Book Review # 4: Finally, an interesting comparison of Iraq and Vietnam

The Limits of U.S. Military Capabilities:  Lessons from Vietnam and Iraq.  By James H. Lebovic.  Baltimore, Md.:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.  ISBN 978-0-8018-9472-5.  Notes.  Bibliography.  Index.  Pp. x, 297.  $50.00.

This book, the last of the 4 given to me by the Society of Military History for my review essay,  was much, much better than the previous volume of case studies on counter-insurgency I reviewed.   

James Lebovic, a political science professor at GWU, uses a much more narrow case study methodology to compare the U.S. military efforts in Vietnam versus Iraq.  Unlike many of the superficial and quite frankly, absurd comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam by various left-wing pundits who see EVERY American military action as "another Vietnam," no doubt trying to rekindle their glory days of sex, drugs, rock & roll, and draft dodging, Lebovic makes a detailed and comprehensive examination of each war.  His title, The Limits of U.S. Military Capabilities, successfully mirrors his analysis, which does not look at tactics or military operations but the overarching strategic and political issues in combating an insurgency while supporting a shaky friendly government that have a direct limiting effect on military effectiveness.  What makes his analysis timely and unique is his approach. He examines the interactions of the U.S. with the host nation governments, local political and tribal leaders, and outside players; weaving together an analysis of how all of these determine the success of supporting a weak, ineffective, or corrupt government facing an insurgent challenge.  

Lebovic in detail examines how the South Vietnamese and Iraqi governments often had very different agendas and priorities from the U.S.--with a correspondingly negative influence on military operations.  More importantly, in spite of massive U.S. military commitment, there was often little political influence the U.S. could bring to bear on recalcitrant allies to make needed political, social or economic reforms without jeopardizing the relationship with the host government.  Both the Vietnamese and Iraqis seemed to be were aware of this quandary, and were able to manipulate the U.S. and avoid making difficult or unpopular decisions that might have aided the overall war effort.  Needless to say, fighting with allies is a pain in the butt...fighting with corrupt knuckleheads who can't even collect trash or provide police as allies is almost always a losing proposition.  

Personally, I also think that trying to "Americanize" these wars and how the ARVN and Iraqi forces fought was also part of the problem.  Both were intended to be high firepower, high mobility militaries (roughly speaking) and when the far-left Democratic Congress slashed military aid to South Vietnam in 1974-1975, the North Vietnamese correctly smelled blood in the war and overran the country with a conventional attack, similar to the Easter Offensive which the U.S. stopped in 1972.  The Iraqis may be more fortunate since they have oil for revenue and no external threat....yet, the security situation there is going to hell now that this Administration no longer cares about Iraq, having bigger fish to fry in Syria, abandoning Israel to the tender mercies of Iran,  letting Egypt fall to Islamofascists, Bain Capital, and Medicare.

But I digress...back to the book.

Lebovic not only offers comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, he details the significant differences as well; something the idiotic analyses performed between 2004-2010 by the likes of the NYT, CNN, and other media armchair generals failed to do.  This compare and contrast style makes this book especially valuable in understanding the unique nature of each conflict and to his credit, Lebovic is very careful to highlight these similarities and differences when offering his conclusions and insights.   
These conclusions are not only cogent and timely but they highlight the real limitations the U.S. has when using military power to support nation-building or bolstering an ally against a homegrown insurgency where U.S. vital interests may be uncertain.  Lebovic’s thesis that military prowess is not always applicable to distant counter-insurgency or counter-terrorist operations may be painful for a superpower like the U.S. to acknowledge, but rings true nonetheless and provides a great deal of food for thought for the senior military officer or policy-maker in the post-Iraq era.
Although it is a bit pricey, I thought this book was well written, informative, and offered useful insights and lessons learned.  And of course, I want to thank the SMH for giving me this volume to review.

Now of course, it is time for the review is in the final stages and will hopefully be published soon.