Failing to Learn the Lessons of Vietnam in Lebanon and Iraq

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET
  • Larry C. Johnson Expert in the fields of terrorism, aviation security, crisis and risk management.

The Israeli military would be well advised to study the U.S. failure to dislodge the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong from the Iron Triangle in Vietnam. If you have not heard the names "Cedar Falls" and "Junction City" it is time to get out your history books. These were two major combat operations conducted in 1967 in the Iron Triangle, a jungle fortress controlled by the North Vietnamese located to the northwest of Saigon. These operations were supposed to sweep the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese from the Iron Triangle. Despite air superiority, massive artillery bombardment, and assaults by thousands of U.S. soldiers, the North Vietnamese ultimately retained control of the territory.

At the time, U.S. military commanders touted these operations as "decisive" battles that vanquished the North Vietnamese forces. Yet, time and again, the United States did not have enough troops to stay in the area and control the territory. When U.S. troops redeployed, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces reoccupied the area.

When you are fighting a force like Hezbollah, on terrain it views as its home, you cannot defeat them unless you occupy the land and maintain a force in place. That is a costly and long term proposition. Israel tried it once and withdrew. Israel will discover in the coming weeks that their current operation will leave them once again on the horns of a dilemma--stay in southern Lebanon and fight a long-term insurgency or withdraw and give Hezbollah another notch in its belt. A third alternative--an international force empowered to keep the peace--exists only as a fantasy on paper. No country or group of countries appears willing to assume the burden of a costly, long-term military occupation.

Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, we now see that the United States failed to defeat the North Vietnamese despite massive, complex military operations. The American soldiers who died in the Iron Triangle of Vietnam fought bravely and served honorably, but at the end of the day their sacrifice was feckless and for naught. The United States lost 58,226 U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. To what end? The United States withdrew from the field of battle and the North Vietnamese subsequently swept to victory.

The war between Israel and Hezbollah cannot be won thru military force alone. It will require a political solution and negotiations. Otherwise, Israel, the Lebanese, and Hezbollah will spend most of the 21st Century bashing each others brains in and leaving a wasteland of scarred land and weeping widows.