As I watch events unfolding in Iraq over the last weeks, I find myself wondering if Iraq War veterans are feeling the way I felt in March and April of 1975 when the fiction that was South Vietnam collapsed like a house of cards. Eight years earlier, I had arrived in Vietnam as an 18-year-old Marine, convinced of the rightness of our cause, and eager to save the Vietnamese from the scourge of communism.
I left Vietnam thirteen months later, wounded in body and spirit, struggling to process the reality that our Saigon allies were corrupt and incompetent, their soldiers largely unwilling or unable to fight, while my Viet Cong enemies were dedicated and relentless.
When, seven years after my return, the entire edifice crumbled in a matter of weeks, even after more than twenty years of US support and a decade of massive US military effort, I was neither surprised nor angry nor jubilant. I just felt empty. Utterly empty. Fifty-eight thousand dead Americans, some of them my friends. Millions of Vietnamese and Laotians and Cambodians. And for what?
Years later, Dean Rusk blamed our defeat on the failure of the American people to have the will to soldier on to victory. Peter Braestrep blamed it on the liberal media who, he argued in his book The Big Story, made the US victory at Tet 1968 look like a US defeat. The redoubtable Col. Harry Summers, Jr. (Ret.) argued that we never lost a single battle. Others blamed the antiwar movement or the meddling politicians who made the military “fight with one hand tied behind its back.”
It never seems to have occurred to any of these very bright and powerful people that Vietnam was not and never had been ours to win or lose. It never occurred to them that Vietnamese dedication, motivation, and determination—an ancient proclivity to resist the presence of armed foreigners in their midst—might have had something to do with the US defeat. One might reasonably argue: not something, but everything.
Now, once again, we are witnessing the incompetence, corruption, and inability of a government we created and have supported for over a decade. And once again, according to a June 14, 2014, op-ed piece in the Washington Post written by a prominent counterinsurgency expert, “by declining to provide a long-term security assistance force to an Iraq not yet able to handle the fight itself, we pulled defeat from the jaws of victory.”
He goes on to argue, “We are reaping the instability and increased threat to U.S. interests that we [emphasis in the original] have sown through the failure of our endgame in Iraq . . . There is a clear lesson here for those contemplating a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.”
It does not seem to occur to him or those who agree with him, as it did not occur to the politicians and generals who created and persisted in the disaster that was the Vietnam War, that Iraq was never ours to win or lose. Just as we could not train our Saigon allies to become self-sufficient in spite of massive US aid and intervention, now we seem to have failed to create a viable and self-sufficient government in Baghdad—and it’s all our fault because we pulled out too soon instead of having the moxie to stay the course.
It has nothing to do, according to this point of view, with the motivation, composition, determination (or lack of determination) of our allies and their opponents; it is all about us: US. U.S.
The Iraq War is not, of course, the Vietnam War. The differences are myriad. But there are two similarities, and these two trump all the differences: 1) in each case, US policymakers tasked the military with achieving goals that were and are unattainable by force of arms; and 2) when you send scared and heavily armed kids into a hostile environment they have no hope of understanding or navigating, nothing good will result.
Oh, yes, there is one more similarity, and that is the arrogance of bright and powerful people who persist in imagining that American military might can accomplish whatever they desire, and in blaming their failures on anything and anyone but their own ignorance.
W. D. Ehrhart holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wales at Swansea, and teaches at the Haverford School in suburban Philadelphia. He has written poetry, essays and books like Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir. He is the subject of a recent critical anthology called The Last Time I Dreamed About the War: The Life and Writing of W. D. Ehrhart (McFarland 2014).