Friday, June 13, 2014

Déjà vu All Over Again

Evacuating Saigon

Headlines in this morning’s newspapers trumpet the collapse of the Iraqi Army before the onslaught of the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda spin-off. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of central government soldiers appear to be taking off their uniforms, abandoning their weapons and equipment, and surrendering in droves. ISIS now controls most cities north of Baghdad, and the ability of the Iraqi Army to forestall the capture of the capital is in question.

To Vietnam veterans, all this seems like what the famed baseball catcher and manager, Yogi Berra, called, “déjà vu all over again.” We have lived this experience before.

CNN has been showing a special series on the decade of the 1960 this week. For those of us who were adults at the time, the series sparks poignant memories of those years. The U.S. went into the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) to save that small state from the tyranny of communism and to build a stable, democratic state. The term, “nation building,” was coined to describe our efforts. After several years of war, an administration that sensed the war weariness of the population decided to accelerate training of indigenous forces and then make a quick exit. The process was termed, “Vietnamization.” In the beginning, it seemed to work. But the government left in place became corrupt. Politically dependable military commanders began replacing competent ones. Antiwar elements in the U.S. Congress engineered a cutoff of military assistance funding. When the North Vietnamese Army renewed attacks, RVN collapsed like a house of cards. U.S. diplomats scrambled to escape aboard hastily organized U.S. military helicopters. Over a decade of sacrifice by the U.S. armed forces went down the drain.

In my new novel, Asphalt and Blood, I explore the thousand-year efforts of the Vietnamese people to remain free of foreign domination. I believe that very few if any U.S. decision makers on the Vietnam struggle had any grasp of local history and culture. Our well intentioned “nation building” programs ignored these important parameters. “Strategic Hamlet” programs uprooted much of the population from their ancestral homes and the tombs of their ancestors. Planners had no concept of the importance of Confucian veneration of ancestors. After U.S. Generals took over command of the war, Ho Chi Minh, General Giap, and their subordinates were able to cast the U.S. as but the last in a long line of foreign conquerors.

Over three decades later, many of us who served in Vietnam watched in dismay as civilian officials in the Department of Defense made the same mistakes in Iraq that Robert McNamara and his acolytes made in the 1960s, starting by overruling military commanders on the forces required for a successful operation. Civilian officials lacking military experience decided that a brigade of military police to maintain order in a conquered Baghdad was unnecessary. Chaos reigned in Baghdad after the conquest. When General Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, warned that pacifying Iraq would require 500,000 troops, he was replaced. Unruffled, the architects of the war announced a new program of “nation building.” No one appeared to be aware of the simmering, hundreds-of-years-old sectarian fractures in the Iraqi population. Once more, local history and culture were ignored. Veterans truly felt “déjà vu all over again.’

The end of the Iraqi war is playing out to a script similar to that of Vietnam. Again weary of conflict, the U.S. declared that local forces were now capable of maintaining order and withdrew its military presence. The indigenous government soon gutted leadership in the Iraqi Army by replacing competent commanders with political allies. They are now “reaping the whirlwind.” Fragmentation of Iraq into smaller, sectarian states appears inevitable. Another decade of U.S. military sacrifice may be headed down the drain.

I have mentioned the famous Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, in previous blog posts. His admonition that “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it” springs to the forefront of the mind. Is it time to call in the evacuation helicopters again? 

Note: Warren Bell is a historical fiction author with two novels for sale either for Kindle or in paperback from Both are set during WWII, with Fall Eagle One taking place in Europe, and Hold Back the Sun set in the war in the Pacific.  

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