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Lessons Forgotten Will Be Lessons Relearned

I’ve always said, that as wonderful as learning from one’s own trial and error is, it’s so much better to learn from somebody else’s mistakes rather than have to learn from your own.

In times like these, it’s always tempting to think that when the sharp sudden shocks of history hit us, everything changes. Well, things do change, but I’m inclined to believe that people in general stay the same. What changes are the stresses and challenges placed upon us. The problems of war and of human interaction in war remain much as they always have.

Why does Iraq get compared to Vietnam so often? Even I find it a bit simplistic to talk about Iraq in those terms sometimes. There are differences of terrain, differences in the character and situation of the people there- in short, direct comparisons are not entirely fruitful in delivering real understanding of our war in the Middle East.

That said, there are parallels in terms of the mistakes made in selling, paying for, and carrying out this war that bear eerie resemblance to the war that marked the Baby Boomer's coming of age. To read of Kennedy and Johnson's gradual but inexorable entanglement in the poisonous Indochina conflict in the context of today's events is to fear for our involvement now.

I am genuinely worried as to whether things can turn out for the best. I can only hope we haven't passed some irreversible threshold in the course of this war.

With that in mind, I would like to share some points, lessons really, that I take from my recent readings

Lesson One: Pick your native support wisely.
If we could have picked a government to support, to gain support for Americans, to counter the revolutionary, nationalist communists in the country, we couldn't have picked a worse government than the one that ran South Vietnam. A corrupt remnant of French Colonial times, they didn't have the support of the population at large. The Military, namely the ARVN, was a continual disgrace. During the Reign of Diem, they were even under orders to avoid being killed so they wouldn't tarnish Diem's reputation. It was ARVN fecklessness that made our military presence necessary. Even in the face of being overrun by the North, these people wouldn't stand up in the fights with lighter but more committed VietCong and NVA troops.

A weak government in Iraq will not bode well for our success. Weak governments do not gain the confidence or the popularity required for people to connect their patriotic will to defend their country to the defense of the government system itself.

If the elections don't provide a satisfying public mandate, if the government is perceived as our puppet, if this government is powerless to back down the insurgents and clamp down on the criminals and terrorists, that government will become an impediment to our ability to bring our soldiers out, bring them home from this war.

We lost 58,000 soldiers, having sent a half million soldiers in to fight the ARVN's war for them. We dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than we did over all of Europe and Asia in WWII. Without the support of the people of South Vietnam, none of these things mattered. It was their country, after all.

Lesson Two: Don't lie to the American People, and for God's sake don't lie to yourself.
The Fog of War is not a license to disregard or disconnect from reality. In fact, it's important that one puts one's best effort forward in remaining aware of one's situation.

There should not be a sense among the American people that the progress of the war as reported by independent, reliable sources and its progress as described by the Administration are at odds with one another.

In Vietnam, the lies abounded, most trying to put a good or flattering face on things, gilding the problematic underpinnings of the situation The South Vietnamese lied to us, Their people lied to them, the American Army command in Saigon lied to their superiors and the president. The people who were giving accurate estimates were marginalized by those with vested interests in keeping one group or another (The South Vietnamese Regimes, the Saigon Command, The Joint Chiefs, The DOD civilians or the White house) happy, and free from the news they didn't want to hear. Of course, as they lost control of the story, as all stories this big tend to do, people were blamed for saying or believing the truth about these things.

One thing for sure: all the rose-colored perspectives on Vietnam made confronting the war on a basis of integrity and wisdom virtually impossible. The Bad news coming from a war is in many ways the best news to hear, in the sense that to not hear was to lose the ability to correct one's course towards a more successful strategy.

It won't help us in Iraq to be out of touch with the reality on the ground, no matter how awful it is. But as with Vietnam, political sense has overruled common sense, and so instead of working out how to solve the problems, the administration has come up with ways to deny them the ability to politically harm the president. He has forgotten the purpose of democracy: screwups are supposed to hurt a politician. If you want to improve your image, the best way is to deal with the reality that creates the image. Even if you don't win the political contest, you can at least say you did what was right.

Iraq is a mess. The better we are able to understand the mess, the better we will be able to square it way. We ignore the bad news, we will be oblivious to what we're doing wrong. If we are so oblivious to that, we will continue in our errors. The longer we continue in our errors. The farther we will stray from their solution. Ignorance and false optimism will not bring us peace, nor defend us from terror.

Lesson Three: Competence and expertise should outrank political loyalty.
Throughout the latter half of the Twentieth Century, the question unfortunately was the same: Are you with us, or against us? Sounds like a simple question, until you get to the part where you define what a loyalist does. For China, the requirement was a hardline against communism. That meant many of the people who predicted the Fall of China to the Communists were treated as if they had helped that victory for the Reds, instead of simply anticipating that victory.

