Twenty Years Ago Today: Operation Quickdraw

US Marines boarding a transport plane to leave Mogadishu. Twenty years ago today, the United States rolled out of Mogadishu in a planned withdrawal that they termed 'Operation Quickdraw', presumably because that sounds so much better than a retreat. And yet a retreat it was (albeit a well-organised and orderly one), for the US was leaving without having achieved its aims, which were to assist the UN mission in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the Somali Civil War.

Not that you'd know that if you asked Major-General Thomas Montgomery, the commander of the US forces, who claimed that the operation had been a success. "We are very proud of what we have done," he said. "We know there are hundreds of thousands of Somalis alive because of what we did." He was referring to the relief work that the US had conducted, which had been the original purpose of the mission. But that had little to do with why they were leaving. Their departure had more to do with the thirty Americans and hundreds (possibly thousands) of Somalis who had died in battle. Most of these casualties happened during the First Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993, when an operation to capture one of the faction leaders, Mohamed Farah Aidid, went disastrously wrong. You've probably seen the movie.

For the US, this must have been tremendously frustrating - despite all the equipment and incredibly well trained people at their disposal, they still couldn't eliminate Aidid, who was one of the main stumbling blocks to getting a peace settlement between the warring factions. And he wasn't exactly a military genius. He was a petty warlord running a militia. No, forget frustrating - this was embarrassing. Possibly even mortifying.

So the US pulled out, leaving the UN mission's other contributor nations to keep on trying for another year before they finally gave up and pulled the plug on the operation, leaving Somalia to its fate.

The Americans had decided that peacekeeping was not worth the lives it would cost them, and subsequent forays into this kind of work largely happened at a safe distance, using air strikes (in Bosnia and Kosovo, for example). When the US next launched major combat operations on the ground, it would be as part of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 - the kind of thing that most military forces are far better suited for. The kind of thing they believed would result in a swift, simple victory. The kind of thing that peacekeeping could never give them.

If there's a moral to this story that military planners and politicians really ought to pay attention to, it's this: there is no such thing as a swift, simple victory. And if you think there is, then you're probably the reason why there isn't.

Twenty Years Ago Today: US Lifts Vietnam Trade Embargo

It's all about the Ho Chi Minhs Twenty years ago today, President Clinton took a step towards finally getting his country over the horrible nightmare of the Vietnam War. Of course, the war was far more of a nightmare for the Vietnamese than it ever was for the Americans, and the lifting of the trade embargo was more about getting co-operation on finding the more than 2,000 US servicemen still listed as missing, but nevertheless, it was a vital first step towards normalisation of relations.

Even so, there was a great deal of opposition within Congress and from veterans of the war, especially given the accusations of draft-dodging that were being thrown at Clinton back then. This opposition was silenced in part by the support of John McCain, the Republican senator (and disastrous 2008 presidential candidate). As a former Navy pilot who was himself a POW during the war, his opinion was virtually unassailable.

It was several years before meaningful trade actually resumed because there were still high tariffs on Vietnamese goods, but these days the trade relationship is now worth more than $20bn. Most of this has been added since the turn of the century, when a bilateral trade agreement was finally signed.

So is everything tickety-boo these days? Sort of. More of less. Because there's always something else underlying the shiny surface, and in this case it's the increasing regional dominance of China. Vietnam is quite keen to avoid being swamped as China asserts itself, especially in the South China Sea, and the US is the only power that can act as a balance. And so they're staying good friends with their former enemy. Just in case.

(and another thing I learned today is the Vietnamese unit of currency is the Dong. Feel free to insert your own culturally insensitive joke at this point, you bunch of perverts).