For Americans of a certain age, the near-collapse of the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army and the possibility of an ISIS takeover of Baghdad has disturbing similarities to the rout of the South Vietnamese Army and the fall of Saigon in 1975. In both cases, the United States had fought a long and costly counterinsurgency campaign. In the case of Vietnam, the United States poured billions into the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN); in Iraq, roughly the same thing has happened. ARVN was defeated by a well-coordinated conventional invasion from the North after the United States had cut off support, but here the similarities begin to fall apart. The Iraqi Army is not yet defeated, although news reports are depressing: troops are abandoning their posts, large amounts of donated U.S. equipment are being destroyed or captured, and the invading “army” is a lightly armed but wholly dedicated movement of religious extremists instead of a combined-arms modern force. The question of whether the Iraqis will reverse their defeats will be settled in the coming weeks. If ISIS succeeds, there will be one final chilling similarity; there will be a wave of violence – executions, imprisonments and so forth – that will take place largely out of the public eye, and while Americans tune into their favorite reality shows, bodies will be filling ditches in Iraq.
What did we learn from the fall of Saigon that can be applied here? There are three big lessons.