Thursday, October 30, 2014

ISIS and Vietnam - Oh no, not this analogy again

ISIS and Vietnam -

Thomas Friedman has drug out the the shopworn American military comparison.  Anything, anywhere, at anytime, we're doing overseas, recalls Vietnam.

No.  It doesn't.

It's really time for this shopworn argument to be put back on the shop, preferably in a used argument shop, behind the styles of the 1970s.  It's tired.  It's worn.  And its usually wrong.

It isn't the case that absolutely everything has a really useful Vietnam War analogy.  And it isn't even really the case that most arguments recalling the war are well grounded in historical sense anyhow.

Friedman's basic argument is that we didn't understand the nature of the conflict on the ground.

It’s a long, complicated story, I know, but a big part of it was failing to understand that the core political drama of Vietnam was an indigenous nationalist struggle against colonial rule — not the embrace of global communism, the interpretation we imposed on it.
The North Vietnamese were both communists and nationalists — and still are. But the key reason we failed in Vietnam was that the communists managed to harness the Vietnamese nationalist narrative much more effectively than our South Vietnamese allies, who were too often seen as corrupt or illegitimate. The North Vietnamese managed to win (with the help of brutal coercion) more Vietnamese support not because most Vietnamese bought into Marx and
Lenin, but because Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades were perceived to be the more authentic nationalists.
That's not completely inaccurate, but it's not completely accurate either.  The North Vietnamese population wasn't solidly communist until it was heavily suppressed following the French defeat in Indochina, after which quite a few North Vietnamese moved to South Vietnam.  Even at that, this is a good argument for the French effort in northern Indochina, but not such a good one for the US war in South Vietnam.  In the South, the war was much more complicated than that.

And its an example of a war having a military result, rather than a political one.  Pundits like to make the argument that Friedman makes here, but the truth of the matter is that the back was broken on the communist effort in South Vietnam by 1968.  The U.S. populace lost faith in the war due tot he desperate last gasp of the Tet Offensive, but militarily, the NVA and the VC had shot their bolt, and they didn't recover for years.  Following Test, the South Vietnamese army actually was able to take over the fight, although it still required air support.  In 1972 it beat back a North Vietnamese invasion, with U.S. air cover.  In 1975 it couldn't beat back a conventional armored invasion, as we refused it air support.

The real lesson there is that the American population is fickle and looses interest in a war that's not won quickly.  Our enemies, on the other hand, have patience.  The enemy we're fighting in Iraq and Syria right now has been, in some ways, waiting since the 5th Century for victory.  They figure that they can out wait us and we'll grow tired and go home.  In Vietnam we did. That's the real less of the Vietnam War.

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