The Ultimate Cost of Poor Decisions

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Watching Afghanistan and Iraq  developments unfold, failing to meet our original expectations, is depressing enough.

But it’s made worse when I think how I felt when the American public grew tired of the Vietnam War.

Until now, I never made that connection among the three operations.

Avoiding the humiliation of unilateral withdrawal, the Paris cease-fire agreement of 1973 was hailed as victory for our side. When the North Vietnamese violated the agreement after we withdrew, their treachery was ignored, in part not to tarnish our image of victory.

While the sacrifice of many who died and served in Vietnam is still recalled with reverence by those who remember, veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq may expect no less in the years ahead.

Still, I wonder if the price paid for trying to embed democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq will be remembered 40 years hence, even for a lost cause. The strongest supporters of those invasions admit we may have to wait that long for positive results, if any.

It’s refreshing to witness eminent Vietnam War historians such as Lewis Sorley who recently published a book with the title Westmoreland: the General who lost Vietnam. While some challenge this thesis, it breaks a code of silence that all our military engagements must have a bright side, if one looks hard enough and long enough.

As one junior officer recently blogged: “I don’t understand how the military can go on pretending that we didn’t lose the war in Iraq, or that we’re not about to lose the war in Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, the Army is on the ropes, thanks to over-deployments.

Retired general Frederick J. Kroesen writes in Army Magazine, that “Today, the Army is unready for any commitment beyond the rotations currently planned for Afghanistan.”

This means if it were necessary to deploy elsewhere to defend our real national interests, the Army would be hard-pressed to answer the call. This harkens back to the “hollow Army” of the post-Vietnam era, described by Army Chief of Staff Edward “Shy” Meyer.

Part of the problem is that we are obsessed with declaring victory, even in ambiguous situations.

Victory was declared in the wake of Desert Storm, when we pushed Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait. But protocols allowed Saddam to continue revenge attacks on Kurdish and Shia populations, muffling victory celebrations for those who cared and knew.

Not to offend those who served bravely, but it was victory on the cheap.

In 2001, victory was assumed in Afghanistan after the Northern Alliance seized Kabul. But that did nothing to prevent Osama bin Laden from re-establishing al Qaeda in Pakistan. Later, when we switched focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, al Qaeda reestablished relations with the Taliban…and the fighting continues.

World War II ended in victory for us, but not for the people living in the Captive Nations behind the Iron Curtain. And it wasn’t long after the Japanese capitulated on the deck of the USS Missouri that our Chinese allies fell under siege by the Communists.

We celebrated a victory of sorts when the armistice effectively ending the Korean War was signed in July 1953 in Panmunjom. But when the North Koreans declared an end to the armistice earlier this year, who knows how victory will be defined in the future? Hopefully, with threats only.

I’m now an old soldier who lives with vibrant memories from my service in Vietnam with an infantry battalion. My private and personal kinship with those who served with me are part of my essence. And when I look at the young faces of those killed in action on the Vietnam Memorial’s Virtual Wall, I can scarcely see through the mist.

Many of my battalion comrades are identified on panel 33E.  A cousin of Sergeant Edward J. Reeder of Boothwyn, Penn., posted this note: “On 7 Jan 1968 A and C Companies, 2nd Bn, 12th Cavalry, were  ambushed in the Que Son Valley by the 3d NVA Regiment. Twenty three US soldiers died in the ensuing fight.” Sergeant Reeder’s and 22 other names and home of record follows below. This posting is an example, and not the only one.

Whatever may be said of the war in Vietnam, we did demonstrate a willingness to shed blood in our vital national interests.

We live today in a changing world, where traditional existential threats to our security have been displaced by non-state actors who make their own rules. It would be nice to look forward to a more peaceful world, but not very realistic.

We have overseas interests that deserve military intervention. But only if we select our targets carefully will our people today, and history tomorrow, support the nation’s decision makers. Conversely, failure to engage is not only counter to our national interests, it also signals vulnerabilities to those who will exploit them.

It took about 20 years after our departure from Vietnam before we mustered support to invade Kuwait to eject Saddam.  I hope it will not take as long to go abroad again, if necessary.

Failure to respond in a crisis would be a terrible legacy of the misjudgments that led us attack Afghanistan and Iraq.

But such stumbles could lead a war-shy public to care less about our strategic national interests.

Perhaps that’s the price we pay for making poor decisions in the first place.

Charles A. Krohn is a retired Army lieutenant colonel and author of The Lost Battalion of Tet: Breakout of the 2/12th Cavalry at Hue.