The word “defeat” has been thrown around lately in connection with the war in Iraq; here’s an example.
The title of the editorial is “Vietnam syndrome: the consequences of U.S. defeat in Iraq would be much greater than they were in Vietnam.” I agree with the basic premise; they would. But I disagree with the characterization of what’s going on there as “defeat.”
You may think I’m engaging in useless semantic nitpicking. But I don’t think so. I think what we experienced in Vietnam was closer to defeat than what’s going on in Iraq, but I think both basically come down to a different thing entirely: defeatism, and that it’s a troubling post-Vietnam development in our national psyche.
Remember that we had been disengaged from active fighting in the war in Vietnam for years when we abandoned that country in early 1975. I’ve written about that process so extensively that I’m not going to go into it again here (see this, this, this, and this). What’s important, though, is that we gave up when we were undergoing very little risk and when the cost of continuing was low. Even though we were merely subsidizing the fighting of others in a cause for which fifty thousand Americans had already given their lives, we had grown weary of what was perceived as an endless conflict, and it was that psychological defeatism that led to our pulling the plug on the still-fighting South Vietnamese themselves, who then—and only then—were in fact defeated.
We have lost relatively few casualties in Iraq, our economy is still thriving, and we’ve experienced no increase in terrorist attacks here. There has been no military defeat, just a psychological one, and it is self-generated.
In a way, though, my distinction between “defeat” and “defeatism” might be moot: in the end they both would have the same effect on the Iraqis. They would/will also have the same effect on the international perception of our ability to keep our word and to persevere in a struggle, an important part of deterrence of future conflicts.
They look different domestically, though; we have not experienced anywhere near the suffering and decimation involved in an actual defeat. Ask the elderly Germans or the Japanese what that is like.
In fact, the US has never suffered a defeat. The only part of the US that has is the South during the Civil War and its aftermath, the traumatic process of Reconstruction. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the word “defeat” is now thrown around so readily; many of us don’t quite understand what it means.