On this day in 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed thus ending the Vietnam War. What I think is important about it is that it wasn’t actually the end. This is the sort of thing that everyone should be more aware of. Obviously, it was more than two years later before American troops were actually removed from South Vietnam. But the more important issue is that these things don’t just stop.
In particular, it is inconceivable that the Khmer Rouge would have come to power in Cambodia without the war. And that government was responsible for the systematic murder of roughly two million Cambodians. That’s a quarter of the population. When you look at Hitler or Stalin in proportional terms, they were nothing compared to Pol Pot. It was the most horrific genocide in the history of humanity. It’s hard to even imagine.
Of course, it wasn’t primarily the American carpet bombing of Cambodia that did it. It was also about various other things having to do with the central conflict in Vietnam. In particular, the Khmer Rouge got support from the North Vietnamese government. It seems ironic that it would be the very same Vietnamese government that overthrew the Khmer Rouge just four years later. It’s also amazing that the regime was able to kill that many people in that little time.
I am generally of the opinion that war is a science. There is little about it that is mysterious. Given a particular situation, the vast majority of military leaders agree on how to proceed. What is not a science — what is a total mess — is the wider ramifications of war. Carl von Clausewitz’s statement bears repeating, “War is a mere continuation of politics by other means.” If we could see that war is, in fact, a form of diplomacy, we would do much better. But too often, we see a dichotomy that doesn’t exist: diplomacy is for wimps and war is for real men.
I imagine Iraq in 2016: Saddam Hussein still in power. The situation isn’t wonderful, but it isn’t terrible. ISIS, in as much as it exists, is far smaller and more contained. And roughly a million more people are alive. “Winning” the Iraq War was just the beginning of its very negative consequences.
The Paris Peace Accords were important. Sunk costs are suck costs. But it is better to make the decision to not start the war.