Iraq Vietnam in Retrospect?

In 1995, former Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, published his book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.  In his summary epilogue, McNamara listed eleven major causes for the disaster that Vietnam turned out to be. Although we've often been reminded during the past three years that Iraq is not Vietnam, it is remarkable how US policies have repeated, in one way or another, each one of those fatal mistakes, ranging from (#1) a nearly complete misjudging of the "geopolitical intentions of our adversaries" (page 321), all the way to (#11) the failure "to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of political and military issues involving the great risks and costsincluding above all, loss of lifeassociated with the application of military force under substantial constraints over a long period of time" (page 323).

        True, our involvement in Vietnam started out incrementally, starting out with only 16,000 troops acting as "advisers" to the Army of South Vietnam back in November 1963.  But within two years we had some 184,000 troops there, with some 1,500 already killed in action. In Iraq, we instead began with a force about that size and now three years after our invasion, we still have about 150,000 there, but our death toll now is around 2,500 and climbing.

         Back then, we kept hearing that if we were patient, the South Vietnamese would get their own political and military act together and we could bring our troops home. But by the time four years had passed, we had nearly a half‑a‑million troops in Vietnam (closer to the number that military experts say would be needed to successfully occupy Iraq) and we had lost about 16,000 men. So will history repeat itself?

        Probably not: for one, the American people are not likely to stand for it.  They are not going to sit back and allow thousands of more Americans to die, certainly not the 58,000 we lost before we were finally driven out of Vietnam in the biggest military defeat in American history.

        But there could be another reason as wellwhich McNamara could have listed as our twelfth mistake. Unlike the first time, this time Americans might be more inclined to listen to the world's church leaders. Back in 1966 Pope Paul VI warned the U.S. not to get involved, this despite the dangers the Communists posed to the sizable Catholic population in South Vietnam.  So too, Pope John‑Paul II condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq as not only failing to meet "just war" criteria, but also feared not only for the future of Iraq's Catholic minority (which had been the largest in the Middle East) but also for the safety of all Christians in predominantly Muslim lands in a situation that is rapidly beginning to look like a war between civilizations.

        While McNamara, once considered one of the brightest men in the USA but also the main architect of the Vietnam fiasco, was roundly criticized for being much too late or even self‑serving in his confession, at least he has had the honesty to admit he had been terribly wrong.  True, hindsight is a lot cheaper than foresight, but it seems incredible that after all this those who would lead us today, even if they had little or no regard for what our spiritual leaders have to say, at least couldn't have learned from McNamara's worldly experience and late‑found wisdom.

R W Kropf      3/15/06                      

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