Disagreements over the Iraq war--something that's likely to become more visible, as we approach the presidential campaign debates--are inescapably discussions about the lessons of the Vietnam War. Both candidates worry that the United States will repeat the mistakes of that conflict. Obviously, they are focused on different mistakes.
The "lost victory" of the Vietnam War
John McCain worries that, after flailing for a few years, US officials have finally hit on a winning strategy for Iraq. The situation in his mind is comparable to the phase of the Vietnam War that started in 1967 and 1968, after Creighton Abrams replaced William Westmoreland as the commander of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), and Ellsworth Bunker became the US ambassador to South Vietnam. The two men worked well together, which substantially improved the use of force as a political instrument. Among other changes, the counterinsurgency war took a dramatically more positive turn, thanks to both important doctrinal and organizational reforms that dovetailed with the Tet Offensive, which was a military catastrophe for the National Liberation Front.
Unfortunately, the American electorate was in no mood for nuanced discussions about counterinsurgency warfare. Even if the counterinsurgency side of the Vietnam War had visibly improved, Americans wanted to withdraw from South Vietnam. While the Tet Offensive might have crippled the NLF, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) continued attacks into the South. While the government of President Thieu seemed far more stable than its immediate predecessors, Americans remained skeptical about the political reliability of any Saigon government.
Most significantly, an increasing number of American voters did not feel that the Vietnam War was important enough to win. If dominoes were to topple, the damage to American interests seemed far worse than the blood and treasure lost in continuing to fight the war.
Obviously, the differences between Vietnam and Iraq are considerable. However, the political dynamic of fighting a counterinsurgency war does appear the same. Whatever McCain's beliefs about the "winnability" of the Iraq war, he seems to have ignored how these dynamics. In fact, he bears a great deal of responsibility for fueling them.
We can bemoan how much better prepared the US government should have been to fight a counterinsurgency war. (And yes, I'm one of the chief bemoaners.) However, it seems that every counterinsurgency war seems fated to start with a lot of flailing around. Regimes under siege repeat familiar mistakes, such as rushing green troops into dangerous situations that require greater skill and discipline, or using terror in a counterproductive quest to crush the guerrillas' political organization.
Great power patrons make their own set of familiar mistakes. Here are a couple:
- Promising the war will be easy and short, when we know it will be long and difficult.
- Ignoring the political and cultural details of the conflict, preferring instead to overemphasize the military dimension.
- Treating the conflict as sui generis, without any useful precedents.
To his credit, McCain is not to blame for the latter two mistakes. He criticized the US Army for pursuing a "search and destroy" strategy that focused on killing insurgents over securing the safety and support of the population. He has cited precedents, not only from the Vietnam War, but from other conflicts that offered "lessons learned."
Repeating one of the biggest mistakes
His participation in the selling of the Vietnam War is where he bears the greatest responsibility for repeating the mistakes of the past. However dumbed down his current speeches may be, McCain is certainly not ignorant of this risk. After release from his North Vietnamese captors, McCain dedicated time to reading both histories of the two Indochina wars and the classic works about counterinsurgency. He is both smart and knowledgeable enough to realize what happens when a government promises to deliver a quick, decisive victory in the sort of conflict that is inevitably longer than expected, and rarely offers any chance for total victory over the adversary.
Later, McCain tried to rectify his mistake. His now-infamous "100 years" comment was, no doubt, a belated attempt to provide some amount of "straight talk" about counterinsurgency. Unfortunately, the message came far too late, when Americans in 2007 were as impatient with the Iraq war as they were in 1969 with the Vietnam War. McCain had joined the chorus in 2003 that predicted a short, easy war in Iraq. He therefore set the stage for the classic political backlash that ends counterinsurgency wars, from the American Revolution to the Vietnam War. If he's frustrated with how unwilling Americans seem to be in recognizing any gains made in the Iraq War, he has only himself to blame.