controlled in Washington to "avoid provocation" and sometimes selected personally (I kid you not) by President Johnson himself. Sometimes our jet pilots risked their lives to hit the same worthless target again and again while approval to hit more strategic targets was withheld.
Our pilots could not hit an enemy SAM missile site under construction for fear of killing Soviet advisors; they had to wait until the site was operational and firing SAM missiles at them before they could strike.
In naive gestures of good faith Washington halted bombing of North Vietnam now and then to induce peace talks, but our enemy simply used the time to rebuild anti-aircraft defenses.
Vietnam was the first war in which we did not invade to take our enemyís territory to defeat them. Instead, we would protect our enemyís border by forbidding our troops to cross.
Our countryís leadership had not learned the lesson of defining the mission and then turning our military loose to do the job with overwhelming force. These and other constraints in the Vietnam War were a drag on our chances of victory, prolonged the war and arguably got many thousands of Americaís sons killed. Along the way, not one general officer resigned in protest.
Successes not reported
But there were many victories, too. U.S. troops in Vietnam fought with honor and skill and courage; they won every major battle against a very tough enemy.
In 1968 our enemy negotiated a truce for their New Year Tet holiday, then in pre-planned treachery they attacked all over South Vietnam on the holiday. Our counterattacks decimated their forces, and through some very nasty battles our enemy lost 50,000 dead and three times that many wounded. They were on the brink of defeat, but were re-invigorated to rebuild and continue the fight by our anti-war Left and U.S. news media, who reported Tet of 68 as a U.S. military failure.
In 1970 President Nixon ordered a massive incursion into Cambodia against our enemyís sanctuary and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We won a huge military victory and set our enemy back an estimated two years. But the U.S. media didnít report it as a victory; they reported the Cambodian incursion as an unfortunate expansion of the war when hopes of a U.S. pullout were mounting, and riots exploded in protest on U.S. college campuses across the country.
In 1972 our enemyís Easter offensive was a massive invasion into South Vietnam, and by then our "Vietnamization" program put most U.S. troops in advisory and flying roles with South Vietnamese troops doing most of the fighting. The South Vietnamese performed well and repelled the invasion, but you wouldnít find much evidence of that success in U.S. news reports.
And so it went, as we fought in Vietnam with our hands tied, with the truth about our successes hidden from the U.S. public while the anti-war Left and our own media encouraged our enemy. What was reported and televised seemed to emphasize our enemyís accomplishments and U.S. shortcomings, perhaps because the media and the country were weary of war.
The anti-war Left sold the notion that our troops were baby-killers and that U.S. atrocities were widespread and common. It was a fantastic lie, but in 1968, soon after the Tet Offensive, discipline evaporated in Charlie Company, 11th Brigade of the Americal Division, and they murdered 347 civilians, even infants, at a village named My Lai in retribution for the villageís support of the Viet Cong.
In the Tet battle of Hue, our enemy rounded up 3,000 South Vietnamese doctors, nurses, teachers, business owners and other "enemies of the people" on their pre-planned list, executed them and buried them in mass graves. While our enemyís systematic atrocities went unreported in the U.S. media, U.S. atrocities were rare but big news stories. The baby-killer label stuck to millions of U.S. troops who served honorably.
In 1972 the Watergate scandal drained attention and political support away from the war, which was increasingly seen as a lost cause.
Congress withdrew funding for the war and our military left South Vietnam in 1973 with North Vietnamís solemn pledge not to invade the South. In 1975 North Vietnam broke their pledge, invaded South Vietnam in force and quickly took control of the country. Many scrambled to flee South Vietnam, which TV news sometimes portrayed as the U.S. military fleeing our enemy. But our military had actually been gone for two years.
U.S. abandonment of our ally had serious consequences. The world and the mainstream media learned the U.S.A. can be made to fold by bringing war and casualties into U.S. living rooms on TV news. And there were human costs as well.
An estimated 60-70,000 were executed by the Communists. Over 1 million fled to sea in unseaworthy crafts and died by the thousands. The victors bulldozed cemeteries of South Vietnamese war dead, violating deeply held beliefs on ancestors as the core of the family. About 800,000 were interred in brutal re-education camps, where an estimated 100,000 died over two decades of abuse, malnutrition, disease and perhaps the loss of the will to live.
To its everlasting shame, America turned its back while these things happened to our ally.
Myth becomes truth
So how does America rationalize losing a war and abandoning an ally? It was a bad, immoral war, an improper intrusion into a civil war, you see, we should not have intruded into that region, the domino theory was false, we had to withdraw to stop the killing.
By adopting the mantra of the anti-war Left and repeating that message on TV news a few thousand times, history was revised and the myths became accepted as the truth.
Did we achieve anything?
Since we lost Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to Communism, did our part in the Vietnam War really do anything to help stop Communism? Honest people can disagree, but think about this:
Because of the stand the U.S. took in Vietnam, other Southeast Asian countries were encouraged and aided in opposing their own budding Communist insurgencies, which were defeated in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, Philippines and Indonesia.
After the Vietnam War the Soviet Union discovered their own tar-baby in Afghanistan, and later disintegrated when they could not keep pace with western spending on the Cold War arms race.
The spread of Communism stopped. Countless millions became free in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia and over 40 countries that either threw off the yoke of Communist oppression or stopped flirting with Communism.
Only five countries remain Communist today: China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and Laos.
After all these years, even after the fall of Communism, many Vietnam veterans are still angry, but probably not for the reason you would guess. Many are still angry that the truth about them and their war and their brothers who died at their side was never properly told by the mainstream media, and is still shrouded in myths today.
As we compare Iraq to Vietnam, we would do well to look past the myths and get it right.
From a global perspective, Vietnam was a battle we lost but we won the larger war against Communism. For comparison to Iraq, maybe the most alarming parallel is this: the Vietnam War was arguably won on the ground but lost in the media and U.S. Congress.
Vietnam was an important cause that failed, but Iraq is far more important. Whether you approve of or detest how this war started, we are there now and Iraq is the battleground between the civilized world and radical Islam.
While we quibble and bicker over WMD, how to treat prisoners, adequacy of troop levels, body armor and other tidbits, while our politicians use the Iraq War for their own personal advantage, while anti-war actions and our own media encourage the enemy, the larger strategic issue seems to get lost:
Losing in Vietnam hurt, but losing in Iraq would be catastrophic.