Tribalism led to the loss of Vietnam, Iraq wars

Knowing and understanding tribalism can offer a solution to the divisions at home and abroad.

Tribalism led to the loss of Vietnam, Iraq wars

‘When groups feel threatened, they retreat into tribalism. They close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more focused on us versus them.”

These words of Amy Chua in her July/August 2018 “Foreign Affairs” article “Tribal World” clarifies the politicized polar divide we see in our nation and in the world. Knowing about tribalism can help explain our current political climate and the defeats of the U.S. in Vietnam and Iraq.

The online Miriam-Webster Language-learner Dictionary defines tribalism as “loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group.”

According to Chua, because of rapidly changing technology and the resulting rising inequality of wealth, “Wealth in the United States is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of people most of whom live on the coasts.” This tribal minority dominates the economy: Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the media. They tend to live and marry among themselves and are very insular. They have become what Chua calls, “the market dominant minorities” found in the developing world’s economies. In America they tend to be cosmopolitan, secular, multicultural, tolerant of sexual minorities, pro-immigrant and progressive.

This minority is viewed with suspicion and is seen as hostile to America’s interests by many middle Americans.

Donald Trump appealed to those middle Americans with his “take our country back” slogan. He appealed to tribalism. These Americans are not anti-rich, but they have come to believe that the system to getting ahead has been rigged against them. For millions of Americans, the traditional paths to success and wealth have been cut off. The way Trump talks, dresses and shoots from the hip – “even (perhaps especially) when he gets caught making mistakes, exaggerating, or lying” – appeals to these middle Americans who bond and identify with him.

In regard to foreign affairs, Chua argues that we lost the war in Vietnam because we saw the conflict as one between socialism and capitalism. Our failure was due to not understanding that tribal dynamic. We pushed capitalism. In Vietnam, most of their capitalists were not ethnic Vietnamese, “rather, they were members of the despised Hoa”— ethnic Chinese. U.S. policy favored this “market dominant minority” and only served to aggravate tribalism among the native Vietnamese majority.

“Washington’s wartime policies intensified the wealth and power of the ethnic Chinese minority, who, as middle men, handled most of the U.S. military’s supplies, provisions, and logistics (as well as Vietnam’s brothels and black markets). In effect, the regimes that Washington installed in Saigon were asking the South Vietnamese… to kill their northern brethren in order to keep the ethnic Chinese rich,” according to Chua.

The same tribal phenomena and American ignorance of tribalism took place in Iraq, with the same disastrous results. Sunnis were the market-dominant minority who had dominated Iraq for centuries. At the time of the U.S. invasion in the second Iraq War, approximately 15 percent of the population of Sunni Muslims controlled the country economically, politically and militarily.

The majority Shias made up the nation’s urban and rural poor. Democracy brought them to power after the U.S. invasion. The Shias then proceeded to wreak vengeance on their former Shia oppressors. This intensified anti-American fundamentalist movements, which gave rise to ISIS, an extremist Sunni movement as dedicated to killing Shias as they were to killing Western “infidels,” according to Chua.

The 2007 “surge” worked in Iraq because it represented a change in policy. According to U.S. Brigadier Gen. John Allen, “Tribal society makes up the tectonic plates in Iraq in which everything rests.” As a result of greater tribal awareness, the U.S. military successfully allied moderate Shiite and Sunni sheiks to fight the extremists. This resulted in a dramatic decline in sectarian violence.

Knowing and understanding tribalism can offer a solution to the divisions at home and abroad. Chua sums it up: “This blindness to the power of tribalism affects not only how Americans see the rest of the world but also how they understand their own society.” Until we open our eyes to the power of tribalism we will continue to suffer deep divisions domestically and defeats internationally.


Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing editor@covingtonreporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.covingtonreporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) Please keep letters to 300 words or less.

More in Opinion

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at thebrunells@msn.com.
Vaccinations improve our health and employment numbers | Brunell

It is not surprising that COVID-19, which ravaged the world, was disastrous… Continue reading

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
Firefighters vs. the governor’s vaccine mandate | Roegner

We all thought we were in this fight with the coronavirus together,… Continue reading

Providence employees look at anti-vaccine mandate protesters as they cross the street outside of Providence Regional Medical Center Everett on Aug. 18, 2021. Olivia Vanni/Sound Publishing
Editorial: A message to the unvaccinated and unmasked

We know you’re frustrated with mandates and advice, but consider our frustrations and, yes, our anger.

Screenshot of Voice of America footage from the August 2021 scene at Kabul’s international airport in Afghanistan.
What the Afghan wants to say | Guest column

The American interest in Afghanistan goes back to the Cold War era,… Continue reading

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
King County executive wins battle with suburbs over inquests | Roegner

Since 1854, when Washington was a territory, inquests have been required whenever… Continue reading

In a three-day event ahead of the November 2020 elections, the voting center at Federal Way’s Performing Arts and Event Center saw 1,433 voters, which included 466 newly registered voters. File photo
Editorial: Baseless claims of fraud threaten voter confidence

Without evidence of fraud, it’s those alleging irregularities who are a threat to election integrity.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal told a crowd in Port Angeles he would like to see school districts have the ability to increase their local levies. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)
Message from state superintendent regarding school employee vaccinations

After a year and a half of remote and hybrid learning, my… Continue reading

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
Health Through Housing needs more local leadership | Roegner

How two South King County cities are addressing the program.

A Sept. 10, 2020, satellite image shows smoke from U.S. wildfires blanketing the majority of the West Coast. (European Space Agency)
Editorial: The UN climate report, ‘The Lorax’ and us

The report and the Dr. Seuss classic offer a dire warning — and hope — for responding to climate change.

Maria Gulchuk, a teacher in Federal Way, chats with her students via Zoom during online class on in 2020. File photo
Technology and the post-pandemic restructuring of education | Guest column

As Simon Jenkins notes in an op-ed piece in The Guardian, “Great… Continue reading

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
Look forward to an exciting November election | Roegner

King County Executive Dow Constantine was expected to win the August primary,… Continue reading

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at thebrunells@msn.com.
It’s time to rethink Washington’s long-term care law | Brunell

Time is short, but action is necessary. Gov. Jay Inslee and Democrats… Continue reading