History – the Lessons No one Learns

The Right maintains that President Obama is somehow responsible for the creation of ISIS, that pulling our troops out of Iraq was a mistake. Somehow, we reduced troop strength in the country “too soon”. Ostensibly, the same thing applies to Afghanistan where the Taliban seems to be slowly reasserting itself.

Frankly, this “illogic” completely ignores any of the lessons one might derive from a knowledge of history, a mistake that governments make over and over. Hubris prevents them from learning anything from history. They always seem to assume that they know better, are more competent, stronger, more committed than those that have gone before.

Vietnam presents a perfect lesson that people are ignoring in pursuit of their agendas. Vietnam was a colony of France, known as French Indo-China. The Vietnamese resisted French colonization… the Viet Minh fought them until the beginning of WWII when the Japanese invaded in 1940. So, then, the Vietnamese proceeded to fight the Japanese, many under the impression that their alliance with the Western powers against Japan might result in independence after Japan’s defeat in 1945.

After WWII ended, the colonial powers attempted to maintain their empires, despite the fact that the battle against the Japanese had created resistance movements with nationalist aspirations throughout their empires.
So, with US support, the French battled with the Viet Minh lead by Ho Cho Minh which had turned its organization to fighting for independence against the French once again. A little known fact is that the US actually offered France two nuclear bombs to use against the Viet Minh but, to their credit, they refused the offer.

Vietnam, Dien Bien PhuIn 1954 the French were decisively defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu by General Giap’s Viet Minh forces and Vietnam was “temporarily” partitioned by the Geneva accords. . The war then transitioned into a war of reunification. The Viet Minh transitioned into the Viet Cong in the South.

Vietnam Monk
By Malcolm Browne, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12293356

Supporting a corrupt and unpopular Catholic leader in the overwhelmingly Buddhist South (President Diem), the US is increasingly drawn into the conflict directly. President Kennedy, looking for an “easy” victory to show he was tough on Communism (after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs) commits advisers in increasing numbers. In 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which didn’t really happen,  provided Congress with the excuse to put in combat troops.

By 1968 we have half a million troops in the country.that the war is going well, that victory is just around the corner and the American public is completely unaware of what is really happening in the country. The Viet Cong initiated the Tet Offensive in 1968. They simultaneously mounted offensive actions in every major urban area in Vietnam, their forces actually made it into the American embassy in Saigon and the Ambassador was forced to flee to save himself.

Tet Offensive Saigon 1968

This was certainly not the action of an enemy that was near defeat. The shock waves went through the American public, a serious anti-war movement began to coalesce, Nixon escalated the war, bombed the North, mined Hai Phong Harbor, etc.

As America became increasingly war weary, the new policy became “Vietnamization” where we supposedly would pass the war off to the Vietnamese themselves and we would provide support. As everyone is aware, on April 30th 1975 North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon and the war was over. After winning every major battle we fought in the country for over a decade we lost the war itself.

Why does any of this matter? What it should do, is point out that in the modern world, invading and occupying other countries has become an untenable strategy. The Vietnamese never stopped resisting French occupation starting in the late 1800’s until 1954. US arrogance caused us to belive that we would be “different” and we stepped right into the same mess that had defeated the French.

Plain of Jars Laos

We dropped more explosives on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia than had been dropped in all of WWII, yet the end result was defeat. One million Vietnamese were killed in the conflict with the US. The vast majority were killed by air strikes, which meant that the US killed most of them. So, in order to gain independence, the Vietnamese fought us for over ten years, and despite losing every major military engagement with the US, sustaining a million killed, and far more wounded, they never gave up, their resolve to expel the foreigners never wavered.

Does any of this sound familiar? Perhaps one might reflect that the Afghans lost a million or so people just fighting the Russians. Despite that fact, they never cease the struggle and Russia with drew in defeat. So, what did we do? We invaded that same country, a country with the nickname “graveyard of empires”. Doesn’t anyone read history any more? The results have been very similar for us. Close to 100,000 Afghan dead in fighting and 350,000 dead as an indirect consequence of the fighting all since 2001. Yet, as we have withdrawn, the opposition simply reasserts itself. It seems that the only way to keep control of the country is to maintain overwhelming force in an occupation role. And the enemy shows no sign of wavering.

Iraq War


Iraq War TankHow about Iraq? We used a bogus red herring, weapons of mass destruction, to justify going in (sound like the Gulf of Tonkin fake incident?) We have now invaded the country twice. We installed an unpopular leader to run the country (like Diem?) that has failed to unify the country. We have killed at least a quarter million Iraqis and with countless more casualties (over a million). The strategy has been to pass the war off to the Iraqis themselves (sound like Vietnamization?) and the results have been just about as bad as in Vietnam. This is all so predictable… yet we fail every time to look at the lessons provided by our past experience.

Captured Iraqis, Iraq War

So, the Right would say that we have pulled out “too soon”, that Obama is responsible for the rise of ISIS. What does “too soon:” mean? This has been the longest war in US history. The narrative that says that we could have prevailed if we had just stayed longer, just committed more troops, just bombed some additional targets is bogus at best. We used everyone of those rationales in Vietnam and they refused to stop fighting. They NEVER gave up despite everything we did. Family in mourningWho thinks that the Afghans, the Iraqis, the Syrians or the Libyans are somehow different? Are they less committed to ridding their countries of foreigners? Do they resent our interference any less? Do we actually think that, after killing hundreds of thousands, supposedly to free them from Saddam, they are going to view us as friends?

The President has made the only decisions he reasonably could make and that has been to withdraw our troops. The governments of both Afghanistan and Iraq both requested that we do so. It’s their country right? These wars are unwinnable in the sense that we can successfully achieve an end that we would like. We destabilized the entire middle east when we invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam. There is simply no way to put the Genie back in the bottle. President Obama is criticized for his “incremental” approach to the conflict.

But it is a fact that there is simply no way we are going to engineer any outcome that is satisfactory to our interests. Pretending that we can apply strategies that have failed in the past in other circumstances to make it all right is delusional. One of the definitions of insanity is to repeat the same thing over and over expecting different results. Right-wing bellicosity may play well with an electorate baffled and frightened by events in the region, but not a one of them has proposed any solutions that are viable and are not just a repeat of disproved and failed strategies of the past.

Iraq War Caulaties
REUTERS/Chris Helgren