With Afghanistan in the Rearview Mirror, Have We Learned the Lessons of Vietnam This Time?
Watching the last American military plane go wheels up and out of the Afghanistan War reminded me of an old saying: History often repeats itself, but a lot of us would rather not pay attention.
On July 8, when President Joe Biden was defending his decision to withdraw all remaining U.S. forces, he was asked the inevitable question of whether he saw parallels with our defeat in Vietnam.
“None whatsoever. Zero,” he said, according to the White House transcript. “The Taliban is not … the North Vietnamese Army. They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability.”
He then said, famously, “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy,” an obvious reference to the iconic news photos of our farewell to Saigon.
We know better now and so does Biden.
“When will they ever learn?” I wondered, recalling a line from Pete Seeger’s popular Vietnam-era anti-war song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”
What are the lessons of Vietnam? The question has been asked and answered countless times since that war’s disastrous end in 1975. Now I ask the same questions about the lessons from our Afghanistan loss, and the answers sound sadly familiar.
Lesson one: Know what you’re fighting for.
In Vietnam, we weren’t fighting the same war that our enemy was fighting. In simple terms, we were fighting to stop the spread of international communism, while our enemy was fighting a war against colonial or neocolonial dominance by outsiders, first against China, then against the French and finally against us.
It’s hard to beat the motivations of an enemy that is fighting for its own land against outsiders. After we departed, the Vietnamese reunified and eventually became one of our friendliest multibillion-dollar trading partners in that region.