Carlton Meyer, “The American Retreat from Vietnam” (Tales of the American Empire, 2020)
In the wake of the American retreat from Afghanistan in August 2021, the apparent parallel collapse of the Afghanistan armed forces and the concomitant swift rise of the Taliban back to power in Kabul, this episode in Carlton Meyer’s ongoing series Tales of the American Empire is worth a watch for possible similarities between US loss in Afghanistan over 2020 – 2021 and US defeat in the Vietnam War in early 1975. Certainly images of the Chinook helicopter hovering over the US embassy in Kabul, similar to images of a Chinook hovering over the US embassy in Saigon in April 1975, cannot just be coincidental. As it turns out, there are many similarities and parallels indeed, so much so that not only does the question of whether the US learned anything at all from its Vietnam defeat arise but also the question of whatever good the US might have learned from that defeat was either worthwhile or wasted.
One obvious parallel is that just as the US threw money, equipment and weapons at the Afghanistan army, so it did the same at the South Vietnamese army from 1969 onwards, after Richard Nixon became US President as the second half of Meyer’s film details. The South Vietnamese army was much larger and better equipped with advanced military hardware than the Viet Cong. At the same time, morale and loyalty towards a corrupt government in Saigon within the South Vietnamese army were low, just as soldiers in the Afghanistan army were disloyal to the corrupt governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani in Kabul. South Vietnamese soldiers were apt to sell weapons and equipment to the Viet Cong secretly, just as their Afghan counterparts did more recently to the Taliban and their supporters. As well, in both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the armies were heavily dependent on US “advice” and communications: in both countries, once the advisors left, the armies collapsed. (This bodes ill for the armed forces in countries like Australia and others that coordinate their activities closely with US armed forces, to the extent that these other nations’ armies are unable to act on their own initiative.) In addition, senior generals in the South Vietnamese army were corrupt and amassed fortunes for themselves from US taxpayer money, and surely decades later their equivalents in the Afghan armed forces and the government did the same: news that Ashraf Ghani secretly fled Afghanistan by car with another four cars and a helicopter all filled with cash (and having to leave some money behind at Bagram airport) has been circulating on the Internet.
A second parallel is that just as sections of the US government knew that the Vietnam War was unwinnable as early as the early 1960s yet lied to the general public and continued to throw money and men into a giant black hole, so half a century later some elements in the US government must have also known that the war in Afghanistan was also unwinnable for the US yet allowed the lies to continue. A major difference may be that most politicians and the news media in the early 2000s were so divorced from reality that they persisted in pushing more trillions and more troops into the quagmire in Central Asia, even though they must have known (or at least their gut feeling must have known) that the war in Afghanistan could not be won and that sooner rather than later the US and its allies would have to leave the country in defeat and humiliation. Whether the general public in the US and the West generally in the early 2000s was as naive as it might have been in the 1960s and 1970s and accepted the lies and propaganda is another matter.
Whether South Vietnam was a safe place for its people to live in during its existence, I do not know, though the violence (especially violence against women and girls) that follows the establishment of US military bases in places as far-flung as Iraq, Japan and South Korea suggests that in Afghanistan during the US occupation from 2003 to 2021, the casual violence and brutality dished out by US and other Western troops to civilians in Afghanistan, collectively and individually, must have been considerable. The wailing of Western human rights organisations about what the Taliban might do to Afghan women and girls now that the movement has reasserted itself, when for the past 20 years most Afghan women and girls living outside Kabul and other major cities (they constitute about 75% of the country’s female population) experienced little of Western largesse and much of Western violence, is more than a little hypocritical.
By itself, Meyer’s film is a very informative introduction on the way the US prosecuted the war in Vietnam during Richard Nixon’s presidency, demonstrating how the US cause was a lost one due to its arrogance and failure to understand the Vietnamese people and their aspirations for independence. In light of the recent US defeat in Afghanistan, the film becomes a warning, a part of the ongoing narrative of US hubris, belief in American exceptionalism and over-dependence on technology and fire power.