Nowadays many people claim our situation In Iraq is becoming more and more like it was in Vietnam. One major criticism of our effort in Vietnam was the absence of an exit strategy. In war planning the term “exit strategy” doesn’t necessarily mean cut and run, as some mistakenly believe. Rather, it is simply defining how you plan to bring the war to an end. In Vietnam, it was beyond the capabilities of both the Johnson and Nixon administrations to devise such a strategy.
During World War II, when the term “exit strategy” was not yet in vogue, the goal for ending the war was nonetheless clear to everyone: unconditional surrender on the part of both Germany and Japan. If that war had been fought in today’s more politically correct atmosphere, we might have said the goal was to bring democracy to the German and Japanese people. Though today’s Americans might find it strange, the fact is that neither the Germans nor the Japanese really wanted democracy. Both Hitler and the Japanese militarist government were vastly more popular than the democratic regimes that preceded them. In the end, we had to force democracy on Germany and Japan.
In order to do that we not only bombed military targets but deliberately bombed civilian neighborhoods in Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and, of course, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All this was done in the belief we would bring the war to a quicker end and it was therefore better to kill more of their civilians than to lose more of our military people. It doesn’t appear as if that sort of thinking would be acceptable today.
In Vietnam, we had no intention of conquering the North and forcing democracy on it. If indeed we had a goal, it was one for which we as a people were and still are totally unsuited: namely, to try to wear out the North until it grew so exhausted it would leave South Vietnam alone. For North Vietnam the goal was clear: to conquer the South – which it did, as we were the ones who wore out while the North Vietnamese persisted.
On the other hand, the liberation of France is an aspect of World War II that we can still identify with. The French liked their prewar democracy and overwhelmingly wanted democracy back. And so they greeted our troops with flowers, hugs and kisses.
Iraq, however, is nothing like France in 1944. Unlike France, there is no tradition of democracy in Iraq. Further, France is the creation of the French people, whereas Iraq was never created by the Iraqis but by force by Great Britain in 1920 at a cost of British lives and money. Iraq has never really known democracy and the only way truly civilized democracy can ever be imposed on Iraq is by force, something the U.S. is not inclined to do. We are not about to force the Iraqis into submission because, unlike the Germans and Japanese, we do not see them as enemies.
When we first went into Iraq we could have given Iraqis a chance to decide what sort of country they wanted. We should have let them choose whether they wanted three countries (Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish) or a unified Iraq. Either way, the people would have had the opportunity to create their own country (or countries) – something they had never done before. (Turkey may not have liked that, but let the Turks go in and deal with the whole mess.) You would at least have a basis for democracy.
Instead, we insist that Iraq be held together whether the people want it or not, but we are not about to employ the brute force needed to stabilize it, even though that would reduce our casualties over the long run. So what options remain?
In Vietnam we were told the North Vietnamese were part of “international Communism” and had to be stopped (but not conquered) lest not just South Vietnam but all the countries of Southeast Asia fall one by one, like a row of standing dominoes, to Communism.
In Iraq all you have to do is replace “international Communism” with “international terrorism.” During the Vietnam era I couldn’t make up my mind if I was for the war or against it. But what was clear to me were the words of Gen. MacArthur: “It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it.”