Monday, April 7, 2008

Lessons from Vietnam for Iraq: Are the Stakes Simply Too Great?

Yochi J. Dreazen’s April 7th Wall Street Journal article “Officer Questions Petraeus’s Strategy” got me thinking about the other U.S. war that had so many Monday morning quarterbacks – Vietnam – the setting for my upcoming book MRS. LIEUTENANT: A SHARON GOLD NOVEL.

During the Vietnam War and in the 30 plus years since the war has been over (depending on what date you count as the end of the war), people have visited and revisited what the U.S. did right – some say very little – and what the U.S. did wrong – some say a great deal – in the fighting of that war.

During my senior year of high school (1965-1966), two school friends and I visited Michigan State University. We were on an official college visit, and thus were scheduled to sit-in on “representative” classes. One such class was taught by Professor Wesley R. Fishel, an early advisor in Vietnam as part of the Michigan State University Group that, from 1955 to1962, advised the Ngo Dinh Diem regime.

The 1968 book Fishel edited -- VIETNAM: ANATOMY OF A CONFLICT -- is an anthology with an impressive list of contributors. The dedication is: “To the memory of those who have died that a free Vietnam might live.”

And perhaps more apt, Fishel includes this Vietnamese proverb: “The tongue has no bones; it can be twisted in any direction.”

Here’s part of Fishel’s preface to the anthology: “The purpose of this volume is to inform, not to inflame. The problems with which we are dealing in Vietnam do not fall into neat, discrete categories. …. The issues are far too grave and the consequences of debate far too serious for one to cater to an already overly emotional public response to the problems posed by the Vietnam conflict.”

With the substitution of “Iraq” for “Vietnam,” Fishel could be talking about Iraq today. And the same is true of some of his sentiments quoted in MRS. LIEUTENANT. From his own essay in the anthology – “Only Choice in Asia: Stay and Fight”:

“The real question is whether, given the fact that the United States has assumed the responsibilities of leadership in the defense of Southeast Asia since 1954, we can now, in Munich-like fashion, consign the Vietnamese, the Lao and their neighbors to the limbo of Chinese domination for generations to come.”

And from an April 11, 1968, news analysis of Asians fearing U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam carried in MSU’s newspaper the State News: “The stakes are simply too great for anyone to leave South Vietnam alone.”

Only hindsight will tell us the outcome of U.S involvement in Iraq. We already know what happened when the U.S. gave up and withdrew from Vietnam.

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