The lessons of the Vietnam War are engraved on the souls of Americans. Everyone knows that the United States lost because we intervened on the unpopular side of a civil war in South Vietnam, and because we thought our modern army could defeat an irregular band of idealistic guerrilla forces. The turning point came when, just as the Johnson administration was hinting that victory was near, the Communists’ Tet Offensive dashed our hopes to pieces. Thereafter, America turned against the war for good.
In hindsight, however, the evidence tells a different story — a story that is beginning to seem familiar after the failed “Ramadan offensive” in Baghdad last month. Vietnam was not lost to guerrillas — virtually all the guerrilla forces had been eliminated in 1968 after the disastrous failure of the Tet Offensive. South Vietnam was conquered only when North Vietnam sent a 15-division army with 600 tanks across the border. After their victory, the North Vietnamese proudly revealed that they had organized, supplied, and commanded the Viet Cong guerrillas in southern Vietnam from the beginning. So it had never been a civil war within South Vietnam. The new regime went on to kill tens of thousands of South Vietnamese and sent hundreds of thousands more to brutal “reeducation camps.” Nearly 250,000 South Vietnamese took to the open seas in small boats to escape the supposedly more popular victor.
To this day the United States is charged with “invading Cambodia” and “bombing Cambodia” because American forces attacked North Vietnamese troops who were in Cambodia supporting the Communist side in the “civil war” in South Vietnam. The U.S. also tried to protect the Lon Nol government of Cambodia from its Communist Khmer Rouge attackers. The actual invaders of Cambodia were the North Vietnamese.
The most dramatic part of this conflict between memory and evidence is described in the book by award-winning correspondent Peter Braestrup, Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, which shows how the press completely missed the big story of the Communists’ failure and decisive defeat in the Tet offensive.
Today, the American press and most political commentators have missed the failure of Iraq’s enemies in their “Ramadan offensive.” This failure has been chronicled by Iranian correspondent Amir Taheri in the New York Post.
Although the Baathists, jihadists, and Iranian-sponsored militias did succeed in making outsiders believe that they were unstoppable by killing large numbers of Iraqis and U.S. soldiers, they failed to achieve the objectives Taheri reports they had set for themselves:
- To seize territory around Haditha to establish an “Islamic emirate”
- To gain a foothold in Mosul
- To blow up the Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf
- To attack the “green zone” in Baghdad
- To paralyze the Parliament by threatening to kill its members
- To prevent Arab Sunni clerics from traveling to Mecca to sign a concordat with Shiite clerics
- To fulfill the jihadist promise to force the closure of schools, hospitals, and newspapers
- To prevent the forthcoming local elections by destroying voter lists and killing election officials
- To prevent traditional celebrations of Eid-al-Fitr (end of Ramadan)
Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia failed in its attempts:
- To seize control of the city of al-Amarah
- To seize control of the part of the Iranian border where crude oil is smuggled to Iran
- To seize the Interior Ministry and reinstate 1300 members who had been purged
These efforts were all defeated — in most cases with large casualties on both sides — by the Iraqi army as well as by U.S. forces, and, in some cases, with important help from a strong new coalition of Sunni Arab tribes in the Anbar Province who are fighting against the foreign jihadists.
Because there have been few reports on what the enemy tried to do and failed, all Americans see is that Iraqi citizens and U.S. troops are being killed, and that the law and order we’ve been trying to implement must be failing. But when the enemies of the government make a crescendo of efforts to seize territory and to cause chaos, and fail with heavy losses, it is an important victory for us and for the Iraqi government, despite the casualties.
The defeat of the Ramadan offensive does not mean that we have achieved victory in the war. Since our enemies in Iraq are more diffuse than the North Vietnamese were, their failure will not be as decisive as the Communist failure in the Tet offensive. But it does mean that the U.S. and the elected Iraqi government have not been defeated. The outcome will depend on what we and the Iraqis do in the future. If we give up as we did in Vietnam, the Iraqi government will probably not survive, and there may be nearly as many resulting casualties as there were in Cambodia when we left Indo-China.
Although the outcome is still highly uncertain, Saddam is gone and there is a consensual broad-based Iraqi government struggling to establish itself. The Iraqi political class has not achieved a good record for patriotism, competence, or honesty so far, but most of them are still trying to build a united federal Iraq to avoid either going back to the old system of dictatorship and ethnic oppression or becoming a cleric-dominated religious regime like Iran. They may not be able to succeed — because their task would be difficult even if our enemies did not have such a large stake in preventing their success, and because the U.S. bureaucracy has been ignorant and heavy-handed in its efforts to help.
The one thing that is clear is that we should avoid the mistake we made in Vietnam of allowing our enemies to convince us that we must give up because our cause is hopeless (or evil). If we are talked (or lied) out of Iraq as we were talked out of Vietnam, jihadists around the globe will take heart, and we and others are likely to pay a high price in renewed attacks.
Retrospectively, it turned out that the US army had been serving some purpose in Vietnam—apart from protecting the south from the oppression and stagnation of the last 30 years. Removing our forces in defeat resulted in 2 million Cambodians being killed by the Khmer Rouge, which came to power with the help of North Vietnam—a result that doesn’t seem to have troubled many of those who take pride in their role in bringing our troops home.This article originally appeared in the November 30, 2006, edition of
National Review Online.