By Stanley Campbell
Why does the military insist our colonial wars are “not like Vietnam”? I can unequivocally say that Afghanistan is not like Vietnam. I’m a Vietnam veteran who served in the United States Army’s 67th Medical Group stationed just outside DaNang. And Vietnam is nothing like Afghanistan. This is an expansion of an early article about differences between Iraq and Vietnam.
Vietnam is a jungle. Afghanistan is a mountainous desert. It rains so much in Vietnam there’s a season called monsoon, which means “a god-awful deluge.” Afghanistan is a wasteland. It is dry there, except in winter, when it is “god-awful” cold.
The enemy is different: while the Viet Cong could hide in the jungle, the Afghanistani insurgents can only hide in the mountains. Except when they hide in the cities.
And their cities look different. In Vietnam, the buildings were either bamboo huts or French colonial-style (the French were there before us). In Afghanistan, their capital has bombed-out buildings built by the British, and villages built of mud. Still, there are lots of poor people in both countries, and they have a similar hue to their skin. Note to self: why do we always bomb colored poor people?
While I was in Vietnam (I was there for 365 days and a wake-up), I worked as a clerk. Now, most support services in Afghanistan are farmed out to private industry, which is more expensive, and they can quit whenever they don’t like their work.
American soldiers in Vietnam may have been more secure than American soldiers in Afghanistan, even though both wars have/had sniper fire and terrorist bombings. South Vietnam faced “armies” of Viet Cong backed up by North regulars. I don’t think Afghanistan has much of an organized resistance. Yet.
There are more differences: Muslim countries surround Afghanistan, whereas Buddhist Vietnam has an ocean on one side. In Vietnam, the U.S. Army wore dark green camouflage, while our troops wear tan and light brown in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, the medical technology is better, so the rate of soldiers’ deaths is lower, though the wounded seem to suffer as much, if not more. In Vietnam, the American infantry had more chance of dying. They were used as bait to attract enemy fire, which was a tactic when you have an elusive enemy.
The differences between the two countries are obvious: geographic, physical, religious, etc. But military strategy is only slightly different. In Vietnam, the U.S. first supported the French from 1946 to ’54, and then sent advisers and built up the military forces in secret; in Afghanistan, the CIA jumped in with bombers supporting local anti-Talibanis. Now, our troops are trying to occupy the whole damn country. So, yes, there is a difference between Afghanistan and Vietnam. But why do the two wars feel the same? Why do the two wars smell like disaster?
Here’s a similarity: War makes somebody rich.
During most wars, money is easily stolen. During the First World War, companies received payment for equipment never delivered or that arrived on the front but hadn’t been asked for or needed. The term “war profiteers” was coined.
In World War II, then Sen.-Harry S. Truman dragged defense contractors over hot coals. He found enough graft and corruption to fund a third front.
While I was in Vietnam, I remember giant supply depots full of stuff, from ping-pong balls to beer to every sundry item under the sun, all bought and paid for by the American taxpayer.
So, who’s keeping track of the War on Terrorism billions? Thieves wrap themselves in the American flag and expect us to salute instead of reading the fine print. So, yes, in some cases, the war in Afghanistan is much like the war in Vietnam, and almost every war before.
Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.
From the March 31-April 6, 2010 issue