I’m currently reading for review Tom Young’s Red Burning Sky: A WWII Novel Inspired by the Greatest Aviation Rescue in History (Kensington Publishing Corp., 2022). It tells of the 1944 Operation Halyard, a plan to evacuate hundreds of airmen stranded behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia. As I work my way through the story, I am struck by the contrast between my experience in Vietnam and that of Americans during World War II. We were seen as the good guys, the rescuers, by ordinary people in Europe seeking to escape the Nazi conquest. In Vietnam, as I am coming to understand, we Americans were seen by the majority of the Vietnamese not as saviors but as invaders.
Part of the reason we were the enemy is that we were supporting a series of South Vietnamese governments that were clearly not democratic. The North Vietnamese invaders, the communists, portrayed themselves as rescuers of a population oppressed by “puppets” controlled by a foreign power, namely, the U.S. In the end, we withdrew rather than expend more lives and treasure on a hopeless effort to defeat the North Vietnamese. It was the first war the U.S. had ever lost.
I don’t know how the populations of Afghanistan and Iraq perceived U.S. forces fighting in their countries, but my guess is that they, too, saw us as foreign aggressors. We effectively lost the wars in those countries, too.
I suspect that it’s time for us Americans to rethink our foreign military engagements in the context of how populations in contested regions see us. As long as we are identified as the enemy, our chances of victory are minimal.