April 30, 1975. In my 4th year of teaching in the inner city. Saigon Falls. Four of my friends from high school died in the rice paddies there. Why?
The near-collapse of the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army, the falling of one town after another in the North and the possibility of an ISIS takeover of Baghdad is a deja vu moment.
In both Vietnam and Iraq
– The United States fought a long and costly counterinsurgency campaigns. The loss of lives, and the lives broken by two wars are enormous. This includes the military on all sides, and huge civilian populations. Hundreds of billions of dollars were expended in the war effort with a commitment to the care of veterans making the real price tag trillions.- The Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) was defeated by a well-coordinated conventional invasion from the North after the United States had cut off support, but here the similarities begin to fall apart. The decision of the government of Nuri al-Maliki not to accept the common conditions in a Status of Forces Agreement cut him off from direct U.S. support.
– North Vietnam continued to be support by the USSR and seized U.S. equipment as its army swept across the DMZ. For the Sunni forces now threatening Baghdad it is the wealth of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia AND the capture of U.S. arms that provides.
– In the aftermath of the Paris Peace agreements that Nixon and Kissinger said provided the U.S. with honor, the political situation in South Vietnam fell apart as coalitions quickly collapsed and corrupt, ineffective and ideologically isolated leader proved incapable of standing against the North. Sounds familiar.
– In the last days of the Fall of South Vietnam, the U.S. used its embassy as an escape route for thousands who we “owed something to” and left behind 10’s of thousands whose alliance with the U.S. would cost them dearly in the years to come. Well, at least this time we have an embassy that could be the exit point for 10’s of thousands….yeah, it is that big.
NOW- IT IS NOT OVER YET,….
troops are abandoning their posts but there are signs that the Shiites are regrouping, large amounts of donated U.S. equipment are being destroyed or captured but there is more where that came from, and the invading “army” is a lightly armed although deeply motivated religious extremists who may face a similarly motivated force, the Shiite Militia Units.
There is a lot at stake for the Shiites and they know it. A small minority in the Islamic World only the Iranians are “natural allies”- and that is disturbing in its own way. Still just based on what we have seen in the last two weeks, if ISIS succeeds, there will be many executions, imprisonments and so forth – that will take place largely out of the public eye, and while Americans tune into their favorite reality shows, bodies will be filling ditches in Iraq and Shia faith in Iraq will be crushed (as Christian and Jewish groups already have been).
There are lessons from the Fall of Saigon that have been applied since then at times and ignored at times. There will be lessons from the crisis in Iraq
1) While it can be well argued that the War in Iraq was a trumped up neo-con conspiracy to create a Islamic Client State in Mideast sitting on an ocean of oil, the fact is that this hardly matters in the face of current events. Just as it hardly mattered that Vietnam was based on the flawed domino theory and the concept of the client state.If Iraq falls it will be seen worldwide as a U.S. defeat, despite the absence of American forces and despite the diplomatic logjams that caused the United States to withdraw fully by 2011.
The impact of that defeat on Afghanistan and U.S. influence in other conflict zones will be significant. As we learned after Vietnam, losing a war is no small matter; the Cambodian genocide, and state of nearly constant South East Asia civil war and interstate hostility followed the fall of Saigon, and an emboldened Soviet Union, sensing American weakness, sent Warsaw Pact troops into the Western Hemisphere and ultimately invaded Afghanistan.
Second, there’s not much the United States can do at this point. If the Iraqis themselves won’t defend their country, then no one else can. The same is true anywhere the United States has tried to stand up local armies. Political will has to start with the locals.
Despite the common narrative there have been some successes in building foreign armies with politically effective governments: in Colombia, in El Salvador and in the counterbalancing forces in the former Yugoslavia, in Germany after WWII and the South Korean armed forces. No others come to mind.
Finally, in both Vietnam and Iraq the advise-and-assist mission was given only lip service at critical times. Generally American defense policies do not give priority to retraining and standing up local security forces. One major reason for this is that time and again WE do not speak THEIR language. This does not just refer to linguistics, but to cultural understanding and context. Without truly embedded U.S. personnel and a real alliance with local peoples any aftermath is likely to be tragic.
The political side that accompanies the rebuilding of a nation’s armed forces is even more complex. The U.S. and it allies “installed” governments in Germany, Japan, and S. Korea that took root. No other example comes to mind. In much of the world it is ethnic, religious and tribal roots that drive governance and we do not understand this.