Saturday, April 30, 2005

Terrible Lessons of the Past

H.D.S. Greenway reflects on the fall of South Vietnam thirty years ago.

He indeed has learned terrible lessons from the past. So terrible are those lessons that he makes terrible conclusions about our current war in Iraq.

His preamble is merely worthless. It is only at the halfway mark that Greenway gets into the idiocy:

Today, 30 years on, we are embarked in another military action. Like Vietnam, the war in Iraq began with a falsehood. The Tonkin Gulf incident, the alleged firing upon American ships, turned out to be as bogus as weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaeda links would be in the present war. And in this war as it was then, there were towns that had to be destroyed in order to save them.

So let's see. First sentence is accurate. But then it goes downhill. Whatever one wants to say about the Tonkin Gulf Incident, there is no question that North Vietnam was carrying out aggression against South Vietnam. The larger truth existed despite the pretext nature of the incident. Was it really bogus in this light? I don't think so.

As for Iraq WMD and ties to al Qaeda, these are not bogus. Saddam did not help with 9-11. But he was dirty with terrorism and there were clearly contacts with bin Laden's group. As for WMD, Saddam used them repeatedly in the 1980s. That was not bogus. And Saddam retained the ability to produce chemical weapons and the resources to pursue bio and nuclear weapons if he could wriggle loose of the scrutiny of the international community.

And basing policy on a quote never verified and then applying it to the most precise war in history that left Iraq virtually untouched by our invasion is just ignorant.

Greenway makes a silly comparison between McNamara and Rumsfeld, as if war is predictable and the advice of opponents of the war was oracle-like. Had we heeded all that advice we'd still be working on that second resolution or stockpiling food and medicine for the refugees and disease that would have been rampant in their view once we invaded. As if war is scripted beforehand and as if we haven't adapted well.

This is the kicker:

Long after the Vietnam War, a former American ambassador to Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, asked some questions that we could be asking ourselves today.

''Was the United States mistaken in its determination to intervene? Was the United States engaged in an imperialist adventure far from our own shores? Or were we defending a small nation, pledged to a democratic government? Did the limitations placed on our use of military force keep us from a swift and decisive victory? Or were we engaged in a war that could not be won even with the most sophisticated and lethal weapons? Were the Vietcong freedom fighters seeking to liberate their country, or were they simply terrorists?"

Let me help Greenway out here.

We were not mistaken to intervene. We bought valuable time for the rest of Southeast Asia to develop to the point where they could resist communist aggression. We put the Soviets on notice that any adventure in Europe would be met with force as it was in South Vietnam. Europe too could draw comfort from our defense of the West in Vietnam, knowing our commitment was good. In the end we went home in defeat, but our delaying action preserved much more in Asia and Europe than most people realize.

There was no imperialism involved. That is just lazy hippy rhetoric. We attempted to defend a nation that while not free was certainly better than the North. Here is a war that had massive numbers of refugees and victors who sent the defeated to concentration camps for "forced reeducation on a crash basis." Much like South Korea and Taiwan evolved to democracies, so too would South Vietnam have done so had we not abandoned them in 1974 and 1975, cutting off all aid after we left.

And yes, the limitations we fought under did hinder our war effort. Yet they were probably unavoidable with China next door. Still, we defeated the Viet Cong insurgency and the Northern-staffed insurgency that followed the communist battlefield debacle of Tet. People too often forget that no ragtag guerrillas marched into Saigon in April 1975 to "liberate" their southern brethren. Northern mechanized divisions marched south to conquer the Republic of Vietnam. There were no flowers greeting these invaders and no happiness about their arrival.

The last question is easiest. While they existed they were terrorists. In the end, they were cast aside by Hanoi which absorbed the south as a conquest.

And if Greenway thinks these questions are some brilliant commentary on our war in Iraq, he needs some remedial history. Truly, he has learned some terrible lessons from the past.

Let us learn that we should not snatch defeat from the mouth of victory. Let us learn that when we turn our backs and walk away, evil people triumph and good people die as victims silently away from our cameras.

And learn that 30 years after we walk away, those people we abandoned will still be mired in poverty and dictatorship. What could South Vietnam be today if we had just helped Saigon defeat the Northern invasion in 1975? Shoot, what might the North be if it had to answer to its own people for a long war that had accomplished nothing?

South Vietnam was snuffed out thirty years ago. And it didn't have to end that way.

UPDATE: This article is a better analysis rather than Greenway's Magical Mystery Tour to his fun decade:

For all the claims of popular support for the Vietcong insurgency, far more South Vietnamese peasants fought on the side of Saigon than on the side of Hanoi. The Vietcong were basically defeated by the beginning of 1972, which is why the North Vietnamese launched a huge conventional offensive at the end of March that year. During the Easter Offensive of 1972 - at the time the biggest campaign of the war - the South Vietnamese Army was able to hold onto every one of the 44 provincial capitals except Quang Tri, which it regained a few months later. The South Vietnamese relied on American air support during that offensive.

If the United States had provided that level of support in 1975, when South Vietnam collapsed in the face of another North Vietnamese offensive, the outcome might have been at least the same as in 1972. But intense lobbying of Congress by the antiwar movement, especially in the context of the Watergate scandal, helped to drive cutbacks of American aid in 1974. Combined with the impact of the world oil crisis and inflation of 1973-74, the results were devastating for the south. As the triumphant North Vietnamese commander, Gen. Van Tien Dung, wrote later, President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam was forced to fight "a poor man's war."

The isolated South Vietnam fell to the North--not insurgents--because we abandoned South Vietnam. As Stephen Morris concludes:

In 1974-75, the United States snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Hundreds of thousands of our Vietnamese allies were incarcerated, and more than a million driven into exile. The awesome image of the United States was diminished, and its enemies were thereby emboldened, drawing the United States into new conflicts by proxy in Afghanistan, Africa and Latin America. And the bitterness of so many American war veterans, who saw their sacrifices so casually demeaned and unnecessarily squandered, haunts American society and political life to this day.

We didn't have to lose that war. But we lost our nerve. Yet another reason to despise "peace" protesters. They helped make nearly 60,000 dead Americans appear to be for no reason at all.

I'd like to point out one other bit from Morris that has relevance today:

Evidence from Soviet Communist Party archives suggests that, until 1974, Soviet military intelligence analysts and diplomats never believed that the North Vietnamese would be victorious on the battlefield. Only political and diplomatic efforts could succeed. Moscow thought that the South Vietnamese government was strong enough to defend itself with a continuation of American logistical support. The former Soviet chargé d'affaires in Hanoi during the 1970's told me in Moscow in late 1993 that if one looked at the balance of forces, one could not predict that the South would be defeated.

Those who think that counting weapons means you know the balance of forces fail to consider the morale aspect of war. This is why I'm worried about Taiwan's ability to hold off the Chinese should China invade Taiwan. In 1975, the South Vietnamese had the statistics that proved their superiority but the North had the will to win. The South felt isolated and abandoned and so did not fight. If we can't get into the Taiwan fight fast, the Taiwanese may feel very isolated and alone against 1.3 billion hostile Chinese.

I'm not confident that we can predict a Taiwanese victory.