Friday, October 3, 2014

Iraq and Saigon. Deja vu all over again.

At least at a superficial level, America is once again unerringly being itself.

Our efforts to subdue ISIS through airstrikes masks a disturbing parallel — we have seen this whole drama before.  The year was 1975 and America was just completing an episode eerily similar this one. 

Up until that year, we maintained the fiction that the puppet regime in Saigon still had validity. Having supported it economically and militarily for over a decade, perhaps we didn't have any other option than to believe it. Meanwhile, a foe that earlier had vexed U.S. forces in the field with its military and political acumen finally demonstrated how much stronger it was than our allies, the South Vietnamese. The policy of Vietnamization, encouraging the South to take over the fighting duties from the Americans with the aid of U.S. military and financial support, proved itself to be nothing but a fig leaf. As soon as American forces ceased combat operations, southern forces weakened. When the enemy finally closed in on their capital, the South crumbled more quickly than anyone predicted. The U.S. was left to fly choppers off the embassy roof evacuating only those of our allies lucky enough to punch their way onto a departing craft.

Well, we’ve been in Iraq over a decade now. We destroyed the country that had existed when we arrived.  In the process, we undermined the social, political, economic and military structure that had been in place, first with a war and then with a series of failed policies of peace. We trained and armed a reconstituted national army and security forces, pouring in huge amounts of American man-hours and dollars and expensive equipment. We supported local leaders who lacked the support of their populace. In the end, everything we put in place was no match for a foe who showed greater skill and determination at the moment it counts, defeating our allies handily and capturing plenty of our sophisticated weaponry in the process. We are left trying to shape the battlefield and the negotiating table through the one tool we alone have, air power.

If Vietnam and Iraq sound painfully familiar, it is because they are. Somehow, we Americans are always willing, and apparently always able, to convince ourselves that American largesse will simply overwhelm forces arrayed against us.  Because we can bring more to the fight, we will eventually win, so the thinking goes. This has proved not to be the case in every single conflict we've engaged in since 1945 (Grenada is a fair exception), and it is perhaps time that we reevaluate our assumptions.  

The one consolation in all of this is to remember that 1975 was a dangerous year too. Mutually assured destruction was an active part of the political vocabulary then, and nobody mistook Vietnam for anything but a proxy war between bigger players. We, by which I mean the world, survived that time, and we will survive this one too.