Lessons from Vietnam

Bush has been reflecting on lessons the war in Vietnam could offer, apparently an analogy so obscure and arcane that he couldn’t see it until he actually went to Vietnam. The result of this reflection is giving me a headache:

“We tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while. It’s just going to take a long period of time for the ideology that is hopeful – and that is an ideology of freedom – to overcome an ideology of hate.

“We’ll succeed unless we quit”

In Vietnam, we failed for a long time fighting the war and not quitting, until we quit, having conclusively failed to win. Then after a long time, Vietnam became united, and less Marxist and oppressive in practice than North Vietnam, which were two successes we were seeking. Another success that seems to have had nothing to with fighting or not fighting there was the non-falling of Asian dominoes, and the non-repelling of Communist hordes from the beach in San Diego. They didn’t fall when we weren’t quitting, and then they went on not falling when we did quit. Are we to think that if we had left Vietnam early, with less Agent Orange, less unexploded munitions, and fewer dead Vietnamese and Americans strewn about, things would have unfolded much worse, with dominos falling and no trade visits now? That Vietnam now is actually a failure, which we could have avoided by continuing to fail at war but not quit, perhaps until now?

What this means for Iraq is Delphic, Gnostic, cryptic, and too deep for me. To assure a good future for Iraq, we need to go on failing at fighting for a long time, maybe a few more years, and then quit? Never quit, so things take a really long time, because that will make them better?

He also, according to the BBC, “denied that the rising number of Iraqi and US military deaths meant the Iraq campaign was failing.” It’s absurd to infer that he would think fewer deaths a sign of failure, so I guess he’s privy to some completely different indicator of success, one that trumps people getting blown up and assassinated and similar irrelevant stuff that deceives the naive. Is this other indicator in the news, and did I miss it? Hours of electricity on, oil exports? The only think I know that’s up nicely in Iraq that he might be thinking about is cumulative looting by contractors…but even that one is down on a monthly basis lately.

Vietnam: failed until we quit, then we succeeded. Lesson for Iraq: fail if we do quit, so don’t quit. If you get confused, just surf back to this page and review this.

Read this blog, folks, for incisive clarifying analysis that helps you understand the world better. Except, of course, those times when you just get to watch one of us wander cluelessly around in the fog.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

11 thoughts on “Lessons from Vietnam”

  1. Take this musing for what it is worth, but I have sensed from the beginning of Bush's invasion of Iraq that it was, on some psychological level, an attempt on the part of the neo-conservatives to resume the war in Vietnam and to stick it to the Vietnam protesters — to show them they had not succeeded in ending the war.

  2. So, you're saying our withdrawal from Vietnam was a success and would have been a greater success if had been done earlier and this would also be true of Iraq. My Dad has been making the same point for
    quite some time.

  3. In Viet Nam, one rationale for the war was to prevent the complete loss of the area to Communism due to the domino effect. As you note, that did not happen. In fact, as also noted, even Viet Nam is less communist than they (they being the ideological warmongers who seem to continually run the U.S. government) would have assumed.
    In Iraq, one rationale for the war was the complete conversion of the Middle East to democracy due to some perverted neo-domino effect. As we are seeing, that is not happening. In fact, Iraq is less democratic than they assumed it would be.
    Did we learn the lessons of Viet Nam?

  4. Vietnam: Failed when we quit, then some time after the survivors crawled back up out of the pit we'd condemned them to.

  5. Julie Mason notes that there is a clear difference between Iraq and Vietnam – Bush had a plan to get out of the latter.

  6. (B) "We'll succeed unless we quit."
    So if we succeed, then it's not the case that we will have quit (S–>~Q).
    But we won't succeed (~S).
    So (B) is trivially true (~S & Q).
    Hope that helps.

  7. I took a Fiat Lux seminar by George Dutton (Southeast Asian Studies) at UCLA in the spring of 2004 entitled "Lessons of Vietnam in Iraq." At the time it was an interesting idea, but certainly not a widely accepted one. I never thought Bush himself would be making similar comparisons 2.5 years later!

  8. Mudge:
    Sometimes the domino effect needs a little help, by which I mean knocking over the bricks one-by-one. This is why we can't quit.

  9. Brett Bellmore: "Vietnam: Failed when we quit, then some time after the survivors crawled back up out of the pit we'd condemned them to."
    Vietnam: failed before we quit; the willingness of war supporters to continually lie that the Vietnam War was succeeding until Nixon withdrew our troops is truly amazing. We didn't fail because we quit; we quit because we had failed. We should have quit, indeed should not even have started, because our effort was immoral and illegal and had no relation at all to any respect for the Vietnamese or desire that they live in freedom. If we'd actually had that desire, we would not have supported the French or the utterly corrupt, brutal, and repressive South Vietnamese government.
    Vietnamese: crawled back from the pit US war supporters and the military had created long before Nixon mercifully quit on them.
    =================================
    It's like this . . .
    Once upon a time there was a terribly incompetent physician who diagnosed a patient as having a flesh-eating bacterial infrection in his left pinkie. The physician determined that amputation of the LEFT PINKIE was the only viable option and immediately took the patient to surgery where he proceeded to cut off the RIGHT HAND with unsanitary equipment. Within hours, the patient had developed a real and uncurable infection of flesh-eating bacteria throughout his body due to the use of the unsanitary equipment. The physician, however, was insistent that a second operation to remove the LEFT HAND proceed as soon as possible, because that was the source of the spreading flesh-eating bacteria, and to then implement what everybody else knew to be a now useless regime of antibiotic treatment.
    Another physician observing the now dying patient saw that it had really only been an ordinary hangnail infection on the left hand, one that could have been treated with topical antibiotics. When informed, the operating physician became livid and with flecks of foam jetting from his mouth screamed at the second physician that it was easy to be a second-guesser, that the second physician really had no plan for saving this man (from the fatal flesh-eating bacterial infection caused by the first physician's unsanitary operating methods), and that leaving the patient before the job of amputing the left hand was finished and the flesh-eating bacteria destroyed would be cowardly and would make the patient's sacrifice of his right arm in vain, despite the fact that the bacteria were restistant to all known antibiotics and the infection was so widespread that no treatment, including amputation, would now save the patient.
    And even though the patient died a few minutes later, the original physician could still be heard screaming, ranting, and reviling against the second physician and bawling that the second physician simply had no plan to save the corpse, that leaving the patient's room was cutting-and-running from his duty as a physician, and that the second physician's refusal to support removing the undiseased (except for the systemic infrection) left hand was an unconscionable abandonment of the patient.

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