Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Is Iraq like Vietnam? Lessons learned.

Colin Powell in VietnamThis is the last of three posts to examine the question "Is Iraq like Vietnam?" The catalyst for the series was the President's recent speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention, where he invoked this historical analogy:
" ... one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens, whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people,' 're-education camps' and 'killing fields'"
He explicitly asserts that the lesson to be learned from Vietnam is that the U.S. withdrawal precipitated a bloodbath, chaos, and massacres for the Vietnamese and Cambodian people, and we should now apply that lesson to Iraq. In the first post of this series we conclude it is the wrong question to ask about future steps in Iraq. The second post questioned the historical basis for the President's claim. In this post we turn back to the question of legacy and "lessons learned."

There were indeed important lessons to be learned from Vietnam. We don't have to speculate about those lessons. There is no more committed "learning organization" than the United States Military. Every battle, every decision in every conflict is parsed and analyzed to extract lessons that can be applied to making our fighting forces more effective. You don't need to read all of the military and historical scholarship to glean the real lessons of Vietnam. That task has already been done.

The lessons of Vietnam were distilled into a doctrine by the Secretary of Defense, refined by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accepted and embraced by the Commander in Chief. The SECDEF was Caspar Weinberger. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was General Colin Powell. The President that accepted and acted on the distilled lessons of Vietnam, was George Bush - George Herbert Walker Bush. Republicans one and all. The distilled wisdom of the United States military on the lessons learned from Vietnam, became known as the Weinberger Doctrine, and the Powell Doctrine.

The Powell doctrine was informed by Colin Powell's experience in two tours of duty in Vietnam. These quotes from his 1995 memoir My American Journey resonate eerily today, and foreshadow the true lessons of Vietnam. From chapters 4,5,6 entitled "It'll take half a million men to succeed", "Coming home", "Back to Vietnam":
The powers that be seemed to believe that by manipulating words, we could change the truth. We had lost touch with reality. We were also deluded by technology. The enemy was primitive, and we were the most technologically advanced nation on earth. It therefore should be no contest.” P145

“In the years between my first and second tours, the logic of Captain Hieu’s explanation - the base is here to protect the airstrip, which is here to supply the base - had not changed, only widened. We’re here because we’re here…
War should be the politics of last resort. And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support; we should mobilize the country’s resources to fulfill that mission and then go in to win. In Vietnam, we had entered into a a halfhearted half-war, with much of the nation opposed or indifferent, while a small fraction carried the burden.”
“I came to reexamine my feeling about the war … We accepted that we had been set to pursue a policy that had become bankrupt. Our political leaders had led us into a war for the one-size-fits-all rationale of anticommunism, which was only a partial fit for in Vietnam, where the war had its own historical roots in nationalism, anticolonialism, and civil strife beyond the east-west conflict. Our senior officers knew the war was going badly. Yet they bowed to groupthink pressure and kept up pretenses … the military failed to talk straight to its political superiors or to it itself. The tip leadership never went to the Secretary of Defense or the President and said, “The war is unwinnable the way we are fighting it.”
Last year DWSUWF was prompted by this book to write General Powell an open letter and ask a few questions:
"General Powell, How different is this Vietnam rationale, than the current rationale for our continued presence in Iraq as articulated by the President – We’re there now because it will be worse if we leave? Does the war in Iraq have the understanding and support of the American people? Have the country’s resources been adequately mobilized? Has anyone been asked to pay the price, beside the military and their families? Have our political leaders led us into a war in Iraq for the one-size-fits-all rationale of anti-terrorism, which is only a partial fit for Iraq?” Is the Iraq war “unwinnable” the way we are fighting it?"
All rhetorical questions, of course. We never received a reply, nor did we expect one, but one must wonder whether the answers could have and should have been found by this administration before we went to war in Iraq, by simply reviewing the distilled lessons of the Vietnam War:

From Wikipedia:
The Powell Doctrine, is a journalist created neologism, named after General Colin Powell in the run up to the 1990-1991 Gulf War. It is based in large part on the Weinberger Doctrine, devised by Caspar Weinberger, former Secretary of Defense and Powell's former boss.

