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Can "Humanitarian Wars" be Won? (Revised)

Here's a classic Vietnam era anti-war song.

After reading the second comment listed below, and reconsidering my response to that comment, I decided to republish this post with a few revisions. (A future post will explain why.)

When it became clear that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were going to drag on for a while, the inevitable comparisons to Vietnam began. In some basic ways, however, the current wars bear little resemblance to Vietnam. The rugged terrains of Iraq and Afghanistan are nothing like the tropical rainforests of Vietnam. Insurgents in the current conflicts seem to have far less domestic and international support than the Vietcong once had, and they have not been organized as single, united forces. Also, the number of American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined are only 1/10 (so far) of those killed in Vietnam.

Still, there are some eerie similarities. Like in Vietnam, The United States has been fighting against enemies who can be very difficult to locate and properly identify. These insurgents, like the Vietcong, recognize that they cannot take on the United States military in a “conventional” war. So they infiltrate communities, blend in with the civilian population, and are content to harass American soldiers (and the population in general) with quick hit-and-run strikes and booby traps. They know that they do not have to win in a conventional sense. They also know that when Americans kill civilians, it plays into the insurgents’ hands. So all that they need to do is inflict enough casualties and drag these conflicts out long enough to convince the United States that the costs are too high. In other words, they have to do the same thing that the Vietcong was able to accomplish.

This is why some would say that continued U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are ultimately pointless. Like Vietnam, these conflicts cannot be won. Others, however, disagree. Part of the reason that our efforts in Vietnam failed, they would argue, was that the American public did not adequately support the efforts of the military. And this lack of support went beyond the efforts of the liberal media and of those anti-war hippies. The federal government, partly out of fear of public opinion, asked the military to fight this war with “one hand tied behind its back.” For fear of inflicting excessive civilian casualties, soldiers could not root out and destroy communists as aggressively as necessary. Also, due to concerns about possible domestic and international reactions, restrictions were placed on bombing targets, with the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi being a particularly important “off-limits” potential site. If enough of the public had recognized that “war is hell,” but you must fight to win, then the results may have been different. To those who maintain this view that Vietnam was winnable, history may be repeating itself in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I agree with those who say that lack of public support was a big part of America’s failure in Vietnam. Anti-war protesters, in fact, would take this as a compliment. In theory, it is also possible that more aggressive action could have led to a different result.  This is assuming, of course, that over a half million troops, double the tonnage of explosives that were dropped in all of World War II, and the extensive use of chemical agents were just not enough. Still, there is an even more fundamental problem with this line of reasoning, a problem that also applies to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Vietnam, the United States’ basic justification for involvement was to stop the spread of communism. Part of this effort, like the Cold War in general, was to protect and promote American interests. (A world full of communist nations, after all, is bad for business.) However, the United States also claimed that defending South Vietnam from communism would make that country a better place. So there was a humanitarian component to this war, a component that can lead to big trouble. After all, the more damage that the United States did in South Vietnam, the harder it was to argue that these efforts were helping the people of that nation. In a sense, the United States, through its stated policy objective, doomed itself to failure. At some point, the infliction of excessive death and destruction would make it impossible to declare any legitimate victory.

In World War II, the United States was not fighting against Japanese and German soldiers in an effort to make those countries better places. The goal was to defeat their military forces and destroy their capacity to continue fighting. World War II was unimaginably horrific, but it was simpler strategically than a war like Vietnam. The United States could more easily identify the enemy’s military forces and felt that it was justified in targeting civilian populations and using all of the firepower at its disposal.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resemble Vietnam much more than World War II. In both places, like in Vietnam, the United States initially used national security as the justification for fighting. Afghanistan had terrorist training camps that were harbored by the Taliban government, and Saddam Hussein (supposedly) had “weapons of mass destruction.” Over time, however, particularly in Iraq, the United States justified its efforts with humanitarian language: liberation, promoting democracy, etc. Now, like in Vietnam, the United States is trying to win wars while appearing to help people, fighting against insurgents who are difficult to distinguish from civilians. With such unrealistic stated goals, it may already be impossible to ever declare victory.


