There are a lot of people in the military, and in politics too, that think we coulda, shoulda, woulda won in Vietnam.
That wouldn't matter much. The past is a foreign country immune from invasion. But here we are in Afghanistan. See, US forces won every battle in Vietnam. Every damn battle. Even Tet.
For those of you who don't remember, in 1967, South Vietnam seemed to be under control. Then, in January of '68, approximately 80,000 Communist troops launched 100 separate attacks at once, including assaults on thirty-six of the forty-four provincial capitals.
US and South Vietnamese forces were taken by total surprise. But they responded well and quickly beat the offensive back, except in the city of Hue, where the fighting, depicted in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, went on for a month. But there too, the Communists fell back.
"You know you never defeated us on the battlefield," said the American colonel.
The North Vietnamese colonel pondered this remark a moment. "That may be so," he replied, "but it is also irrelevant."
-- On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War, by Colonel Harry G. Summers
(Summers was on the US negotiating team in Hanoi and was the unnamed American officer in that conversation)
If it weren't for the damn media. The damn politicians. The Goddamn hippies. Or, to put it a different way, we didn't have the will to win. That's true. But, you have to discuss what that would have entailed. And, even more important, why there was a limit on the price we would pay. As compared to the Vietnamese, who would, and did, pay any price.
In World War, which is the cinematic model in our minds for every war we've fought since, Americans were willing to pay any price.
We were fighting two countries, both bent on world domination. One attacked us and went on to conquer US controlled territory, the Philippines, an American colony from 1895 to 1935, then a "commonwealth," the same status as Puerto Rico, from 1935 up to the Japanese invasion.
Once we entered the war, it was clearly a death struggle. Nobody was going to say, "We've had a couple of battles, it's a draw, let's go back to our original places," or even cede a few territories here and there in return for peace.
So, what was at stake in Vietnam?
Would all of Southeast Asia fall? Like dominoes. Would the balance of power tilt? Would the Reds conquer the world?
None of the above.
All that was at stake was who got to govern South Vietnam. Some jumped colonel with crooked cronies, with a pro-American capitalist heart? Or "Uncle" Ho with his commie friends and Stalinist purges?
We know that for a fact. We -- and whichever stooge was in the presidential palace at the end -- lost. After we lost, the communists took over and reunited the country.
And that's all. Yes, they intervened in Cambodia to put in lid on Pol Pot, a generally humanitarian thing. And had a brief war with China. Which they won.
What would have happened if we'd won? Whatever that means?
Not much. We weren't about to invade North Vietnam and "set them free!" We'd crossed the north/south border in Korea and, as they'd warned, the Chinese entered the war.
So winning would have meant staying in Vietnam, continuing to prop up inept and oppressive regimes. To do so, we would have had to maintain our programs of assassination and terror.
Yes, there was a thing called the Phoenix Program, sneak into villages at night, murder people, leave the bodies to be seen, to create terror among others who cooperate with the VC. It was considered to be a very effective campaign. Except for that we lost.
You might imagine that winning would have meant creating a place as orderly as San Diego, California. Or as orderly as Vietnam appears to be today. But what's more likely is that the rebellions would never go entirely away, and the country would have remained on simmer, and we would have had to be an army of occupation.
That would have been a problem. By 1970, the US Armed Forces were in deep trouble:
By every conceivable indicator, our army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous.
-- "The Collapse Of The Armed Forces," Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., North American Newspaper Alliance, Armed Forces Journal, 7 June, 1971
So, as high as the stakes were said to be, the actual stakes were pretty low.
If we'd left eight years earlier, Vietnam would have simply turned into what it is today a lot sooner -- the loveliest Communist tourist destination in the world. With the best food.
Do we have the Will To Win in Afghanistan?
Does winning means it becomes a stable, safe, secure country, suitable for vacation homes like Costa Rica? Or, in the new scenario, safe for mining engineers and multinationals, another Kuwait, and, at the same time, offering equality for women? Either way, committing to, and successful at, "eliminating terrorist havens."
According to the highly touted new counter-insurgency doctrine, we can do it!
But, according to its own force ratio numbers it will take at least 250,000 troops, calculating by population, or 500,000, calculating by territory. For ten or twenty years.
The military feels that it has solved the morale problem by giving up the draft, going to a volunteer, professional army, and outsourcing as much of the non-combat functions as possible. But that leaves us short of the number of troops necessary to do the job.
That's still presuming we can somehow find leaders less ostentatiously corrupt, less flagrantly inept, and still pro-American.
It's tough to rebuild and modernize a country. We couldn't do it in Iraq. When there are large sums of money thrown at a problem there are always greedy hands grabbing for it. In Iraq, under Paul Bremer's administration, more than twenty billion dollars simply disappeared and almost every contract they entered into was questionable. So, it's a very neat trick if you can do it.
It's a strange war.
The initial goal was to get Osama bin Laden. Plus his chief lieutenants. And Mullah Omar for having the chutzpah to harbor him.
We never did that. Then the war became something else. No one is quite sure what.
One thing we do know for sure. Osama bin Laden's goal. It was to get America stuck in a quagmire in Afghanistan.
LARRY BEINHART is the author of the novel, WAG THE DOG, which became the film with Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro. His most recent novel is SALVATION BOULEVARD, soon to be released as a film with Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Jim Gaffigan, and Marisa Tomei.