The questions posed by the Powell Doctrine, which should be answered affirmatively before military action, are:

  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?
How difficult would it be to apply these questions to Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afganistan and Iraq?

My assessment (Self imposed rule - no "maybe's" allowed - must be yes or no answers):

Weinberger/Powell Doctrine Vietnam 1968 Gulf War 1990 Afgan. 2002 Iraq 2003 Iraq 2007
1. national security threat? Yes Yes Yes Yes/No* Yes
2. clear attainable objective? No Yes Yes Yes No
3. risks/costs fully analyzed? No Yes Yes No No
4. non-violent policy tried? No No Yes No No
5. plausible exit strategy? No Yes Yes No No
6. consequences considered? No Yes Yes No No
7. American people support? No Yes Yes Yes No
8. wide international support? No Yes Yes No No

* It depends. If Saddam had WMD's, then there was a real security threat. Nevertheless, by mid 2003, the "attainable objectives" of eliminating that threat and effecting regime change had been attained. Unattainable objectives ("Democratize the Middle East") were then added. Reasonable minds can disagree with my evaluation. I'll be happy to defend my choices in the comments.

Heh. Looking over the chart, it is apparent the President is right. Iraq really is like Vietnam. A final exercise is let to the reader - On the topic of lessons learned from Vietnam - Compare and Contrast:

The George Bush speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention on August 22, 2007 quoted at the top of this post, invoking the "legacy of Vietnam" while ignoring the distilled lessons of Vietnam.


The George Bush speaking at the "8th Annual Reunion of Our Victory in the Desert" Feb. 28, 1999:
It was only after all peaceful means failed, he said, "that we had to fight..."I'll never forget," he said, when Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell "came over and said it was time to end the fighting -- mission accomplished. I said, 'Do [Gen. Norman] Schwarzkopf and the commanders agree.'" Bush said that within 30 seconds Powell had Schwarzkopf on the phone assuring him that the mission had been accomplished. "I don't believe in mission creep," he continued. "Had we gone into Baghdad -- we could have done it, you guys could have done it, you could have been there in 48 hours -- and then what? "Which sergeant, which private, whose life would be at stake in perhaps a fruitless hunt in an urban guerilla war to find the most-secure dictator in the world? "Whose life would be on my hands as the commander-in-chief because I, unilaterally, went beyond the international law, went beyond the stated mission, and said we're going to show our macho?" he asked. "We're going into Baghdad. We're going to be an occupying power -- America in an Arab land -- with no allies at our side. It would have been disastrous." Bush said, "We don't gain the size of our victory by how many innocent kids running away -- even though they're bad guys -- that we can slaughter. ... We're American soldiers; we don't do business that way." ... Bush said his memory of Vietnam influenced his thinking during the Gulf War. He recalled that politicians during the Vietnam War kept changing the conditions under which U.S. forces fought -- bombing halts and cease-fires... We didn't want any man or woman put into harm's way," Bush said. "We worked hard to form an international coalition..." - George H.W. Bush

There were indeed lessons to be learned from Vietnam.

One George Bush heeded those lessons.

One did not.

Divided and Balanced.™ Now that is fair.


jsalvati said...

I wonder if GHWB is embarassed of his son.

mw said...

Who knows? Probably not - "blood is thicker..." etc. I recall reading somewhere the GHWB thought that Jeb would be President someday, and never expected GWB to amount to much. Don't remember where I read that. Last year he got emotional and broke up at a podium while speaking at some event about Jeb. I remember thinking at the time that he knew that Jeb's political future had been trashed by his brother's incompetence.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

Isn't it sad when we "Pissants" think more about this stuff than the people leading us?

Bush is a failure, and always was a failure.

He's nothing if not consistent, and I think he has some personality issues.

Possibly anti-social. He definitely fits the model.

mw said...

Thanks for the comment. I find Powell to be the interesting case here. It is mystifying to me how he could live through Vietnam, develop this doctrine, see it succeed under Bush41, argue against the Iraq adventure with Bush43, but at the end of the day, just sign up to be a "part of the team" when he had to know in his heart of hearts that it was a wrong plan.

DLW said...

I'm getting a lot of visitors at A New Kind of Third Party from your blog. Thanks!