Moshe Dayan on Vietnam and the Implications for Iraq

Also in the Boston Review, Martin van Creveld revisits Moshe Dayan’s observations on the Vietnam War, and asks what lessons it offers for Iraq.

Today comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq are fashionable. Some people emphasize the differences between the two, claiming that the former was essentially a conventional war. I disagree. Based on Dayan’s account, I would argue that the similarities are more important than the differences.

First, according to Dayan, the most significant operational problem the American forces were facing in Vietnam was lack of intelligence—the inability to distinguish the enemy from either the physical surroundings or the civilian population. . .In its absence, most of the blows they delivered—including no fewer than six million tons of bombs—missed their targets. Their only effect was to disperse the enemy into the civilian population. Worst of all, lack of accurate intelligence meant that the Americans kept hitting noncombatants by mistake. They thus drove huge segments of the population straight into the arms of the Viet Cong; nothing is more conducive to hatred than the sight of relatives and friends being killed.

. . .

The third of Dayan’s observations, and the most relevant to a comparison with the current war in Iraq, is that the Americans found themselves in the unfortunate position of beating down the weak. As Dayan wrote, ‘Any comparison between the two armies was astonishing. On the one hand there was the American army, complete with helicopters, an air force, armor, electronic communications, artillery, and mind-boggling riches; to say nothing of ammunition, fuel, spare parts, and equipment of all kinds. On the other there were the [North Vietnamese troops], who had been walking on foot for four months, carrying some artillery rounds on their backs and using a tin spoon to eat a little ground rice from a tin plate.’

Eqbal Ahmad used to call describe the last lesson as “the defeat by human beings of the collective presumptions of technology”, which I always found poetic.  I’m not convinced of every point of the analogy, especially the last one, but it’s worth considering.