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Battling ISIS and the Six Lessons of Vietnam

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Richard Phillips

For conservative hawks in the United States, a chief outcome of the First Gulf War was that it removed, once and for all, the Vietnam “syndrome” from the American psyche.

Vietnam Lessons for the United States in Iraq

1. Be careful which side you choose.
2. Advisors cannot shape a dedicated fighting force.
3. Bombs don’t work against popular insurgencies.
4. The Generals don’t always get it right.
5. Don’t fight where you have no friends.
6. Doing what you need to do to win means you lose.

From that point forward, the muscular use of the military, for well-targeted purposes, was back “in.”

According to the hawks, the lesson that the United States’ victory against Saddam Hussein taught the nation was that it could win wars. It should therefore not hesitate to use force as an effective policy tool.

And yet, the comparisons between the run-up to America’s defeat in Vietnam and the early stages of conflict in Iraq and Syria are nothing short of eerie.

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The Vietnam War started in 1964. At the time, the United States had a total of 3,000 military advisors on the ground. Their job was to support the corrupt government of South Vietnam, by advising the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

As that nation’s army suffered defeat after defeat and demonstrated a clear lack of fighting will, one insight became increasingly evident: In order to hold the line against communist advances in Southeast Asia, the United States needed to beef up its presence and take the war to the enemy.

Under the pretext of the specious March 1965 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the administration of President Lyndon Johnson started increasing the number of advisors on the ground aggressively and initiatedOperation Rolling Thunder.

Rolling Thunder was originally conceived as an eight-week bombing campaign intended to degrade North Vietnam’s military infrastructure and impress the North with overwhelming American force – Shock and Awe 1.0.

Neither the additional advisors nor Operation Rolling Thunder worked. Just four months after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the United States had 75,000 servicemen on the ground.

On July 28, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson was forced to throw in the towel on troop increases. “I have asked the commanding general what more he needs. He has told me and we will meet his needs,” he said.

By the end of 1967, America had 500.000 troops in theater – half of them in combat roles. By the time the war ended in 1974, 56,000 American servicemen had been killed and hundreds of thousands wounded.

At least a million North Vietnamese had also been killed and the United States was seen by many around the world to have lost its moral compass.

Everything old is new again

Today, the United States supports a regime in Iraq that is suspect. The Bagdad government shares the same partisan and corrupt approach to governance that typified successive Saigon regimes.

The lesson of Vietnam to be learned here: Be careful which side you choose, because your side may seem to be the right side, but it may not be on the same side as all the people it pretends to rule.

By the same token, the United States is advising an Iraqi army that is supposed to prosecute the government’s overall agenda. Just recently, that army “turned tail and ran” once again in the face of the enemy – this time in Ramadi.

The army of Iraq’s Bagdad government has proven as feckless in combat as the ARVN. Of even greater significance, it has shown a penchant for war crimes, as evidenced by the massacre committed following the liberation of Tikrit.

But American Hawks insist that more American advisors are needed to turn it into an effective fighting force.

The lesson of Vietnam to be learned here: Advisors can’t shape a dedicated fighting force. This “advisor” approach failed in Vietnam — and it is failing in Iraq.

In the same vein, Rolling Thunder 3.0 can be observed in full swing in both Iraq and Syria. As in Vietnam, the bombing campaign on ISIS (also known as “Islamic State”) in Iraq is having a negligible effect.

The lesson of Vietnam to be learned here: Bombs don’t work against popular insurgencies.

In United States’ confrontation with ISIS, we rely on input from the military. Hawks insist that President Obama should listen more to his commanders in the field.

Perhaps they forget that President Lyndon Johnson’s unconditional support of the military led us into a ten-year quagmire in Southeast Asia.

The lesson of Vietnam to be learned here: The Generals don’t always get it right.

Reading from the same 1964 playbook

So far, conservative support seems to be coalescing around the “next step.”

Prominent Republican hawks have so far suggested a three part approach: 1) provide arms to U.S. supporters,2) send in more military advisors – 10,000 to be exact, and 3) step up the bombing campaign.

This is precisely what Conservative hawks were demanding in the early stages of the Vietnam War.

All-out war doesn’t happen all at once. It is the end of a process in which history conspires to create ideological conflicts. The different sides in the conflict then portray unconditional arrogance toward each other in pursuit of their ideologies.

Arrogance typifies the attitude of America’s Hawks.

Though the United States is far from all out war with ISIS, the elements for broad conflict are solidly in place.

Conservative hawks, who dominate the field of contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination, are quick to point out the failings of the Obama Administration in its prosecution of the fight against ISIS.

But when it comes to presenting an alternative plan, they all seem to suggest the same core elements. And those core elements read as though they were taken from the exact same playbook that led the United States into the Vietnam quagmire.

No Clear Answers. Only Certain Truths

There are no simple answers to combatting the rise of ISIS. But there are certain truths.

For example, the United States seems to have too few friends in the region. This is true not only in the various regional capitals, but also on the ground. Trusting locals requires a leap of faith and separating friend from foe is often a daunting task.

This was true in Vietnam, too, where a common refrain among American GIs was that it was impossible to trust the locals — rice farmers by day, guerilla warriors by night.

And perhaps this provides another important lesson to be learned from Vietnam: Don’t try to fight a war where friends are hard to come by.

The hawks are right when they say that the United States could have “won” the war in Vietnam.

The United States could have dropped bigger bombs than the one it did drop. It could have bombed North Vietnamese cities and resorted to tactical nuclear weapons. It could have used chemical and biological substances far more deadly than the ones it did use, like Agent Orange.

Americans could have looked the other way and absolved themselves of guilt for killing many more Vietnamese peasants than the more than one million that were killed.

And that provides us with the ultimate lesson of Vietnam: Doing what you need to do to win means you lose.