The Vietnam War, the War on Terror and the lessons not learned

The Vietnam War, the War on Terror and the lessons not learned
6 min read
03 Nov, 2017
Comment: Washington has a structural inability to learn from history, writes Usaid Siddiqui.
US troops patrol in Balad, Iraq, in 2003 [Getty]

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," wrote Spanish philosopher George Santanaya. It is a timeless quote that has come to define successive American governments vis a vis their foreign policies for much of the post-Second World War era.

The latest Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, Vietnam War, is a 10-episode retelling of America's second-longest war considered by many to be one of the lowest moments in American history. While the 18-hour series is not without its flaws, it illustrates with great depth the decisions that plunged Americans into an ill-fated war.

In light of the ongoing US-led War on Terror, the documentary makes clear that the mistakes made in Vietnam that saw tens of thousands of American military personnel and millions of Vietnamese civilians killed, are being repeated today in conflicts that rage across the Muslim world.

No threat to America

Shortly after its independence, Vietnam, like many developing nations, became a pawn in the cold war between the US and the Soviet bloc - which each sought to bring the south-east Asian nation within their respective spheres of influence. While ongoing conflict between the South and the North Vietnamese bore no threat to America's security, the thought of a Communist regime emerging in the region was not something any American leader was comfortable to let happen on their watch.

"If we quit Vietnam tomorrow we'll be fighting in Hawaii and next week we'll have to be fighting in San Francisco," President Johnson claimed in 1964, despite having reservations about sending US troops to South Vietnam to fight the National Liberation Front/Viet Cong.

Yet as the conflicted escalated through the 1960s, with three US presidents overseeing the conflict, it dawned on each of them that the war had been a blunder and their worst fears had been confirmed. Public enthusiasm around the war was initially strong, but slowly eroded as American bodies piled up; and it became clear that a war thousands of miles away, against a foreign culture and unfamiliar terrain, was simply unwinnable.

"I never considered the Vietnamese my enemy. They had never threatened the security of the United States," Bill Zimmerman, an antiwar activist told Burns and Novick. "They were 10,000 miles away minding their own business. And we went into their country to tell them what government we wanted to have."

Successive White House administrations continue to repeat the same mistakes that spelled disaster in Indochina more than 50 years ago

More than 58,000 American troops died in that war; and despite their enormous military strength, the US was eventualy forced to resign achieving nothing than could be counted as a victory.  

Fast forward to today and successive White House administrations continue to repeat the same mistakes that spelled disaster in Indochina more than 50 years ago.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq, built on a series of misleading propaganda and outright lies, is perhaps the single most glaring example that the lessons of Vietnam bore little influence on America's imperialist ambitions abroad.

Packaged with the usual moralising rhetoric of bringing freedom and democracy to an embattled nation, and the need to liberate Iraqis from the despot Saddam Hussein, a former US ally, the invasion of Iraq gained enthusiasm from the public as pro-war sentiment ran high in the aftermath of 9/11.

Few legislators dared challenge the move and the Bush administration won wide support across the mainstream media. Veteran journalist Phil Donahue was famously fired from MSNBC for opposing the impending invasion; a leaked internal memo revealed that his criticism could not be tolerated at time when the armed forces were readying for war. All other networks were "waving the flag at every opportunity".

Of course, Donahue's suspicions turned out to be correct. As the world would soon find out, the war was fodder for American dominance in the oil-rich region as envisioned by the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney; a conflict from which millions of Iraqis and thousands of US troops continue to reel today.

Unpopular wars

While Burns and Novick fail at providing a more comprehensive look into the suffering of the Vietnamese people, their film does give a few important insights into American intrusion into civilian life - unannounced raids of South Vietnamese houses, burning down whole villages and massacring civilians as in My Lai - and how these made the task of "winning the hearts and minds" of the general population an even more arduous task, and served to strengthen their opponent's anti-American message.

The nine-year American occupation helped to foster fanaticism in the country that would eventually lead to the emergence of groups such as the Islamic State group

Similarly, in Iraq, within the first year of invading, it became apparent the American occupation was extremely unpopular, and that peace was going to remain elusive. Despite celebrations around Saddam's toppling, US crimes committed against civilians at Abu Ghraib or the war crimes committed during the 2004 battle at Fallujah heightened anti-US sentiment, sparking insurgencies against the occupiers throughout the country.

The nine-year American occupation helped to foster fanaticism in the country that would eventually lead to the emergence of groups such as the Islamic State group - arguably the most vicious terrorist group in modern history - that now have American forces once again engaged in Iraqi cities, another symbol of US failure in the war-torn nation.

And regardless of the numerous experiences of Iraq that would make most governments rethink its policies abroad, America remains militarily engaged in at least seven countries including Afghanistan, its longest running war since Vietnam.

Despite President Donald Trump's personal view that America's 16-year presence in the central Asian nation is a mistake, he too, no doubt under the pressure of the military establishment, recently committed to sending some 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

Unfortunately for him, like his predecessors, he too will be left disappointed, a notion he must be cognisant of at this point. Last year, under the Obama administration, more than 26,000 bombs were dropped on Afghanistan alone, and yet today groups such as the Taliban continue to be more powerful and vigilant than at any time since the Americans arrived in 2001.

Arguably few cities across the country, if any, bear a hint of an American victory.

The rational choice therefore would be for US forces to disengage completely, knowing their continued presence will only make matters worse. But as America's chequered war record shows, the inevitable is often delayed, with the American taxpayer bearing the brunt of their leader's ill-fated policies - policies that history has long rendered colossal failures. 

Usaid Siddiqui is a freelance Canadian writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. 

Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.