November 22, 2006
Bush and Vietnam
President Bush finally went to Vietnam this week, after spending his youth trying to avoid going there when that war was going on. Needless to say that this was the source for much humor. Some said that he tried to avoid going this time too but that his father could not get him out of the trip. Others said that he was glad to go since the drubbing his party took at the elections made it awkward for him to have to deal with the new realities in Congress. As Ted Koppel said, Bush joined the Air National Guard to get out of going to Vietnam, but now he is going to Vietnam to get out of being in Washington.
But the curious thing that has been remarked upon is that when Bush was asked what was the lesson of the Vietnam war, he said it was the importance of perseverance. Bush said that what he learned was that "We'll succeed unless we quit."
Of course this invites ridicule since it seemed to imply that if the US has stayed on in Vietnam they would have won that war, a rosy view of that war's history that is only clung to by those who refuse to concede that the US could ever be defeated militarily. The statement also seemed like a diplomatic blunder, to say the least, to tell the people of your host country that you feel that should have devastated their country even more than you did and perhaps should still be bombing them thirty years later.
The lesson that almost everyone else has learned from Vietnam is that one should never get involved in a guerilla war against forces fighting for national liberation.
But perhaps Bush was applying his words to the Vietnamese forces. If so, he was being very perceptive. The North Vietnamese regular army and the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front had long realized that all they had to do was persevere and stay fighting. As long as they did not quit, they would succeed because the US would have to leave. And that is exactly what happened.
That is the dynamic of any struggle in which an invading army ends up battling the local population, and it applies to Iraq. All that the Iraqi insurgent forces have to do is to keep fighting. If they do so, they will win even if they never win any single battle, since an invading force cannot maintain its occupation indefinitely in the face of sustained hostility. The famous Tet offensive in 1968 was a military defeat for the Vietnamese but a huge political victory since it dramatically illustrated to the American public that despite having been repeatedly told by their own government that the tide was turning, there was light at the end of the tunnel, and similar clichés about victory in the war being just over the horizon, the Vietnam conflict was still raging, with no end in sight.
One sure sign that things are going badly is when pundits keep looking hopefully over the horizon for good news that never comes. They usually put a time of about six months in the future for when either things will either get better or some decisive decision will have to be taken. It seems like they have decided that six months is just about what the public is willing to tolerate staying with the status quo. The catch is that when the six months is up and no progress has been made, a new six month horizon has to be created. The situation is not unlike parents on a long car journey who repeatedly tell their restless children that they will arrive at their destination in fifteen minutes, in order to keep them quiet.
This ploy has been used so frequently in Iraq by so many people that the six month horizon has even acquired its own name, the Friedman Unit (FU) (coined by Atrios), after that fount of banalities, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, was noticed by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has having repeatedly invoked it starting back in November 2003. So we are now six FUs further into the war and still waiting.
But coming back to Bush's statement about the lessons of Vietnam, why would Bush be advising the Iraqi insurgents to learn from the Vietnamese people on the value of perseverance in order to defeat the US?
A person whose views I greatly respect once suggested that Mikhail Gorbachev may have deliberately set about undermining the Soviet Union and orchestrating its collapse because early in his life he had felt that that kind of social and economic structure was not sustainable and something new had to be put in its place. But that would not happen until the existing order had been dismantled. So Gorbachev quietly went along with official policies until he attained power in that country. Then he deliberately set about instituting policies from the inside that he knew would lead to the eventual collapse of the system.
Inspired by this idea, I thought that maybe Bush and Cheney, for whatever reasons known only to themselves, deliberately set about destroying the US as a world power militarily and economically and in terms of its ability to influence world opinion. They saw that the best way to do that would be to commit its forces to getting bogged down in an unwinnable and unpopular war that would break the US militarily, destroy its economy by spending huge amounts on both the war and counterterrorism efforts (over $500 billion so far and still rising rapidly), and so alienate world opinion that the US became almost totally isolated on the world's stage, thus putting an end to any ideas of creating a powerful empire.
I am being facetious, I think, but I am not sure because this administration has effectively put an end to irony and satire by exceeding anyone's imaginings of irrationality. But if that actually had been their plan, Bush and Cheney have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
POST SCRIPT 1: Spreading the word
Australian John Safran, ticked off by Mormon missionaries waking him up early on a Saturday morning to proselytize, decided to get his revenge by traveling all the way across the globe to Salt Lake City and going door-to-door to proselytize for atheism and Darwin.
POST SCRIPT 2: What should be done?
Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has the solution to the Iraq problem.