GOOD to see the Times springing for a real retired Looey Bird--they really should save Brooks for the post-victory opening of Kabul's first Olive Garden--and it's always interesting to catch up with the No, Here's The Real Story About Vietnam, (And This Time We Mean It!) brigades.
The first lesson of Vietnam, apparently, is that the people who use it as a cautionary tale of US military hubris and unexpected defeat are uninformed, hippie peacenik Fifth Columnists, but those who use it as a example of the incontrovertible advantages to be conferred on whatever quagmire we've managed to step in this time by one more troop escalation--as demonstrated by the fact that, after 1967, we really won in Vietnam--are military realists.
(A man after my own heart, Sorley's piece was bullet-pointed, at least in print--online this comes off as a series of Bauhaus printer's ornaments, for some reason--so if you detect an unexpected tenderheartedness to our vivisection, that's the reason.)
Vietnam is particularly tricky. While avoiding the missteps made there is of course a priority...
Not so much, though, as announcing that avoiding the "missteps" is a priority.
Y'know, Colonel, my memory ain't that great, but I really can't recall much support for the idea circa October, 2001. In fact the way I remember it, anybody so much as mentioned "the V word" or "the Q word" was an uninformed, hippie peacenik Fifth Columnist.
few seem aware of the many successful changes in strategy undertaken in the later years of the conflict.
Yes, in order to fully appreciate the lessons of the Vietnam war, we have to go all the way back to before Nixon was running it. Before we found the winning strategy, in other words.
The credit for those accomplishments goes in large part to three men: Ellsworth Bunker, who became the American ambassador to South Vietnam in 1967; William Colby, the C.I.A. officer in charge of rural “pacification” efforts; and Gen. Creighton Abrams, who became the top American commander there in 1968.
Each of whom, in his own way, had been responsible for implementing and/or prolonging the previous disasters. Colby had been spooking around the place since 1959. Abrams was Westmoreland's deputy, and far from implementing "clear and hold", continued Westy's war of attrition but without the incontinent troop escalation and unquestioned body counts. Hamburger Hill is one of Abrams' credits--that's late spring 1969, Colonel--and it's the political fallout from continued meat grinding, not Abrams' military insight, which accelerated the process of troop withdrawal and necessitated a change in tactics.
Ellsworth Bunker was an interesting man, but by the time he came to Vietnam, in his early 70s, was far too willing to see it as another Caribbean Problem--just spread the graft around among thuggish dictators friendly to "our" side, while keeping them there at the business end of overwhelming US military force--and much more supportive of Westmoreland than was Henry Cabot Lodge, the previous Yankee Brahmin in the post.
• Fight one war: Abrams, Bunker and Colby agreed that the war would be fought — and won or lost — in the villages….
In Afghanistan, it is vital that American and NATO troops get out of their protected bases to work alongside Afghan forces and build trust with civilians. In some ways this may be trickier than in Vietnam, as our troops will have to navigate the tribal and ethnic rivalries that have long divided Afghan society.
A problem hardly worth mentioning, since the pacific navigation of tricky questions of ethnic diversity is practically America's middle name. Hell, we even taught the guy who got us into all this the difference between Sunni and Shi'a. Eventually.
• Rethink combat operations…
In Afghanistan, combat does little good unless allied or Afghan forces remain behind to keep the Taliban from simply moving back in.
Would now be a good time to ask what, exactly, this got us in Vietnam? And whether the drawbacks to waiting eight years, until our attempts to force our will via superior bomb load have failed disastrously and ten times over, are not part of the lesson as well?
• Restrain the use of force…
Allied forces in Afghanistan may have to accept increased risks to themselves as the price of protecting the population. There have been some grumblings that they are hampered by the rules of engagement, and perhaps in platoon-level operations that it true. But Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, is right that Western forces have to cut down on civilian deaths caused by air power and reckless use of force.
Sure. It's remarkable how forgiving native populations can be when you make a good faith effort to reduce the percentage you're killing indiscriminately.
• Create an effective central government: As Nguyen Van Thieu, who became South Vietnam’s president in 1967, gained experience and influence, senior Americans came to regard him as the “No. 1 pacification officer.”
And not just "A political grifter who'd've made an unholy three-headed combination of Jack Abramoff, Rod Blagojevitch, and Randy Cunningham blush."
He traveled extensively, promoting and evaluating local programs. And by 1972 his “Land to the Tiller” initiative had achieved genuine land reform, distributing two and a half million acres of land to nearly 400,000 farmers.
