Senator John McCain believed the Vietnam war was winnable, and it is important to understand why he not only believed that Vietnam was winnable, but that Iraq is winnable as well. It goes back to core principals of honor which are shared by a long line of military commanders in McCain’s family. But Honor is an ideological tenant that can not be a shield from the realities of power and politics.
Let’s step back in time to one of the defining moments in the Vietnam war. In the Tet Offensive of 1968, the North Vietnamese launched an all out offensive on several major cities. The simultaneous attack was massively well coordinated and a great blow to American morale. Walter Cronkite, who was voted in various opinion polls as the most trusted man in America, made statements about how the US no longer had any reason to have a military presence in Vietnam; powerful statements that turned the tide of American opinion.
However, the Tet Offensive was a strategic and tactical failure for the North Vietnamese and Vietcong. The failed to cause the uprising and revolution in the south they had been hoping for and suffered massive causalities at the hands of the South Vietnamese and US forces. The effect of the Tet Offensive was purely a psychological one. John McCain’s father Admiral McCain never appears to mention in any of his writings that he viewed the Tet Offensive as a defeat1.
Could the war in Vietnam have been won? It is a question that is still debated by historians today. However there is a critical reality about Vietnam: the rules of engagement. Many of the rules of engagement prevented US forces from attacking critical targets. The rules of engagement prohibited any types of attacks on the following2:
- North Vietnamese Surface-to-Air (SAM) sites that were not operational
- SAM that hadn’t first launched an offensive missile
- Any MiG fighter base designated as a “sanctuary”
- Any MiG fighter that did not have its landing gear retracted
- Any MiG fighter not showing hostile intent
Iraq suffers from the same apparent mismanagement. During the war planning, General Shinseki make it very clear additional tens of thousands of troops would be needed to secure Iraq after the initial invasion. His voice and others were ridiculed and silenced by Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and others. The Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) listed several historical sites that needed to be protected, were able to find former Iraqi commanders willing to reassemble the Iraqi army battalions, and provided numerous amounts of strategic solutions to the armed forces. The only building protected was the ministry of oil. The Iraqi army, of which every citizen is required to serve in one of the five branches, was disbanded. Many of the ORHA recommendations were ignored. Colonel Wilkerson, Ambassador Bodine, General Garner and several others in ORHA have all spoken publicly about the failure of the reconstruction effort3.
Ignoring questions of whether either the Vietnam or Iraq Wars were justified or necessary, could these wars have been winnable and left behind strong democratic governments? The chances of successful campaigns, if possible, was hindered greatly by what seems like a failure to listen to experts and correctly manage both war and reconstruction.
“…In one area, though, he [McCain] has been more or less consistent: his belief in the power of war to solve otherwise insoluble problems. This ideology of action has not been undermined by his horrific experience as a tortured POW during the Vietnam War, or by the Bush administration’s disastrous execution of the Iraq War. All this is not to suggest that McCain is heedlessly bellicose or reflexively willing to send U.S. soldiers into danger; he is the father of a marine and a Naval Academy midshipman…whose service he rarely mentions. And he opposed, presciently, keeping the Marines in Beirut in 1993….Senator Obama, though certainly no pacifist, envisions a world of cooperation and diplomacy; McCain sees a word of organic conflict and zero-sum competition1…” -Jeffrey Goldberg. The Atlantic.
McCain’s belief in finishing the war in Iraq comes from a deep sense of honor that is unyielding to ideology or public opinion. Both he and his father, according his interview with Goldberg in the October issue of The Atlantic, seemed to have a grasp of where the failures occurred in both Vietnam and currently in Iraqi. McCain truly believes he can right the failed policy in Iraq and restore American honor.
But the reality that McCain is unprepared for is not that of the senate or that of war planning, it is that he doesn’t understand that neither Vietnam or Iraq were never intended to be won. The ridiculous rules of engagement in Vietnam and the poor reconstruction effort in Iraq were less likely that of incompetency and negligence and more likely intentional policies that were intended to sustain the wars as long as possible.
Staying the course in Iraq will continue to fund the war industry and increase profit revenue for Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Haliburton, Boeing, Blackwater International and all the other defense contractors who have sustained hundreds of billions of dollars in profit from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Goldberg’s interview with McCain makes it easier for liberals, democrats and other left-wing groups to at least understand from what direction McCain is coming from and the reasoning behind his policies, even if one does not agree with them. However, McCain’s honor and maverick tagline will not be able to sway an economic and political system that is solidly nailed in the direction of creating and sustaining conflict purely for the means of financial gain and the drive for global dominance.
1 The Wars of John McCain. Goldberg. The Atlantic. October 2008. p40-54.
2 Air Force Colonel Jacksel Jack Broughton & Air Force General John D. Jack Lavelle: Testing the Rules of Engagement During the Vietnam War HistoryNet.com. Retrieved on October 11, 2008
3 No End in Sight (Film 2007)