[Crossposted from New Books in History] U.S. forces invade a distant country in order to disarm an international threat to American security. They fight well, and win every major battle decisively. They become occupiers, and find themselves engaged in a low-level guerrilla war against a determined though shadowy enemy. The American-backed government has a tenuous hold on power, and it is unclear whether it can survive without significant U.S. military aid. Nevertheless, the American political climate favors rapid withdrawal. The U.S. forces are ordered to prepare the country’s military to take over “major combat operations.” The results of these efforts are mixed. No one seems to know what will happen in the country, but one thing is sure: the Americans are leaving.
That was the situation in Vietnam in 1970; so too is it the situation in Iraq today. Thus there could be no more timely moment to revisit Lt. Col. James Willbanks’ (ret.) outstanding Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South Vietnam Lost Its War (University of Kansas, 2004; reissue, 2008). Lt. Col. Willbanks is uniquely positioned to tell the tale. He is an excellent historian with a gift for plainspoken, even-handed analysis. But not only that: he was also there. Lt. Col. Willbanks served as an adviser to the South Vietnamese forces during the era of “Vietnamization” in the early 1970s. In Abandoning Vietnam, Willbanks shows just how the Nixon administration’s plan to win “peace with honor” won neither. There are lessons here. Let us hope that whomever is charged with the unenviable task of extricating the U.S. from Iraq will heed them.