The result? Party line cold warriors instead of those who understood the Chinese for what they were, for how they differed from the West. So we lose many experts who would have been more useful in dealing with things like the Sino-Soviet Split, or in Alienating Vietnam from the Chinese and Soviets.

The Democrats, tarred with the brush of alleged pinko sympathies and outright red collaboration are forced to go on the defense by the McCarthy HUAC hearings, which unfortunately convinces a young Democrat president that involvement in Indochina is necessary. And so, because we had to placate the right, we get involved in a old French colonial war Eisenhower rightly avoids years before (and can avoid, because who's going to say Ike's gone pink, much less red?)

Vietnam, by the time we got to it, was already damaged goods. It would have been better to let it cohere into the nation it would become despite our efforts (especially the Best efforts of the Anti-communist Nixon White House), and then exploit their rivalry with China. And we could have, if we hadn't dismissed the people who would tell us how to do that, what the Vietnamese valued, what they wanted. We picked, in Vietnam, those who would tough on communism, rather than those who knew the region, knew the psychology and sociology of the people, and who could send the right messages to the people there, messages they would respond to. Unfortunately, we confused intense hatred of communism with the ability to roll it back.

In Iraq, Fighting George Bush's version of the War on Terrorism, has relegated effectively fighting that war to the back Burner. In many ways, the mess we are in is the result of this war being fought with political consideration first and foremost. You can not serve two masters and serve both well.

Bush's master in all this has been the re-election campaign we are in right now. As a result, he went in light, minimized talk of casualties, declared victory prematurely, and set Iraq on a time table which seems to have more to do with Bush's re-election schedule than any real progress made on the ground.

And all around him, the Republicans, the Spin Doctors, and the right-wing culture as a whole closes ranks with him, measuring people's opinions on the subject of Iraq not by the agreement of their opinions with the facts on the ground, but instead by the closeness of their opinions to Bush's.

Lesson 4: Don't lie about costs or deficit spend to cover them. That way lies fiscal disaster.
One of the surprising revelations of the Book The Best and the Brightest is that all the economic strife of the seventies was never necessary. We could have absorbed the costs of the war at the time, had we been asked to.

I know Republicans like to stay away from tax hikes like they're radioactive, but at some point, you got to ask yourself: Am I willing to cut enough spending to make this work? During war, that answer is always no. We pay what we have to win. The only way to cut spending in that respect is to go cheapskate on that, and ultimately, that never does any good. You have two choices: Don't go to war, or keep your revenues high enough to cover things.

Bob McNamara did neither. He lowballed the military budget estimates, causing our nation to go into deficit spending over the war. Why? Because it was politically inconvenient to show the real costs. Out of that political inconvenience came vicious economic problems that derailed the prosperity of the sixties. We could have handled the costs, ironically, had the President and McNamara asked the sacrifice of the American people, the costs of the war would not have been so terrible for the country.

Bush's three tax cuts are worse than McNamara's economic dishonesty. First, Bush does not have the costs under control. He is on the verge of asking for an additional 70 billion dollars for his war in Iraq, with no end in sight. He never rightly estimated the costs, necessitating things like the 87 billion supplemental he harped on Kerry over.

That 87 billion could have been budgeted into the war at the very first, the body and vehicle armor paid for and procured for our soldiers from the get-go. They should have been, but Bush didn't

Worse than that, though, was Bush's decision to cut taxes not once but three times in such a day and age. He not only runs up costs he's not going to pay for from revenue, he drops the revenue. He says it's about the economy, but our economy was recovering anyways. Now it's saddled with debt, and the interest rates and dollar values that use to be solid now show signs of heading towards inflation and increase.

I'm not a big fan of taxes, but I'm even less a fan of debt. Debt is taxes increased in the future. If Bush was not willing to pay for this war, not willing to ask our sacrifice, perhaps he should have never waged it in the first place, being so uncommitted.

He should be able to say, if it comes down to keeping your taxes low and defending national security, I will choose national security. To paraphrase a certain space pirate "What good is tax relief if you're not around to spend it?"

All in all, I think the statement "Those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it." is apt for our day and age. This government is full of people who pride themselves on being better than the liberals they replaced. Thing is, though, the liberals learned some lessons during the course of their leadership of this nation at the great moments of crisis, things that apply regardless of what party is in power.

The conservatives can go on about virtues, about standing up against evil and all this and all that, but in the end we have to face the good and the evil in ourselves and our strategies as well, if we are to act in our nation's best interests. Our will to protect our nation will be worthless if we don't have the right level of awareness and understanding, and if we aren't employing the right means for dealing with the situations at hand. We will not win Iraq or the War on Terrorism by wishful thinking. We will succeed by how well we negotiate the trials ahead, by our grounding in, not denial of, the world we seek to change and redeem.

So Endeth the Lesson.

Posted by Stephen Daugherty at October 28, 2004 10:42 AM