Malcolm Gladwell's "Saigon 1965," a chapter in his podcast Revisionist History, brought me back to the University of Wisconsin 1968-75. I participated in campus discussions on Vietnam, and smelled the tear gas used against mass protests.
Gladwell's message is that a mass of information about the Vietcong lent itself to widely different conclusions by intelligence personnel influenced by their own experiences, with their political superiors screening assessments through their own self-interests. Some saw the US as winning, while others projected a dismal future.
I'll admit to having supported the US effort in Vietnam. I also left campus several times a year to lecture in an MA program for military officers. I recall at least a bit of confusion about the contrary assessments of the war by colleagues, media commentators, and politicians.
Gladwell's podcast not only brings me back to that time, but leads me to ponder whether the Vietnam quandary bears any resemblance to Israel's ongoing conflict with Palestinians.
A point of similarity is the commitment of the Vietcong and Palestinians. A point of sharp difference is the interests of Americans in the 1960s and the interests of Israelis at the present time.
The US was a huge country, the head of an empire, whose population was half a world away from Vietnam. Israelis live alongside and among Palestinians, and Arab citizens of their country who identify more or less with the Palestinian cause.
Israeli Jews are divided about Palestine and their commitment to the IDF, but not to the extent of Americans with respect to Vietnam and the US military.
The differences reflect the Holocaust, persecution of the parents and grandparents of Middle Eastern Jews in Muslim countries, and Palestinian violence against Israelis.
There are also differences in the actions of the US military and the IDF. Israel's use of the stick is nothing like US carpet bombing, and its use of carrots is more prominent, both with respect to Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.
The geographical proximity is important. Israel provides jobs for more than 100,000 West Bank Palestinians as well as health care, education, economic and political opportunities to its Arab citizens, residents of East Jerusalem and the Golan who have not accepted citizenship. Israeli Arabs may not be equal in all respect to Jews, but are not all that disadvantaged when compared to minorities in other western societies.
We commoners can only guess about differences in military intelligence. However, Israel's capacity to target cars and homes is a measure of information superior to what seemed to guide US actions in Vietnam. Moreover, the entire profession of intelligence may have changed. Americans have demonstrated a capacity in bringing down individual targets among Islamic extremists.
International politics also differs between the Vietnam experience of the US and Israel's experience with Palestinians. Things are more fluid and chaotic than in the midst of the Cold War. Communism may not have been the monolith depicted by the most enthusiastic of the Cold Warriors, but Islam has become even more difficult to comprehend. Not only are Sunnis once against at war against Shiites, but that is only part of the warfare apparent throughout the Middle East. Syria has gotten most attention. There may be more than 60 militias fighting one another, with some of them moving from side to side according to opportunity. Anyone wanting an insight into the local, family, personal, and religious motivations of those fighting in Syria can look at this.
Israel's national interests and security personnel are somewhere in the Syrian mix, along with fighters from Russia, the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Hezbollah, the Syrian military so far loyal to Bashar al-Assad, and additional complications associated with the Kurds and Qatar.
Political maneuvering is more apparent and seems to offer more potential for Israel in 2017 than to the US in the 1960s. .
We can quarrel about the strength or weakness of the Palestinian national movement, the capacity of Israeli carrots and sticks, and the capacity of those claiming Palestinian leadership to do well for themselves and/or their people. My own perception is that Israel is getting stronger while the Palestinians are doing little better than hanging on, with many if not most of their people disappointed with their leadership.
This is far from a bang and we're done scenario. Yet it much different from what Malcolm Gladwell describes from the peak of certainty projected at one time by LBJ and Robert McNamara.
The comparison can fuel at least a bit of optimism for Israel's capacity to maneuver among dangers and opportunities.