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The Tragedy of Unlearned Lessons

Guest Op-Ed


Updated August 17, 2006

Dr. Joe P. Dunn

As a scholar of the Vietnam War and a student of Middle East conflict, I have resisted analogies between the Iraqi and Vietnam debacles. When George Bush determined to remove Saddam Hussein, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I was wrong on both counts. That I am a proud Vietnam veteran does not alter the fact that my war was a mistake. That I am pleased that Saddam is gone does not justify the errors of the vainglorious venture. A more dangerous tyrant resides in North Korea and comparable villainous despots rule in Burma, Sudan, Congo, and other places. Vietnam was never vital to our national security, and the Iraq imbroglio is counterproductive to the greater security concerns of the United States.

Vietnam was replete with hubris, bereft military vision, political myopia, denial of extant reality, and politics over national security. Like Iraq later, a viable political vision and an exit strategy didn't exist. The costs were great, and the situation turned out badly. A generation of military officers implored, "Never again–do it right, or don't do it." Many of us, civilian and military, devoted years to studying what went wrong in Vietnam, and we derived some useful lessons for future conflicts.

With wisdom gained from the Vietnam experience, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, Commanding General Norman Schwarzkopf, and President George H.W. Bush did the 1991 Iraq War right, politically and militarily. Whether he should have stopped when he did is debatable, but contemporary Iraq makes the senior Mr. Bush appear increasingly sage. Several commentators have emphasized that tragically the son falls far short of, some even claim the antithesis of, the father.

More relevant here though are the similarities between two insecure and intransigent Texans, Lyndon Johnson and the junior Mr. Bush, both of whom did their nation great harm. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Bush and his zealous neo-con coterie continue to believe that they know better than the collective voice of scholars, State Department, CIA, JCS, and most of the international community. The official studies–the State Department's Future of Iraq Project, the Iraqi Democratic Principles Working Group, the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute's sobering analysis, and several CIA assessments–predicted the situation that exists in Iraq today. But all this hard analysis was rejected or ignored.

Among those guilty for Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stood out. He thought that he knew more than the generals, State Department, other presidential advisers, Congress, and the international community. Distrusting JCS and senior military leadership, he believed that he could "manage" the war, impose democracy in Vietnam, and reshape the U.S. defense community in the process.

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