Double reverse with a twist: Iraq and Vietnam

Déjà vu all over again.

It happened in Vietnam and it is happening again in Iraq. For a second time.

The Vietnam War should have taught us that a large foreign military force can transform a genuine problem into something worse. Yet we repeated that disastrous error in Iraq in 2003 and risk repeating it again in 2014.

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The United States spends billions of dollars to train and build an army in a foreign land whose culture we do not understand and where few Americans speak the language. We go there with apparently noble intentions: to fight Communism or to bring democracy and a better life to the people.

The United States armed forces leave after years of fighting and dying. A couple of years afterwards, the army that we have supported to the tune of many billions of dollars and years of training collapses in the face of a highly motivated force. An army built more for loyalty to the nation’s leaders than competence collapses, with many units dissolving and leaving their weapons behind.

A government, focused on retaining tight control of the levers of power rather than building a pluralistic society that might have brought strong support, finds itself inadequate to the challenge.

In both wars, the U.S. suffered many thousands of deaths and wounded soldiers. The Iraq War claimed 4,500 American lives and, according to one study, 500,000 Iraqi lives. Linda Bilmes, a Harvard expert in public finance, estimated that the total cost of the Iraq war will be $4 trillion.

The Vietnam War led to the deaths of about 58,000 Americans and 153,000 wounded. The deaths are marked on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. There were an estimated 800,000 – 1.1 million Vietnamese deaths.

The United States ended its military involvement in Vietnam in 1973. Much to the dismay of the American war supporters, later that year Congress passed legislation prohibiting direct or indirect military involvement in Vietnam and cut by half assistance to that country.

In January 1975, the North Vietnamese Army launched an invasion of the South; by April, the South Vietnam Army had collapsed and the remaining Americans and some allies were forced to depart the country from the roof of the American Embassy.

Now it is starting all over again. Slowly, with promises not to get too involved.

In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower first sent American soldiers to train the new Vietnam Army. In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy began a slow buildup, sending 400 additional United States Army Special Forces personnel to South Vietnam to train South Vietnamese soldiers. Things escalated from there.

In 2008, President George W. Bush signed an agreement to withdraw all American forces from Iraq by 2011. Attempts to retain some American military presence after that date floundered due, in major part, to the Iraqi government’s unwillingness to provide immunity to the remaining U.S. soldiers.

A new threat in Iraq called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria launched an attack last month and much of the Iraqi military has fled the battlefield, leaving behind weapons, ammunition, tanks, and other vehicles. The insurgents quickly captured northern Sunni cities of Mosul and Tikrit. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, like Nguyễn Văn Thiệu before him, turns out to be a polarizing leader who failed to share power with major segments of his country.

In June 2014, President Barack Obama announced that 300 personnel would be sent to Iraq, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support, augmented by Apache attack helicopters and drones. A few days later, he announced another 200 personnel were soon to be deployed. There are promises to send many additional Hellfire air-to-surface missiles. The Pentagon press secretary promises there is no mission creep.

Thus it begins anew.

As Pete Seeger sang, “Oh, when will they ever learn?” If Congress fails to learn the lesson of Vietnam and fails to stop the slow descent into war, we will soon find ourselves stuck in another costly conflict, with no easy way out.

Isaacs, senior fellow at Council for a Livable World & Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, served in Vietnam for 13 ½ months in 1970-71 as part of the American pacification program designed to win hearts and minds. He was involved in the 1973 effort to cut off all U.S. military involvement in Indochina.

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