I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

11 Failures in Vietnam

In 1995, Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary from 1961-1968, released his mea culpa Vietnam book, entitled In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. To publicize and discuss the book, McNamara gave a speech at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

During the speech, McNamara identified what he said were the 11 failures of the Government which caused the U.S. to bungle and then lose the war. It is interesting to assess these in light of what we have done, and have not done, with respect to our war in Iraq:

Failure number one:

The first point is we misjudged them, and I think we're misjudging today the geo-political intentions of our adversaries. In that case, it was the geo-political intention to North Vietnam and the Viet Cong supported by China and the Soviet Union. And we exaggerated the dangers to the U.S. of those adversaries.

Failure number two:

Second mistake. We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience. We're still doing that. We saw them as having a thirst for a determination to fight for freedom and democracy. We totally misjudged the political forces within that country.

Failure number three:

[W]e underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate people. In this case, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. Then we underestimate the power of ... (inaudible) to motivate a people to fight and die for their people. Ho Chi Minh said, and I believe he meant it, they would have fought another ten years. . . .

They say that excluding the South Vietnamese military that were killed which they didn't have data on, that they believed that 3,200,000 Vietnamese, civilians and military north and south were killed. And he said they were prepared to kill another 10 million. I think they were. We didn't believe that. We totally misunderstood the motivation, the dedication of a people motivated by nationalism.

Failure Number Four:

[O]ur misjudgments of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of a history, culture and politics of the people in that area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.

Failure Number Five:

Forsaken lesson. We failed then as we have since to recognize the limitations of modern high technology military equipment and forces in doctrine in confronting unconventional highly motivated people's movements.

Failure Number Six:

[W]e failed and we came damn close to making this mistake in connection with the Gulf War. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of large scale U.S. military involvement. In that case, in Southeast Asia, before we initiated the action.

Failure Number Seven:

[A]fter the action got underway, and unanticipated events forced us off our planned course, we fail to retain popular support, in part, because we hadn't explained fully what was happening and why we had to do what we did. In effect, we had to begin to try to cut our losses and shift tactics and strategy, and the public didn't understand and they weren't with us.

A nation's deepest strength lies not in its military strength, military force. It lies in the unity of its people. We didn't have it. And I would suggest we probably didn't deserve it given the way we handled it.

Failure Number Eight:
[W]e didn't recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are on a mission. To this day we seem to act in the world as though we know what's right for everybody. We think we're on a mission. We aren't. We weren't then and we aren't today. And where our own security is at stake, I'm prepared to say act unilaterally, militarily.

Where our security is not at stake, not directly at stake, narrowly defined, then I believe that our judgement of what is in another people's interest, should be put to the test of open discussion, open debate, and international forum. And we shouldn't act unilaterally militarily under any circumstances. And we shouldn't act militarily in conjunction with others until that debate has taken place. We don't have the God-given right to shape every nation to our own image.

Failure Number Nine:

[W]e didn't hold to the principal that U.S. military action other than in response to direct ... (inaudible) to our own security should be carried out only in conjunction with international forces who are going to share in the cost. And I don't mean financial cost, although I certainly include financial cost, but I mean primarily the blood cost, the blood risk.

Failure Number Ten:

[W]e failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems which there are no immediate solutions, certainly no military solutions. Now, for me that's very hard to say. I spent my life problem solving. I believed every problem had a solution.

Failure Number Eleven:

And finally underlying many of these ten mistakes lay our failure to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of problems that we were facing. Political issues, military issues. Across the globe, our cities were burning. We were facing the kinds of military confrontations with the Soviet as I referred to earlier. We hadn't organized for it. It sounds incredible to you that that's the case. We aren't organized for it today.

At least if one credits McNamara's analysis -- and if anyone is in a position to know our failures, he was, since he made so many of them and saw the others made first-hand -- it's pretty hard to make the case that the Bush Administration went to school on our failures in Vietnam and worked hard to avoid making the same ones in Iraq, to put it mildly.

Each of these failures, standing alone, may not be a perfect fit for what is happening today, but the fact that one can make a pretty strong case that at least nine, and probably ten, of these failures have been repeated, to one degree or another, in the Iraq war is, by itself, pretty significant.

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