Giving many of them, in other words, what their parents might have gotten in 1956 if the United States hadn't blocked free elections in order to preserve the prerogatives of the colonial mandarins who ruled them.
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has no signature triumph like Land to the Tiller, nor has he made many efforts to reach out to average Afghans. Perhaps Washington should make some of its support to his government contingent on anticorruption efforts and delivering real services to his people.
Okay, but I thought we were learning the lessons of Vietnam here. The only thing that ended corruption in the South Vietnamese government was its dissolution.
• Support local governments…
Given the diversified population of Afghanistan there has been too much emphasis on central government — if the Karzai government lags in giving money and supplies to local and tribal leaders, the United States should consider doling out more aid directly to them.
Okay, look: before we flip over the next few cards and get to the reeking meat pile that's really at the center of the argument, let's stop and ask ourselves how we managed, yet fucking again, to wind up as all three props under yet another corrupt tin-horn dictator pretending to be a democrat. It's not from stupidity. It's not from refusing to learn the lessons of Vietnam, although we've certainly done our best to deny them. It's because we don't give a flying fuck for anyone who won't treat our tiniest whim as royal decree, unless they're too big for us to fuck with within the necessary tolerances for selling the project as "painless", and keeping most American's focus on prime-time television offerings.
Had we simply respected international law at the outset--sure, sure, Afghanistan was governed by a gang of sexually-degenerate religious thugs, but that doesn't stop us doing business with Texas--we might have gotten what we supposedly wanted, the non-Afghans who were responsible for 9/11. Maybe not, but we didn't get 'em in the event, anyway, and we were more than satisfied to torture whomever did got caught in our nets. Striking while the blood was up wasn't just the political calculation of the moment, it was also the result of thirty years of obfuscating the lessons of Vietnam, of maintaining the fiction that we didn't really lose, that we were too powerful to ever really lose, provided we stuck with the program come hell, high water, or public sentiment. There are the added subtexts: the Right's convenient World Government fantasies, which precluded reasoned diplomacy; Bush's Daddy Issues in Iraq, which had to be addressed on the timetable already established for maximum effect on 2004; and the whole reshaping the Middle East as the Kingdom of Israel II business. If you wanna explain why we should be studying the lessons of Vietnam now (even if they are your hand-picked lessons, and, well, somewhat divorced from the actual results), you might start by explaining why it should have taken eight years, just like it did in Nam.
• Control the borders: In South Vietnam, allied forces were never able to seal off borders with Cambodia, Laos or North Vietnam. The self-imposed prohibitions against going outside South Vietnam with ground forces allowed the enemy to use border areas for training, supply routes and sanctuary.
Jeez, what a surprise. The itch no crypto-colonialist can avoid scratching. Those self-imposed "prohibitions" also kept the Chinese as more-or-less disinterested observers, rather than nuclear-armed giant with a half-million Americans on its doorstep. Call it a lesson learned in Korea, if you'd like. And it's not like it stopped Nixon from extending the war into Cambodia or Laos now, is it?
Similarly, the Taliban uses the Pakistan border as its own barrier, and American drone attacks can do only so much. Either Washington must find a way to get the Pakistanis to step up the fight against the terrorists, or consider operations across the border.
Okay, sure, there's no possible downside whatsoever anyone could see from this. But what, exactly, are we doing this for, Colonel?
Maintain political support at home: All that was accomplished on the battlefield in the latter years of Vietnam was lost when Congress, having tired of the whole endeavor, drastically cut support for South Vietnam. Neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon was able to rally public and press support for the war.
President Obama has said that Afghanistan is a war of necessity. If so, he must put his political capital behind it. As he and his advisers plan the new course for the war, he must also come up with a new approach for selling it to Congress and the American people.
Hey, feel free to think up an example or two, Colonel, in case the New York Times grants you a national stage or somethin'.
And look: how come nobody ever asks about the lessons of "maintaining political support"? It was maintained then with lies, deception, and political divisiveness. It's maintained now with lies, deception, political divisiveness, and a refusal to call on the public to sacrifice so much as a toenail clipping in its furtherance, at least overtly. What are the lessons of that, Colonel? What are the lessons of teaching that to another generation? While handing them the bill? And that's on top of fracturing our manpower and materiel for a generation, just like we did in Southeast Asia, while we were learning on the job.