A Vietcong prisoner is shot in the head by South Vietnam
Ngoc Loan. Now a new war with its own set of atrocities has
the White House, after Iraq and Afghanistan, learn the
lessons of Vietnam?
Vietnam War Lesson:
An 'Elephant Can't Defeat Mosquitoes' (Trouw, The Netherlands)
"The main lesson
of the Vietnam War, even before it ended with the humiliating withdrawal of the
Americans in 1975, was, according to famed columnist Walter Lippmann, that the
most powerful country on earth proved incapable of using its superior military
strength to impose its will on a faraway nation. The experiences of the
interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have subsequently confirmed that
conclusion. … Even if there are many advocates for a call to arms, it is
important to understand the nature of a war and weigh each step carefully. … 'The
elephants can kill every mosquito they can trample upon, but in the marshes,
the swarm of mosquitoes are constantly renewed.'"
One of the oldest documents in the archive in my head is a
column by American journalist Walter Lippmann (1889-1974)
under the headline Elephant
Can’t Defeat Mosquitoes. It dates from 1967 and is about the Vietnam
War. Lippmann, in his day an authoritative political commentator, predicted
that the greatest military power in the world wasn’t going to make it against
the guerrillas of the Vietcong, aka/ the Vietnamese Liberation Front. Why?
"Not because the mosquitoes are too brave or too fanatical, but because mosquitoes
do not surrender to elephants."
Because of this powerful - almost mythical image, the column
has effortlessly survived in my memory for half a century. The question is
whether Lippmann's observations have meaning now that the Americans are again
facing an opponent far from home that, measured in terms of firepower, is much
weaker yet difficult to grasp and strongly motivated ideologically.
To compare is precarious. Yet this week in The New York Times, two
experts raised the question of whether the war against the Islamic State
will be "Obama's Vietnam."
For now, the Americans are fighting mainly from the air, but
the view that bombs alone are insufficiently effective, let alone decisive, is
widely shared. The pressure on the president to send ground troops is therefore
increasing. And then there's the political and military dynamics of the war
itself, which almost inevitably leads to the next step.
Just look at the pressure that the Lower House has put
on our government to expand the area of operations because of the emergency
situation in the Syrian-Kurdish border town of Kobani
- if need be without an international legal mandate. However relative, given
the limited contribution of the Netherlands, that the Lower House is willing to
set aside the recently marked out rules of thumb says a lot about these dynamics.
However skeptical he was initially about what America could
achieve, in 1964 then-President Johnson drastically escalated the war against
the North Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong, first by heavy bombing of
the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong, soon followed by the deployment of ground
troops. When Lippmann wrote his ominous column, Johnson still assumed that
conventional military superiority would be decisive as it had been in the
previous world wars. In 1965, he expanded the number of troops to 180,000, and
then to more than half a million in 1969.
Lippmann already saw the mistake in 1967. In his column, he
wrote that his country was facing the bewildering experience that, "we are
able to destroy the enemy's country and are not able to win the war." That
was the crucial difference with World War II, where the firepower of the Allies
brought both Germany and Japan to their knees. "Even if we were to bomb
Hanoi back to the Stone Age, the result wouldn't be a lasting peace," Lippmann
wrote, which made him even more ashamed of the blind destructiveness of the bombs
and chemical weapons.
The main lesson of the Vietnam War, even before it ended with
the humiliating withdrawal of the Americans in 1975, was, according to Lippmann,
that the most powerful country on earth proved incapable of using its superior
military strength to impose its will on a faraway nation. The experiences of
the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have subsequently confirmed that
Posted By Worldmeets.US
Will President Obama be sucked ever deeper into war? If "doing
nothing" isn't an option, as politicians often claim, the paradoxical consequence
must be accepted that "to do something" could be to start a
protracted war that in the worst case scenario will proceed as a battle between
the elephant and mosquitoes. "The elephants can kill every mosquito they
can trample upon, but in the marshes, the swarm of mosquitoes
are constantly renewed."
Lippmann was not a pacifist or a defeatist. His object was
to inform the public so it could call politicians to account. Even if there are
many advocates for a call to arms, it is important to understand the nature of
a war and weigh each step carefully. That was the message that Lippmann, eight
years before the end of that terrible war, wanted to convey.