The Sad Symbolism of Captured U.S. Military Hardware
In Vietnam and Iraq, losing vehicles and weapons adds insult to injury
Like the Iraqi army before the collapse of Mosul in June 2014, the South Vietnamese army before the fall of Saigon looked good … really good. On paper.
The quantity of manpower — hundreds of thousands of men under arms in each case — and the quality of equipment was sufficient to defend against foreign and internal threats, theoretically. Then as now, the millions of dollars in American military hardware was some of the best in the world.
By 1974, America had withdrawn its remaining troops from South Vietnam. U.S. oil companies scoured the coast hoping to finally find long suspected oil deposits. Back in Washington, hopes abounded that its ally, with plenty of assistance, could perhaps snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Having built a huge army centered around Saigon, the Americans hoped that a potential imminent discovery of oil would help transform South Vietnam into a strong and wealthy state. Saigon could prosper economically while sustaining a large and well-equipped military to prevent the north from overrunning the country.
However, that was not to be.
In April 1975, the North Vietnamese stormed into Saigon as the South Vietnamese army collapsed like a house of cards.
Suddenly, hundreds of M-113 APCs, M-48 Patton tanks and M-151 utility jeeps — the predecessor to the Humvee — joined the iconic Soviet-built T-54/55/62 tanks in the North Vietnamese arsenal.
That wasn’t all. In 1975, the South Vietnamese air force had 41 F-5 Freedom Fighters and 95 A-37 Dragonflys along with smaller numbers of C-130 Hercules transport planes, CH-47 Chinooks and UH-1 Huey utility helicopters.
In 1978, these U.S.-made aircraft flew operations on behalf of their new communist owners when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and toppled the ghoulish Khmer Rouge. The A-37 reportedly proved to be much more effective for flying close-air support missions than the Soviet-made MiG-19 and MiG-21.
Shortly thereafter, Hanoi phased out these warplanes, likely owing to the lack of spare parts. Vietnam transferred some to Warsaw Pact countries which flew them as “aggressor” jets in mock dogfights, which was ironic considering that the United States also used the lightweight and nimble F-5 to simulate Soviet MiGs in training exercises.
But the symbolism of American military hardware falling into the hands of the north aptly demonstrated the Pentagon’s failure to achieve its goals in that lengthy war.
The situation in Iraq today is much more depressing. Not only have U.S. efforts to establish a durable and stable Iraq failed, but the worst kind of enemy exploited the instability to seize large swaths of territory. The abject failure of the Iraqi army, with all the billions put into arming and training it, added insult to injury.
In Mosul alone, Islamic State may have stolen 2,300 Humvees, moving many across the border back into Syria — perhaps owing to fears of a counter-offensive. This has led to some interesting episodes whereby captured Humvees went into battle in Syria, only to be seized by Kurdish forces.
The American-led coalition has frantically tried to counter the threat from these vehicles — which Islamic State transforms into mobile and near-unstoppable suicide bombs. Thousands of air strikes and hundreds of anti-tank missiles supplied to the Iraqi army have helped abate the danger but not eliminate it.
As in Vietnam, it’s an apt reminder of just how botched many of the efforts to confront and defeat that terrorist gang have been to date.