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On 31 Jan 1968, shortly after midnight, sirens wailed. GIs and Marines tumbled out of bed responding to yet another supposed exercise in readiness. Instead it was a devastating surprise. Hue was being over-run; Saigon was under attack with key installations already in the hands of insurgent forces. That long night of losses took nearly a month to reverse in a dramatic and significant military victory.

There was just one little problem--we were fighting the wrong war. We lost the only battle that counted--the political one.

Methodically, the insurgents systematically murdered some 3,000 American sympathizers in Hue alone. This was a general pattern. It was another seven long years, and some 20,000 dead soldiers and marines later before another president yielded to the obvious and withdrew all American forces.

Like an echo reverberating up and down a well that never dies, there is a spirit in people that resents foreign domination. This is factual, history. Insurgencies have resisted empire throughout all recorded history. Not only do they regularly reappear, each beats to similar rhythm.

  • A small group feels the humiliation of life under foreign governance.
  • They begin sporadic attacks, now defined as terrorism, on easy targets of the occupying power and its domestic sympathizers.
  • The population at large awakes to the issues and begins to support, aid and abet the revolt.
  • Terrorism becomes an insurgency.
  • Gathering strength from internal and external sources, the insurgency grows to a level capable of brief battlefield-scale operations.
  • It is then only a matter of time before the foreign occupier has enough and withdraws.

This is history. And we are now mid echo in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We may have had a brief window where we might have been able to reinforce the existing infrastructure, stabilize the economy, institute popular democratic reforms, and exit before national humiliation reached critical levels. The key word is exit. But that is not the historic pattern; the present administration openly disdained nation building. When it finally realized the necessity, the only possible windows of opportunity had slipped by.

The political situation in Afghanistan has dramatically worsened. Warlords rule once again. The Taliban is re-surging. Al Qa'ida is alive and more secure than ever. Recruitment remains high. In Iraq political accommodation remains on hold at best, tenuous in any event. Al Qa'ida has a foothold where they did not before. Three ethnic groups must voluntarily unite, rebuild the infrastructure, and bring about a stable and equitable balance of power among themselves. That is very unlikely. A partition of Iraq might be the only possible solution. For several reasons partition is an unpopular solution among Iraq's neighboring states and the world at large. One thing is certain: The insurgency will last as long as we are there.

Twice this time, we find ourselves fighting the wrong wars, taking pride in our military prowess. And twice over, we are losing the only battles that count--the political ones.

Suggested readings on the historic rhythm of insurrections:


For a hawk an alternate plan is nowhere to be found. It is they, the extreme hawks, who keep the treadmills of war-history spinning rapidly.

For a dove, or most anyone else in between, the Tet Offensive as well as the history of insurgency should become required courses in school, especially for those seeking careers in diplomacy or the military. The rest of us also need to remain on guard against the rhythms of history returning to haunt us. So we too would benefit from such knowledge.

Beyond that, we need to understand why we made the mistake in Vietnam, and why we repeated it in Iraq and Afghanistan, how they were the same and how they differed in their beginnings and follow through. Given these and both the above paragraphs, our political and military leaders would better understand how things can spin out of control, and to that extent, be better prepared the next time, or until pacem in terris (peace on earth) arrives.

Posted by RoadToPeace on Friday, June 20, 2008 at 18:29:58

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Posted by RoadToPeace on Friday, December 04, 2009 at 00:06:04

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Posted by RoadToPeace on Friday, December 04, 2009 at 00:10:35

In another vein, the My Lai massacre should be required teaching for diplomatic and political aspirants.

Posted by RoadToPeace on Friday, December 04, 2009 at 00:12:32

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