The Vietnam War came up in a conversation I had with my roommate several weeks into the trump presidency. In his view, the American experience in South East Asia was an unwinnable war that took us most of a decade to lose. This perception is common; a product of both the prevalent anti-war media that emerged during and after the war and the universal education, in high school and college, that avoids explaining how American military success in a foreign country ended in failure.
To most students of foreign policy, the Vietnam War is thought of as a prolonged insurgent war in a country whose people did not want capitalism, but such a view fails to acknowledge the large scale fighting that took place between the North Vietnamese Army and the Coalition of American and Vietnamese Republican forces along a contested border. My mother received cassette tapes of her father wishing her and her siblings happy holidays in the late 1960’s from his position along the Demilitarized Zone, and in every recording he is speaking over the sound of incoming artillery.
My grandfather wasn’t participating in an occupation that was destined to fail; he was fighting against massed formations of communist forces that included tanks and helicopters. Even beyond the DMZ, the Vietnam experience was more than a dirty war of oppression where patrols into the jungle brutalized innocent civilians. Though the stories of American atrocities are not invented, they fail to capture the entire image of a war that the United States won. By the end of the Tet offensive, an event which reversed American war optimism, the Vietcong insurgency in the south was eradicated. In the early 70’s, American and South Vietnamese forces broke the back of the regular North Vietnamese army.
Americans have an aversion toward accepting our successes in wars they deem as unjust. Moreover, there is a tendency to attribute shared characteristics to all unpopular conflicts and to the administrations that fight them. Obama’s escalation in Syria is attacked by liberals and conservatives as the effect of mission creep in an American foreign policy that cannot help but remain involved in an area of the world that was incorrigible to the vilified neo-conservative policies of the last administration.
This same mission creep, seen in America’s inability to withdraw from a conflict that it has already begun, was made famous by LBJ’s deployment of yet more troops into Vietnam in 1965, though personally he had begun thinking of it as a quagmire the previous year. Though his memory has only begun to be realized, Obama’s actions in Syria and Iraq epitomize a highly criticized foreign policy based on retrenchment.
Was retrenchment a nascent characteristic of the Obama and Johnson administrations and the cause of mission creep in Vietnam and the Middle East, or did realities on the ground force retrenchment on presidents who were unable or unwilling to revise American foreign policy? The truth is likely not so black and white.
Foreign policy that evolves over time is perceived as a failing of an administration to adapt to present conditions, and during wartime, continuities in policy are further labeled as indicative of arrogance and blindness in a president or his advisors. These views are furthered by a public perception of failures in combat and reinforce beliefs that many American interventions abroad are destined to fail.
This does not suggest that presidents and their administrations should be given the benefit of the doubt; just the opposite. American actions abroad should be watched closely, but ours wars and the way we fight and have fought must be understood better for productive criticism to be made. Foreign policy changes slowly, and in wartime extra caution is exhibited by leaders who do not spend American lives cheaply and therefore do not wish to lose military or political objectives cheaply.
And as observers, Americans also need to know when we’ve won battles, regardless of what they think of the war. Most American’s think that invading Iraq was a bad call, yet most supported deposing the brutal Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. Few remember our success in routing the 400,000 man Iraqi army in 21 days, and fewer still believe that the ‘Surge’ of American troops in 2007 was a success. These accomplishments do not excuse later failures, nor do they necessarily justify the war, but they certainly were not the moments when American policy failed.
American forces did not lose in Vietnam, nor were they beaten in Iraq. The US withdrew from both countries largely due to domestic pressure.
To say that modern crises in the Middle East are a result of the same failed policies of Vietnam and a continuation of the Iraqi quagmire without fully understanding either conflict fails to provide a meaningful response to any legitimate failings of American foreign policy in the area.