Author: David Ng, Goucher College
Following the crushing defeat of a close ally’s forces at the hands of increasingly powerful insurgents, the United States sent a small contingent of advisers to bolster indigenous forces. As the conflict intensified, US and local allied forces increasingly relied on US air superiority to hold back the advance of their shared adversaries.
Given recent events, a reader of the previous paragraph might assume that it is about the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq. Though it definitely applies to the ongoing situation in that tumultuous part of the Muslim world, I was in fact referring to the way US involvement in the Vietnam War escalated beginning in the 1950s. Since the appalling Yazidi humanitarian crisis near Mt. Sinjar in early August, the United States has sent in a steady number of soldiers under an advisory role, while the Obama administration has insisted these troops would not fight in combat. There are significant parallels between this and the usage of US military advisers in Vietnam, who assisted French troops and later the ARVN following France’s withdrawal.
For the moment, Obama’s insistence does not preclude US troops from participating in ground combat in Iraq, and perhaps Syria in the near future. The fluidity of Obama’s statements was clear when the President announced an expansion of the air campaign against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) on September 16, but despite ISIS being his only mentioned target, US airstrikes targeted and destroyed assets belonging to the Khorasan Group, a subsidiary of Jabhat al-Nusra, in Syria. Jabhat al-Nusra, though an al-Qaeda-affiliated opposition group in Syria, was not explicitly mentioned to be a target in President Obama’s speech on September 16. The ambiguity of Obama’s statements vis-à-vis US military actions in Iraq and Syria ought to be concerning to Americans, as it hints that the Obama administration may – at its discretion – authorize US troops to fully commit to combat on the ground against ISIS and their affiliates.
Apart from the terms and rules of engagement for the US military, more parallels can be seen between the presently evolving situation in Iraq and Syria and and the situation in Vietnam. In light of Western frustration with the inadequate capabilities and willingness to fight on the part of the Iraqi army, the West has instead decided to throw their moral and material support behind a specific ethnic group in the region: the Kurds. To be specific, it is the Kurds on official Iraqi soil with their semi-autonomous fief of Kurdistan, though it is often considered among all Kurds that one who fights in defense of Kurdish interests is a Peshmerga. The Iraqi Kurds have had a lengthy history of having the same and aligned interests with the United States’, particularly their resistance against the regime of Saddam Hussein, cooperation with Operation Iraqi Freedom of 2003 and continued cooperation and support until the withdrawal of US troops on 2011.
In Vietnam, the historical parallel of the Kurds in Iraq are the Montagnards. French for “mountain dweller”, the Montagnards were indigenous to Vietnam’s mountain highlands, made up of various ethnicities and tribes. They were highly admired by US special forces advisers (also known as the Green Berets) for their courage, ability in combat and eagerness to cooperate with US forces, as opposed to the often-reluctant ARVN. This led to US forces frequently siding with Montagnards in Vietnamese-Montagnard disputes, which further alienated the Vietnamese majority. At the conclusion of the Vietnam war and the complete withdrawal of US forces, the Montagnards were at the mercy of the victorious communist Vietnamese regime in retaliation for their collaboration with the enemy. Hardly any assistance was rendered from the United States to the Montagnards.
There is a risk of the United States doing the same to Iraqi Kurds. Unbeknownst to many Americans, the US government often seeks out local collaborators in foreign conflicts, offering grand promises of assistance of economic aid and even independence to their collaborators. These groups are typically repressed minorities with a bone to pick with the US’ adversaries. However, the US government and its public frequently lose interest in local collaborators over time and completely abandon them. This leads to an immense amount of distrust of American overtures of assistance and alliances in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other typical geopolitical hotspots of the world where there is frequent American intervention, and could sabotage future US efforts to stabilize future crises.
The parallels between 1950s-1960s Vietnam and contemporary Iraq and Syria are significant and stark. History has a habit of repeating itself and it is tragic that we have yet to remember history’s lessons, or to learn from them. Sadly, there are already those among the US military who note with dark humor on the true mission of US military advisers presently in Iraq. In “Pentagon Deployrs 3rd Adviser Division to Iraq” in the Duffel Blog, a popular satire site written by members of the United States armed forces, the anonymous writer speaks with Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby’s voice:
“Geneva conventions do not specifically limit any type of advice, allowing the new 3rd Adviser Division to utilize the Vietnam-era M2 Advice-throwers [flamethrowers],” Kirby said, also noting the deployment of the M1A1 Armored Humanitarian Relief Vehicle [main battle tank] and the F-16 Fighting Advisory Falcon [fighter aircraft].”
The satire writer muses on what advice the advisers are authorized to use and are capable of when he continues, “the troops will be authorized to engage with 5.56mm and 7.62mm [rifle rounds] advice whenever necessary. In some instances and with higher authority, the division could use 105mm and 155mm advice [artillery rounds], along with 500lb Joint Direct Advice Munitions [bombs dropped from military aircraft].