Aug 14, 2021
In Military History
About ten years ago I discussed with friends this question: is the war in Afghanistan more like the Second World War or more like the Vietnam War? Was it the story of heroes rushing into battle to defeat tyranny, or a war started on unsure grounds and lost to a foe more determined to rid itself of foreign interference? At the time, I had no answer. The War in Afghanistan needed an ending before we could know what its story would be. Now, we can see the ending even as it is not yet completely ended. Now, as in the past few years, comparisons have abounded between the policy of letting Afghan forces take over the fight and "Vietnamization." The latter failed so how could we hope the former would be any different? The comparison is apt, but I don't think that means Afghan forces were destined to fail. There are no predetermined outcomes in history. Only when the story is complete do we impose a structure that makes the outcome look inevitable. Some particulars are worth noting in the comparison. As we see news about planned and ongoing evacuations of Americans, diplomatic personnel, and Afghans from Afghanistan, we are reminded of the iconic images of the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Vietnamese lined up to get on the last helicopter on the roof of the US embassy. US Navy ships rescuing Vietnamese on makeshift boats. Sailors pushing South Vietnamese helicopters into the sea after they made it ships, laden with refugees. It's worth noting that while these images represent US failure in Vietnam, the evacuation operation itself was very successful. In fact, it seems like Operation Frequent Wind was better planned than what is happening now. Henry Kissinger briefed President Ford that up to 1.7 million people were identified as potential evacuees, including Vietnamese nationals who worked for the US. Today, it seems like the US struggles to identify & locate Afghans who worked for it. But what does a longer view of US-Vietnam relations reveal about what could come in Afghanistan? Going back a century, the man that would become known as Ho Chi Minh was in Paris during the Versailles peace talks, organizing anti-colonial activity with fellow Vietnamese nationalists. This group saw an ally in the US because President Wilson named national self-determination as a core principle. Ho never received an audience with Wilson or any of the leaders at Versailles. In the Second World War, the American OSS supported and trained the Viet Minh, the communist coalition under Ho, to resist the Japanese occupation of Vietnam. After the war, allying with or otherwise supporting a communist movement seemed impossible for the US. The US ended up funding French attempts to hold on to its colonies in the 1950s and largely taking on the mantle of "Western" presence in Vietnam after the French were defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and largely evacuated. Subsequently, the US supported the repressive regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, The American war expanded and even as military victories racked up, like against the Tet Offensive of 1968, achieving political goals remained out of reach. Debate rages on even a half century later about why that is. Two perhaps related but disturbing trends in explaining American failure in Vietnam are the "stab-in-the-back" myth and what I will call the ROE myth. The "stab-in-the-back" myth posits that US civilian groups caused American failure. This can range from anti-war protestors, student groups, and policy makers; the theory goes that these "fifth columns" were communist sympathizers that are anti-patriotic and turned US public opinion against the war. Variations of this myth go back to Herodotus and the Persian Wars of the 400s BCE. In the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and America, it took on a decidedly anti-Semitic tone. The ROE myth posits that the US could have won if only it used a free-er hand with rules of engagement. The truth is that the US prosecuted a highly lethal war and was far too indiscriminate in its application of firepower. American troops committed war crimes, many of which were actively covered up, and few of which were ever prosecuted. For his role in the My Lai massacre, in which as many as 500 Vietnamese civilians were murdered, Lt. William Calley of the US Army served three years of house arrest. For the entire war, which includes long periods in which the US was not directly involved, upwards of 600,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed. So in 1919 Ho Chi Minh sees America as an ally in ideals. In 1945 he's receiving training, weapons, and financial support from the US. His declaration of Vietnamese independence begins with a quote from the American Declaration of Independence. But by 1955 he's fighting the US-supported regime. Between 1955-1975, more than 58,000 Americans will lose their lives in Vietnam. Many more will be injured, and even more Vietnamese than that are killed. What was the goal? What could victory have looked like? A functioning, US-allied regime in South Vietnam that could have fought off the communists? Regardless of what the US thought it wanted out of the blood and treasure it poured into Vietnam, 20 years after the fall of Saigon, the US & Vietnam normalized relations and consulates were opened. Twenty years after that, Vietnam sees the US as a partner in curbing Chinese hegemony in the region. Vacationing to Vietnam is now a fairly normal thing for Americans. And what about those Americans, Vietnamese, and from other nations who never came home? Those who lost limbs and parts (or all) of their souls and minds in the rice patties and jungles and urban fighting? Was their sacrifice worth it? Is it an insult to them to normalize relations, even with a regime like North Vietnam that also committed many atrocities? I suspect we will be asking the same questions about Afghanistan for many years to come.