An agent of the CIA aids evacuees up a ladder onto an Air America helicopter on the roof of 22 Gia Long Street, April 29, 1975, shortly before Saigon fell to advancing North Vietnamese troops.
“There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy…”
– President Joe Biden (July 8, 2021)
The following is not a popular opinion, either among historians or the general populace:
By 1970, the United States had won in Vietnam.
It’s generally understood that the Vietnam War was the most embarrassing defeat for the United States military in history. Yes, the debacle at Bladensburg was bad, and the subsequent burning of the capitol unpleasant, but compared to Vietnam? And yet, by any objective measurement, the war in Vietnam had actually been all but ended with the destruction of organized resistance in the south. That is, by any measurement but one.
Most Americans today would find it hard to credit this, but the Viet Cong had been roundly defeated during the Tet Offensive of 1968, and by 1969 its numbers and recruitment were virtually nil. After that point, resistance against the American occupation forces was limited to what PAVN units could be smuggled into the south. U.S. casualties in the years following dwindled, and gradually, the responsibilities of defending South Vietnam were handed off to ARVN troops.
However, continued prosecution of the war was not a military but a political issue, and the American people had become convinced that it was a conflict without any real purpose. After such events as the My Lai massacre came to light, public support collapsed, and along with it went the morale of the soldiers in the field. Nixon was elected in 1968 on the strength of a nonexistent secret plan to end the war, and his failure to do so by 1972 greatly endangered his re-election campaign — so much so, in fact, that Hanoi’s premature release of the terms of the peace accord prompted a return to intensive bombing of the North with Operation Linebacker II. (Yes, Nixon killed people to get re-elected. Just like Johnson before him, and the sainted Jack Kennedy before him.)
But a nation’s armed forces cannot be created and rendered expert in a mere handful of years, and the economy of South Vietnam, never robust, was far from able to maintain a solid defense against the Soviet-funded north. After we left, the new service economy collapsed, and the only exports were agricultural. Toward the end, ARVN troops were restricted to 20 rounds each, plus two grenades. Hospitals in Saigon were forced to wash and reuse bandages, and had almost no medicines. And the promised American funding? Nonexistent.
In 1973, President Ford begged Congress for money to help the South Vietnamese government. Congress refused. The South collapsed fifteen months later.
Hence the photo: Those who assisted the American occupation, whether from loyalty, patriotism, or their own self-interest, were fleeing an incoming regime that most certainly would have shot them all. (Incidentally: This is often misrepresented as the roof of the embassy; instead, it’s the top of an apartment building that housed USAID and the CIA. These are government employees being evacuated. Including native translators, so yes, there is that parallel.)
From a purely military perspective, this was a failure not of arms but instead of government. Since, from the government’s point of view, they were simply serving to enact the will of the people, that places blame for the loss squarely on the voters, and on the news media for consistently showing only casualties and scandals instead of victories and the subsequent peace.
And yet, it’s equally proper to place the blame on a series of presidents who were willing to fight a war without first getting the explicit approval not only of Congress but of the American people. It’s hard to imagine any country with a democratic form of government winning a war against the will of the people — and yet, that’s what first Kennedy, then Johnson, then Nixon tried to do. It’s what they failed to do. And tens of thousands of American lives — and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese — were the price of their failure.
Today, with the final withdrawal of American forces from Kabul just moments ahead of invading Taliban troops, it’s hard to not think of it in terms of that earlier war. Never mind that Afghanistan is less a country than it is a loose confederation of quarrels, rivalries, and age-old feuds between dozens of independent tribal groups; given time and dedication, it should have been possible to leave behind if not a single stable government than dozens of regional ones, as it was in ancient history. Some solution ought to have presented itself during our two decades there, and when we left it should not have been so suddenly that the vacuum of our departure collapsed the flimsy structure that we’d built and then left behind us.
Nevertheless, it’s important to remark on the primary difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam: In Vietnam, we had won when we left. The most we ever managed in Afghanistan was “pacified”. Our presence wasn’t wanted, and no puppet government we could possibly leave behind would ever be acceptable to the Afghani population.
Today, the Afghan army — that fragment of it which hasn’t defected to the Taliban — is fleeing to Iran and Pakistan with billions of dollars worth of American arms and military equipment. The Taliban has top-end American gear now, including combat rifles, machine guns, and heavy weapons of all sorts. They own a large number of our spy drones. They have an American-built air force.
Today, there are an awful lot of people that are getting lined up and shot.
Again, we can place the blame for our precipitate departure partly on our own voters, and our own media. Certainly Biden is doing the will of the people (albeit ineptly), as Trump was before him, by hastening the departure of our soldiers. But the bulk of fault here, as in Vietnam, lies in part with those who went in without a long-term plan — not that they had many options at the time. After all, the people wanted — needed — action, and action is what they got. Never mind that it was a war with no exit; the voters demanded that heads should roll for 9/11, and the government obliged.
It’s worth noting the rather absurd nature of the Biden quote that heads this article. If this precipitate collapse came as a complete surprise to the President, he was either advised by particularly inept generals or he didn’t listen to them. If it didn’t and he was fully aware of the consequences of the sudden American withdrawal (like anyone who had ever been there), it was a deliberate and highly public lie for public relations purposes. In either instance, the public being thus related to should take note, and remember.
Even so, it would be short-sighted to blame President Biden entirely, just as it would be to blame the fickle sympathies of an uncaring American population. There’s more than enough blame to go around, sure, but the simple truth we keep forgetting, and the same mistake we keep making, is that of attempting to forcibly export American ideals to other nations. When the people of Afghanistan are ready for a parliamentary democracy, they’ll form one without our help. Or, just maybe, they’ll ask.
Another lesson we can draw is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to use armies to build rather than destroy. The logical flaw in employing military units to serve as a national police force is the same one we’re guilty of here at home with the D.E.A. and the I.N.S.:
“There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”
– Cmdr. William Adama, “Battlestar Galactica”
But the bottom line? It’s the American people who are responsible, just as we were in 1975, and in Kurdistan in 1991. We were tired of war, tired of the expense, and didn’t much care by that point who got hurt and who got enriched — so we left, and those left behind paid the price.
Should we ever have been in Afghanistan in the first place? Wrong question. We were there, and we stayed too long fighting a pointless war, and now we’ve left — and the manner of our departure brings with it an obscene price tag.
NOTE: Photo is a cropped version of the iconic picture shot by photojournalist Hugh van Es. Copyright, it is believed, is held by the estate of Mr. van Es, and is used here under the Fair Use doctrine, as it’s the photo itself that is iconic and it’s the events of that photo, and the circumstances surrounding it that we’re discussing. No copyright is asserted by The Not Fake News.
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