Keeping Resolve in Iraq:
The Real Lesson From Vietnam

By John E. Carey
The Washington Times
Sunday, January 16, 2005

Some respected leaders recently advocated an expeditious American withdrawal from Iraq. Others favored a postponement of the elections in Iraq. Many, watching the bloodshed in Iraq, search for quick and easy ways to spare lives and halt the bloodshed.

Senator George McGovern has been among those saying Iraq will be around for thousands of years with or without American help. True enough. But the Senator, and many others, go a step further when they compare Iraq to Vietnam. Senator McGovern has even said that Vietnam is now an American trading partner if not a friend. In his mind, apparently, America’s decision to withdraw from Vietnam in 1975 made for a happy ending.

Comparing Iraq to the struggle in Vietnam seems problematic. Believing that it is O.K. to fight a war half way and then depart precipitously and without a complete understanding of all potential outcomes and consequences is irresponsible and sadly distorts the lessons of history.

Ask the Vietnamese living here in America. They are torn by their deep loyalty and love for the U.S. and the belief that they were devaluated in 1975 when America executed the “cut and run.” The Vietnamese here now love the fact that Americans helped them hold off the tide of the communist North for years. They deeply value their freedom and their lives here in a country that has largely accepted them. But the Vietnamese here in America are reticent to tell you what they believe in their hearts and what they discuss in small gatherings among family and friends: that America ultimately let them down in 1975, creating chaos and bloodshed in Vietnam and Southeast Asia for years.

When America left Vietnam in 1975, the communists came south, sweeping away the former South Vietnam, and imprisoning or killing untold numbers of freedom-loving Vietnamese. More than 900,000 South Vietnamese were sent to concentration camps. Millions lost everything: homes, family, jobs and all possessions. A vast migration called the Vietnam Diaspora ensued. Something like three million people left Vietnam, many in small, undependable boats. Many of these “boat people”succumbed to starvation, the ravages of the sea, or murdering pirates. Those that made it safely to other lands spread to all corners of the earth. Vietnamese people now live in France, Norway and nearly every other European country. They settled in Australia and other countries that would have them. Almost 2 million people from Vietnam now live here in the U.S. and the majority are now productive, legal citizens.

But the journey of these refugees was seldom easy. No one should minimize the agony of the trip to escape the communists. Many Vietnamese were refugees for years. Many of the “boat people” made it to the Philippines, only to be interred in an infamous “camp” on Palawan Island. These refugees lived a life in limbo. Palawan wasn’t quite a prisoner of war camp but it was a long way from the freedoms of the former South Vietnam. And Palawan fell well short of the goal: freedom and a home in America. During the Diaspora, some Vietnamese refugees among the survivors spent ten to fifteen years trying to get to other countries. Many were forcibly returned to Vietnam.

And what was left behind in Southest Asia? In Vietnam: communism, repression and a loss of freedom. The economy in Vietnam is just now recovering from twenty-five plus years of communist repression. After 1975, more than two million people were killed by the communists in Cambodia. Southeast Asia was in turmoil for years after the American withdrawal from Vietnam.

If you ask the Vietnamese who fled their homeland after the war ended in 1975, they’ll tell you that the lesson of American commitment is to stay the course. If that is not possible, they’ll beg American leaders to carefully consider all the implications of an American commitment gone bad: a withdrawal with haste and little regard for the plight of the allies.

So, what might the delay in the elections in Iraq mean? Would the insurgents be emboldened? The answer is undoubtedly: yes. The insurgents, who are also the terrorists, are looking for any sign of the erosion of America’s will. Any indicator that points toward an early withdrawal of American forces means the insurgents are on the right track to achieve their goals. The insurgents want America out of Iraq so that they can work their will on the freedom-loving Iraqis without American intervention.

And if America leaves Iraq, what happens to the freedom loving Iraqis? The Kurds are trapped between Turkey, a nation that has little use for them, and the Sunnis including remnants of Saddam Hussein’s former Bath party, who openly despise the Kurds. Saddam Hussein once tried to wipe out the Kurds using chemical weapons, as if the Kurds were so many cockroaches.

The Sunnis, roughly 20% of the Iraqi population, held power in Iraq for decades during Saddam’s rule. They controlled the military, the police and other important institutions of society, to the detriment of all others. They fear that their past sins will be avenged by the majority after the elections. The Sunnis also fear that their power will be totally and forever lost in the election process and consequently want the elections delayed and America out of Iraq.

The Shiia want the elections, which they see as an opportunity to re-capture their rightful place as leaders of their own Iraqi destiny.

So what happens if the elections were delayed or America decided to leave Iraq before the restoration of peace and stability? Chaos? Probably. Civil War? Maybe. A nation partitioned into three or more parts? Quite possibly. Bloodshed? Definitely. When America departs from a war-torn land, we know bloodshed follows. American lives are saved while countless others die.

The insurgents in Iraq learned the real lesson of Vietnam: that any sign of a lack of American resolve or a hasty American withdrawal can mean short-term chaos but a long-term victory for those leading the insurgency.

Reprinted with permission of John E. Carey. John Carey is former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc.

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