For those of you too young to remember, this is the title of a song written in 1955 by Pete Seeger and made popular by the “Kingston Trio” and “Peter, Paul, and Mary” in the 60’s. The question raised several times in the lyrics is: “When will they ever learn?” (If you are not familiar with the song, I suggest you go to You-Tube and watch the music video.)
Why is all this relevant? After all, this is not the 60’s. But in some ways the situation in the Middle East today is not all that different than it was in Southeast Asia in the 60’s. (You know the history.) We had to stop the plague of Communism before it could spread all the way south to Australia enslaving millions along the way. It was called the “domino theory” whereby one nation after another would fall. They had to be stopped!
Now here is where I see similarities between the 60’s in Vietnam and the Middle East today. In Vietnam it became obvious that most Vietnamese did not want us there. The North Vietnamese wanted to reunify their country and the Viet Cong in South Vietnam wanted the Americans out. Realizing just how much we were despised we came up with a program to “win the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese. Advisors known as the “Green Berets” were trained to work with the Vietnamese and to give them the ability to defeat the communist. Billions (in todays dollars) were spent training the South Vietnamese and equipping them with the best weapons and lots of air support. Yet almost 10 years later we beat a hasty retreat from Vietnam as the Viet Cong closed in on the capital, Saigon. 57,000 Americans lost their lives and many more were maimed for life. In addition, several hundred thousand Vietnamese died.
Are you starting to see any similarities? I took part in only one “joint operation” with the South Vietnamese and it was very evident that they did not have the same level of motivation as the enemy, why would they. Their political leaders and the U.S. were asking them to fight against Vietnamese. And worse yet, what if they lost and the Viet Cong won. Well that is exactly what happened and they paid the price after the Americans left.
Now to the Middle East 50 years later–after 10 years of training and spending billions to build an effective Iraqi Army they seem to be totally incapable of accomplishing anything against ISIS (a group that would make Hitler proud). Our current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs claimed this past week, that the Iraqi army may need American advisors on the ground “to be all they can be!” I wish he had been old to enough to experience how that strategy worked out in Vietnam. He might have a different opinion.
So—“will we ever learn?” There is no American solution to the problems in the Muslim world. That is a very sad fact but it is still the truth. And the sooner we acknowledge the truth and change our strategy, the better off we will be.