Winning the Unwinnable

The Village by Bing West, Pocket Books, December 31, 2002, 400 pages

As we sit each day and have pumped to us still more images of Iraq descending into civil conflict, we are tempted to throw up our hands and say that America has no business trying to intercede in – and end – a civil war. We point knowingly to Vietnam, nod our heads sagely, and foreswear any future military venture unwinnable by sheer kinetic brute force.

And then we read a book like The Village, the true story of a team of 15 U.S. Marines who, without any special training or indoctrination, lived for two years in a village of 6,000 peasants in South Vietnam and for all intents and purposes ended the Viet Cong reign of terror in their district.

West (a Marine in Vietnam, later an Assistant Secretary of Defense and most recently a war correspondent in Iraq) could have been reading from the works of Mao when he noted that a revolution has to be fought among the people. Every counter-revolution or counterinsugency, West notes, must be fought the same way. It’s not just about “hearts and minds.” It’s about “I’m going to put my ass on the line alongside you, every day, 24/7, because I understand that you trusting me is more important than any weapon I could bring to bear.”

The book is an incredible read, a page turner, and with the end of every chapter you ask yourself “why didn’t they tell us we could do this? Why, for seven years after the successes in Binh Nghia village, did America choose to pursue the failed strategies of the French and not the strategies we knew would – and could – work?”

You can read this book, understand it, and still argue that America had no business supporting the corrupt, detached regime in Saigon. But you cannot argue that the war was tactically a lost cause because an organized military cannot successfully fight insurrection. Follow that line of inquiry, and I guarantee that you will find reasons for the collapse of South Vietnam that are far more complex – and disturbing – than any of the oversimplified platitudes of either the “Vietnam was a bad war” Left or the “we could have won if if only the politicians had let us” Right.

And what about today?

If, one asks oneself, there were successes like this in Vietnam that have been forgotten both by the public and the military at large, what lessons are we failing to learn on the ground in Iraq (if any) that could change that situation. And what lessons from our past have we forgotten that would provide us insight into the situation we face today?

You might say this is all irrelevant, because Iraq is a lost cause and Afghanistan will surely follow.

But if you have a sense of history and of the direction the world is taking, you cannot help but realize that we will find ourselves facing more Iraqs, more Afghanistans more Vietnams in the future. It is not going to be a matter of “if.” Rather it is a matter of “when” and “whom.”

We failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam the first time, and it has landed us in Iraq today. In The Village,Bing West reminds us that perhaps it’s time we realized that our defeats have far more to teach us about ourselves and our future than our victories.