Vietnam: Lessons Learned

[Note:  This posting is more political in nature than any of my other postings.  Some readers may not wish to read it, especially if you're supportive of our current policy in Iraq.]

While I didn’t fight in the Vietnam War, I’m of the age when people my age were drafted (or volunteered) and did.  And my high school and college years were colored with intensity and conflict over the War, complete with protest marches and a fierce debate about the strategic urgency for the U.S. to battle Communism in Vietnam and prevent the “dominoes” from falling.

Well, we fought, we lost (some 58,000 U.S. lives and the war, to boot), and the “dominoes” did fall.  So thirty years later something catastrophic must have happened in Southeast Asia that damaged our country to the core.  Right? 

Today, Vietnam has an awful lot going for it.  The people seem industrious, productive and happy.  Their economy is based on good old free market capitalism, with lower tax rates than in the U.S.  And the economy is growing rapidly.  And, despite a one-party Communist government, we didn’t have the impression that the Vietnamese are looking over their shoulders, worried about the heavy hand of “Big Brother.”

When we came here, I expected to encounter occasionally someone who would shout, “American, go home!” or at least shoot us a nasty look.  I was surprised that the people here seem to harbor no ill will towards Americans.  The North Vietnamese we talked to generally expressed a view on the U.S. involvement in the War along the lines of, “Your government was wrong to interfere in our affairs, you created a bad situation here, and we are proud that we defeated you.  But we have no hard feelings toward the American people, since it was your government that did it, not you.”  The South Vietnamese view tended to be, “You encouraged and even pushed us into a major war, escalated the fighting, and then pulled out.  You left the Vietnamese with ties to the U.S. to face horrible consequences once you left.  It would have been better if you had never started something you weren’t prepared to finish.” 

While Vietnam has largely put the War behind it, we saw many Agent Orange victims — young and old — as we toured the country.  Until recently, the U.S. has insisted that the millions of liters (some 74 million, by one estimate) of Agent Orange dropped on Vietnamese jungles had minimal impact on the Vietnamese population, while the Vietnamese claim some 3 million of its people currently suffer from Agent Orange-related troubles.  I’m in no position to offer a definitive point of view on this, but we saw many badly-deformed adults and children everywhere we went in Vietnam. 

So are there lessons learned from Vietnam relevant to our current foreign policy fiasco in Iraq?  There’s the obvious set of insights about how difficult it is to fight a war in some remote country where you’re never sure who is on your side and who is against you, but that’s something we should have focused on in 2002.  Going forward, there are both near-term and long-term issues.  

In the near term, I suspect there have been some (not as many as we’d like) Iraqi’s working in a committed way with the U.S.  When we ultimately pull out, we shouldn’t repeat what we did in Vietnam and leave them high and dry.  They’ve been our friends, and we need to protect them from the retaliation that will be directed at them after we leave.  And I just hope that, years from now, the Iraqi’s can be as gracious and forgiving as the Vietnamese we met.

I think the long-term implications of what’s going on in Vietnam (and China, as well) are all about capitalism.  It’s been amazing for us to see this blend of a Communist state implementing policies that foster education and capitalism, complete with low marginal tax rates, in these countries.  Successful entrepreneurial economies bring all sorts of benefits, not the least of which is raising the country’s standard of living.   Educated people who see a way to get ahead through personal initiative are our best ally going forward.  If we want to help developing countries (even ones with repressive regimes), we should be figuring out ways to work with the government in power to improve the country’s educational and entrepreneurial infrastructure.  Lots of good things will then follow —  for a lot less than $1 trillion and many, many lost lives.

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