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Larry Beinhart's Body Politic 

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There are a lot of people in the military, and in politics too, who think we coulda, shoulda, woulda won in Vietnam. That wouldn’t matter much. The past is a foreign country immune from invasion. But here we are in Afghanistan.

See, US forces won every battle in Vietnam. Every damn battle. Even Tet.

For those of you who don’t remember, in January 1968, when we seemed to be firmly in control of the country, approximately 80,000 Communist troops launched 100 separate attacks at once, including 36 of the 44 provincial capitals.

US and South Vietnamese forces were taken by total surprise.
They responded well and quickly beat the offensive back, except in the city of Hue, where the fighting, depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, went on for a month. But there, too, the Communists fell back.

“You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,” said the American colonel.
The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”
—From On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, by Colonel Harry G. Summers (Summers was on the US negotiating team in Hanoi and was the unnamed American officer in the quoted conversation.)

If it weren’t for the damn media. The damn politicians. The goddamn hippies. Or, to put it a different way, we didn’t have the will to win.

That’s true. But, you have to discuss what that would have entailed. And, even more important, why there was a limit on the price we would pay. As compared to the Vietnamese, who would, and did, pay any price.

In World War II, the cinematic model in our minds for every war we’ve fought since, Americans were willing to pay any price. We were fighting two countries, both bent on world domination. One attacked us and went on to conquer US-controlled territory, the Philippines (an American colony from 1895 to 1935, a “commonwealth” up to the Japanese invasion).

Once we entered the war it seemed clear that it was a death struggle. Nobody was going to say, “We’ve had a couple of battles, it’s a draw, let’s go back to our original places,” or even cede a few territories here and there in return for peace.

So, what was at stake in Vietnam?

Would all of Southeast Asia fall? Like dominoes. Would the balance of power tilt? Would the Reds conquer the world?

None of the above. What was at stake was who got to govern South Vietnam. Some jumped colonel with crooked cronies, with a pro-American, capitalist heart? Or “Uncle” Ho with his Commie friends and Stalinist purges?

We know that for a fact because we—and whichever stooge was in the presidential palace at the end—lost. After we lost, the Communists took over and reunited the country.

And that’s all. Yes, they intervened in Cambodia to put in lid on Pol Pot, a generally humanitarian thing. And had a brief war with China. Which they won.

What would have happened if we’d won? Whatever that means? Not much. We weren’t about to invade North Vietnam and “set them free!”

We would have had to continue to prop up inept and oppressive regimes. We would have had to maintain our programs of assassination and terror.

Yes, there was a thing called the Phoenix Program, designed to sow terror among others who might oppose us by sneaking into villages at night, murdering people, and leaving the bodies to be seen. It was considered very effective. Except for that fact that we lost the war.

That’s if winning meant creating a peace as orderly as San Diego, California. If, instead, the rebellions never went away and the country remained on simmer, we would have had to be an army of occupation.

That would have been a problem. By 1970, the US Armed Forces were in deep trouble:

“By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.”
—Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., “The Collapse Of The Armed Forces,” Armed Forces Journal, June 7, 1971

So, as high as the stakes were said to be, the actual stakes were pretty low. If we’d left eight years earlier, Vietnam would have simply turned into what it is today a lot sooner, the loveliest Communist tourist destination in the world, with the best food.

Do we have the Will to Win in Afghanistan?

Does winning mean it becomes a stable, safe, secure country, suitable for vacation homes, like Costa Rica? Or, in the new scenario, safe for mining engineers and multinationals like Kuwait, and, at the same time, offering equality for women? Either way, committing to, and being successful at, “eliminating terrorist havens.”

According to the highly touted new counterinsurgency doctrine, we can do it! But, according to the military’s own force ratio numbers, it will take at least 250,000 troops, calculating by population, or 500,000, calculating by territory. And a commitment of 10 to 20 years.

That’s presuming we can somehow find Afghan leaders less ostentatiously corrupt, less flagrantly inept, and still pro-American. A very neat trick if you can do it.

It’s a strange war.

The initial goal was to get Osama bin Laden, plus his chief lieutenants. And Mullah Omar for having the chutzpah to harbor him. Then it became something else. No one is quite sure what.

One thing we do know for sure. Osama bin Laden’s goal: to get America stuck in a quagmire in Afghanistan.

  • Larry Beinhart on the war in Afghanistan.


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