  1. I agree that the war in Iraq resembles Vietnam much more than World War II, or even Korean War. Afghanistan is more complicated.

    US invaded Vietnam in 1960s to prevent a unified Communist state from spreading from China and USSR into S/E Asia. Once USSR and China went to war with each other, it became clear that there would be no single unified Communist state in Eurasia, and thus US mission was accomplished and the US pulled out in early 1970s.

    There are many potential reasons for US to invade Iraq, which will be debates for decades (Bush's vendetta, quest for cheap oil supplies, US's misinterpretation of Iraq's saber rattling against Iran (nuclear, chemical, biological weapons), violation of the no fly zones & cease fire from Gulf War I, and US public's desire for revenge against "them" from 9/11 attacks. The conventional battles were won within a few weeks, but the guerrilla war has dragged on indefinitely. For whatever reason, US is scaling back and will pull out within a year, claiming victory. Within 5 years of the US pullout, Iraq will probably descend into chaos and/or a neighbor will invade, since nature and Middle East hates a vacuum.

    The US had a fairly straightforward reason for invading Afghanistan: capture Al-Quaeda operatives, prevent terrorist safe havens & training grounds, and prevent opium harvests from being converted to drug money to fund further terrorism & despotism. US aided the Northern Alliance with air power to initially conquer Taliban, but then it got complicated, and US committed ground troops. The Taliban still retains semi-uniformed troops, and unlike Vietnam, there are Taliban strongholds that US does not dare to enter.

    Politicians will always justify their action, using words that you described: liberation, promoting democracy, etc.

    I suspect that future wars will be fought with non-kinetic weapons, so cyber attacks to shut down power plants or disable computer networks, banking, telecommunications, etc, or airborne laser attacks against cell phone towers or other electronic infrastructure. No explosions or funerals/protests for CNN or Al Jizera to exploit, and no civilian casualties that are directly attributable to US actions. And no committal of ground troops.

  2. "In World War II, the United States was not fighting against Japanese and German soldiers in an effort to make those countries better places. The goal was to defeat their military forces and destroy their capacity to continue fighting. World War II was unimaginably horrific, but it was also much simpler than a war like Vietnam. "

    It never fails to puzzle me why the USA fought the Nazis. Because, judging from your post, the US mind and the Nazi mind were on the same frequency. Invading countries to make them better places, killing civilians with impunity - that was the Nazi way of life.

    "Now, like in Vietnam, the United States is trying to win wars without doing too much damage" -- that is so funny. You are not bothered by facts, are you? The USA fired 15 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, double the amount it used in WW2. And we are not talking about Agent Orange. Not even Hitler used chemical weapons in WW2, your nation did.

    It may interest you that the "Our military was stabbed in the back" conspiracy theory was used over hereas well, as an explanation why we lost WW1. But this has nothing to do with reality.

    We lost WW1 because of the last-minute-entry of the USA. You lost Vietnam because you were inexperienced with Guerilla warfare, and you had no clear war objective, and you comitted too many atrocities. The fact that you neither acknowledged them nor atoned for them is a shame for a democracy.

  3. I am bothered by facts. Much of this post was designed to discredit those who claim that our military was "stabbed in the back." Any claims that the United States could win in Vietnam and somehow declare that we had improved the country were ridiculous. And yet somehow, in spite of all those bombs and the investment of hundreds of thousands of troops, some Americans claim that we should have been even more aggressive? Still, on some level, they are sort of right. The U.S. could have obliterated the place even more fully than they actually did. Of course, it would have then been difficult to declare "victory." And in Iraq, with all of the damage that has been done, the U.S. could have easily done more. So why are they "holding back"? So they can maintain the illusion of "helping" the place.

  4. Anonymous, after rereading and pondering both my post and your comment, I still think that you missed the point that I was trying to make. Still, your comment made it clear that I could have expressed my point of view better. Your reaction, and my future revisions to this post, will be the subject of my next post. So thanks (I think).


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