From 1965 until 1973, the United States lent its full military power to aiding the dictatorship of South Vietnam against the dictatorship of North Vietnam.
Despite this, veterans of combat with the North Vietnamese Army showed far more respect for their hard-core enemies than their supposedly staunch South Vietnamese allies.
Consider the following examples, taken from the screenplay of Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1987 film, Full Metal Jacket.
The movie is largely based on Dispatches, the Vietnam memoirs of Michael Herr, a war correspondent for Esquire magazine (1967-1969).
A group of Marines are resting on the plaza of a pagoda. One of them calls to a photographer for the Marine newspaper, The Sea Tiger: “Hey photographer! You want to take a good picture? Here, man, take this. This is my bro….”
He lifts a hat, which is covering the face of a dead man–and reveals the face, not of an American, but of a North Vietnamese soldier.
“This is my bro…”
“This is his party. He’s the guest of honor. Today is his birthday. I will never forget this day. The day I came to Hue City and fought one million N.V.A. [North Vietnamese Army] gooks.
“I love the little Commie bastards, man, I really do. These enemy grunts are as hard as slant-eyed drill instructors. These people we wasted here today are the finest human beings we will ever know.
“After we rotate back to the world [the United States] we’re gonna miss not having anyone around that’s worth shooting.”
A reporter for a TV news crew is interviewing Marines during a lull in the fighting for the city of Hue.
EIGHTBALL: “Personally, I think they don’t really want to be involved in this war. I mean, they sort of took away our freedom and gave it to the gookers, you know. But they don’t want it. They’d rather be alive than free, I guess. Poor dumb bastards.”
COWBOY: “Well, the ones I’m fighting at are some pretty bad boys. I’m not real keen on some of these fellows that are supposed to be on our side. I keep meeting ’em coming the other way.”
DONLON: “I mean, we’re getting killed for these people and they don’t even appreciate it. They think it’s a big joke.”
ANIMAL MOTHER: “Well, if you ask me, uh, we’re shooting the wrong gooks.”
Haggling with a South Vietnamese pimp over the cost of a prostitute’s wares, a Marine recites a joke popular among American forces: “Be glad to trade you some ARVN rifles. Never been fired and only dropped once” [by retreating South Vietnamese forces].
* * * * *
Now, fast-forward from Vietnam in 1968 to Iraq in 2015.
Once again, the United States seems poised to embrace another worthless “ally.”
On May 25, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter bluntly accused the army of Iraq of lacking the will to stand up to its enemies in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter
On May 17, the Iraqi city of Ramadi fell to ISIS after the Iraqi army deserted the citizens counting on its protection.
Appearing on CNN’s Sunday news show, State of the Union, Carter said:
“What apparently happened is that the Iraqi forces showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force.
“That says to me, and I think to most of us, that we have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight [ISIS] and defend themselves.”
On the May 22, edition of the PBS Newshour, political commentator Mark Shields–a former Marine–sized up the situation:
“And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said they were not driven, the Iraqi army was not driven out of Ramadi. They drove out of Ramadi.
“They aren’t a paper tiger. They’re a paper tabby cat….
“But I will say that there are 250,000 Iraqi troops. There are, by CIA estimates, up to 31,000 ISIS troops.
“And you have full flight. I mean, they won’t be engaged. They haven’t been engaged.”
In 2010, President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq.
Since then, Obama’s strategy for turning Iraq into a bulwark against islamic extemism has rested on two goals:
- Rebuilding and retraining the Iraqi army; and
- Prodding the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad to reconcile with the nation’s Sunnis.
The second goal is especially important. The Sunnis, a religious minority in Iraq, ruled the country for centuries until the United States drove Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.
Now the Shiites are in control of Iraq, and they have been unwilling to grant political concessions to the alienated Sunnis. Baghdad has continued to work closely with Shiite militias backed by Iran.
In turn, the Sunnis have become a source of manpower and money for ISIS.
America’s relationship with Iraq has become eerily similar to the one it had with South Vietnam from 1955 to 1973.
And that relationship led the United States into the most divisive war in its history since the Civil War (1861-1865).