Applying the lessons of Vietnam in Afghanistan and Iraq, part 1

In pedagogy, the indicator that a lesson has been learned manifests in changes in actions, not in a high score on a paper test.

Did the United States really learn the lessons of Vietnam?  Can we even say, with assurance, what those lessons are?

Lesson 1:  Support of a corrupt government often leads to disaster.  One  of the continuing problems of U.S. policy in Vietnam was that the South Vietnam governments were usually corrupt.  Citizens knew that.  A people rarely loves a corrupt government, unless the corruption inures to the benefit of the people — a degree of graft may be tolerated, for example, if the garbage is picked up on time and the streets are cleared after snow storms.  People quickly lose patience with corruption that does not benefit them, however, and South Vietnam’s government simply could not get basic services to work well.

One might have hoped the U.S. learned the lesson, especially when Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, recommended to President Ronald Reagan that the U.S. not pledge military support for Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, because of the corruption in the Marcos government.  As a result, the Philippines today has a democratic government, not one that works with great efficiency (which may be a hallmark of true democracy), but a government that the people understand is elected by them.  Similarly, governments of Eastern Bloc nations under communism frequently were corrupt.  The swift changes that occurred after Poland’s defection from communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, led to massive change.  Where the new governments are not corrupt (Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany) or even just less corrupt, popular support is stronger and national recovery is a genuine hope, if not reality.

Of course, the U.S. was burned by this policy in Iran.  When Jimmy Carter’s administration refused to back the increasingly corrupt and unpopular government of the Shah of Iran, revolutionaries found other reasons to lash out at the U.S.  A wise person may contemplate that at least the U.S. has not been involved in a continuing war in Iran since the 1980s.

But the lesson stands.  One would think that the U.S. would make great effort to assure non-corrupt government in Iraq and Afghanistan, and make the strongest possible effort to make clean government manifest to the local population and the world at large. One might be unsure that is happening today.

In Vietnam, communist forces were trained along the model that Mao Zedong had used in China against the Japanese, and then against the Nationalist army:  Train in military methods, and emphasize the political aspects of the war, too.  Mao’s army had songs they were required to memorize that emphasized high moral conduct of the soldier, with verses that encouraged full payment to anyone from whom anything was taken, such as food or shelter.  Such actions would encourage civilians to support the army, Mao correctly hypothesized.  Ho Chi Minh’s forces did not practice the rules perfectly, but, for example, they were successful often in pointing out that the destruction of cropland was not their doing, but was instead the result of U.S. war efforts.  Vietnamese citizens may not have strongly supported Ho’s forces, but neither did they support the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam.  When the reason for the fighting is unclear, fighting often cannot be successful.  Corruption in a government makes reasons to support that government suspect, fogging the reasons to fight for it.

Cleaning up corruption in Iraq’s government should be a very high priority of U.S. policy. 

[This is the first of a series of posts on the Lessons of Vietnam.]

3 Responses to Applying the lessons of Vietnam in Afghanistan and Iraq, part 1

  1. Thomas G. Ballou says:

    You are suprised that our government would support a corrupt government in Iraq? Where have you been the past six years? Corruption, incompentency, lawlessnes, greed, graft and so forth are the hallmarks of the Bush administration and especially their misadventures in Iraq.


  2. Ken Larson says:

    There are good points in your article. I would like to supplement them with some information:

    I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak.

    If you are interested in a view of the inside of the Pentagon procurement process from Vietnam to Iraq please check the posting at my blog entitled, “Odyssey of Armaments”

    The Pentagon is a giant, incredibly complex establishment, budgeted in excess of $500B per year. The Rumsfelds, the Administrations and the Congressmen come and go but the real machinery of policy and procurement keeps grinding away, presenting the politicos who arrive with detail and alternatives slanted to perpetuate itself.

    How can any newcomer, be he a President, a Congressman or even the new Sec. Def.Mr. Gates, understand such complexity, particularly if heretofore he has not had the clearance to get the full details?

    Answer- he can’t. Therefore he accepts the alternatives provided by the career establishment that never goes away and he hopes he makes the right choices. Or he is influenced by a lobbyist or two representing companies in his district or special interest groups.

    From a practical standpoint, policy and war decisions are made far below the levels of the talking heads who take the heat or the credit for the results.

    This situation is unfortunate but it is absolute fact. Take it from one who has been to war and worked in the establishment.

    This giant policy making and war machine will eventually come apart and have to be put back together to operate smaller, leaner and on less fuel. But that won’t happen until it hits a brick wall at high speed.

    We will then have to run a Volkswagen instead of a Caddy and get along somehow. We better start practicing now and get off our high horse. Our golden aura in the world is beginning to dull from arrogance.


  3. elektratig says:

    “Can we even say, with assurance, what those lessons are?” I think the answer to this question is clearly “no.” Historians are only now beginning, I suspect, to dig behind the conventional wisdom about the war. You might take a look at Mark Moyar’s book, Triumph Forsaken.


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