Our recent trip into Southeast Asia included a cruise on a small ship of six hundred passengers. We stopped twice each in Thailand and Vietnam with the six hundred dispersing in many directions to do many things. One grumpy old man had a lot to say about Vietnam when he got back on board. To him they got what they deserved when we “lost” the war: an impoverished country with no future, a country lost to modern civilization, and all because do-gooder, weak kneed, liberal politicians had not allowed the U.S. to win the war when victory was at hand.
He apparently had not seen the extraordinary development occurring in every place, prosperity expanding to embrace more of the population, the verdant abundance of agricultural land, and the emotional relief that has come with decades of peace, even if the government is not all that popular. He also did not seem to recognize that the Vietnamese had been in the midst of armed conflict for almost a hundred years, conflict that involved competing tribes, the French, Japanese, Americans, Chinese and Cambodians, as well as their own simultaneous civil war. What a blessed relief to live without war, to live with growing prosperity, to live with some expectation that one’s children would reach old age.
All of that aside, my question is this: what does winning a war look like? The grumpy old man was angry that America had not won the war in Vietnam. Daily one hears talk about winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No cutting and running for us; this time we’re going to win. What would that look like?
What would Vietnam look like today if we had won? The governments we backed in those days were not democracies. They were just a series of petty dictators. Would they and their successors be the government today? As it is, today’s government calls itself Communist but everything they do is oriented to private enterprise capitalism. It’s not democratic by any stretch, but it’s not really a dictatorship either. As I wrote earlier, it’s more like an old fashioned oligarchy. Best of all (for some), It’s fertile ground for American, European and Japanese investment.
What about Iraq and Afghanistan. Do we daydream of victory resulting in peaceful nations of gentle people, pro American of course, happily living in civilized democratic societies? Would all the terrorists and insurgents have been killed or converted? Would it be a nationalistic version of “Bully Beatdown?” I want to know what winning a war looks like. Could it mean that those places would have been pummled back into the stone age so that whoever was left to till the land could not possibly pose a threat to us and we could safely ignore them?