Assume as a hypothesis that the United States placed tighter limits on the extent to which its troops could abuse Vietnamese civilians than the Soviet Union did on the extent to which its troops could abuse Afghan civilians. It would be plausible to explain such a difference by the fact that the United States is a democracy with a free press, and that the government, needing to persuade the public that the war was legitimate and knowing that widespread atrocities could not be concealed from the public, felt much more need to prevent such atrocities than the government of the Soviet Union did.
Massacres and other abuses of civilians, however, are not highly advantageous tactics in a guerrilla war, and willingness to do such things is not a very good index of will to win in a war. In all the matters that really can be considered measures of will to win--number of military personnel sent, number of lives expended, amount of wealth expended, and willingness to risk international repercussions by bombing the enemy's external sanctuaries--the limits on the Soviet war effort in Afghanistan were much, much tighter than the limits on the US war effort in South Vietnam.
It is not that South Vietnam was more important than Afghanistan, inherently worth more effort to the US than Afghanistan was worth to the Soviet Union. On the contrary, while South Vietnam was a prime example of the American habit of committing the US to the defense of places having little economic or strategic value, Afghanistan was a country of direct and substantial importance to the Soviet Union, not merely bordering on the Soviet Union but bordering in particular on sections of the Soviet Union where the potential for the generation of anti-Soviet unrest appeared very high.
Consider the fact that the United States showed much more will to win in Vietnam than the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan. Consider the fact that no other nation in history has expended as much blood or a tenth as much treasure in a war so distant, and in which the concrete profits to be attained through victory were so small. Consider the fact that while no nation other than the United States has ever fought so hard under such circumstances even once, the United States has done it twice, first in Korea and then in Vietnam. We should be less interested in the question of why the United States did not commit even half its potential power in Vietnam, and ask instead why the United States committed as large a fraction as it did. Why did the United States show so much more will to win in Vietnam than the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan? A complete answer would require lengthy analysis of differences between American and Russian attitudes toward war, going far beyond this author's expertise. A portion of the answer, however, is comparatively simple though very unexpected: part of the reason the United States showed so much more will to win in Vietnam than the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan was that the United States is a democracy with a free press.
The government of the Soviet Union, after the expenditure of slightly over fifteen thousand lives and between fifteen and thirty billion dollars, decided that the results to be achieved in Afghanistan were not worth the cost and therefore decided to pull out. It was not immune to repercussions--Soviet officials in June 1988 were privately expressing worry about offending veterans and the families of those who had died, by saying that the Soviet forces had fought in a misguided cause. But the Soviet government could reasonably hope to control the way that this was presented to the Soviet people, and it seemed at least at the time that the Soviet government could survive a good deal of displeasure among its people.
If the United States had pulled out of Vietnam after the same amount of effort as the Soviet Union put into Afghanistan (in other words, well before the 1968 presidential election), the administration responsible would have been crucified by the mass media and in the next election would have fared even worse--much worse--than was actually the case for the Democratic Party in 1968.
It has been suggested to the author that Lyndon Johnson's massive victory in the presidential election of 1964, in which he ran as the peace candidate, indicates that the American people would have accepted an American abandonment of the struggle in Vietnam. What Johnson told the voters in 1964, however, was that he could achieve American goals in Vietnam without having to fight for them--victory without war. He would have done much less well if he had said that he was accepting the defeat of American goals as the price of avoiding war; he would have been crucified if he had both fought a war and accepted the defeat of the goals for which it had been fought.
In short, a dictatorship can easily decide not to fight harder in a given war than it thinks the war is worth. The government of a democracy may try harder, because it dares not admit failure to the press and the public.
Next section: Iraq: Again a Limited War
Copyright © 1998 Edwin E. Moïse. Revised November 24, 1998.