Tunnel Vision: Watching Iraq, and Seeing Vietnam

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November 9, 2003

Tunnel Vision: Watching Iraq, and Seeing Vietnam


Ferrying troops in Baghdad looks much as it did in Vietnam. But the battle is different in many ways Associated Press

Terrorist bombings spread fear in Saigon in 1965. Bettmann/Corbis

"Quagmire," "attrition," "credibility gap," "Iraqification" - a listener to the debate over the situation in Iraq might think that it truly is Vietnam all over again.

Bombings in Baghdad and Falluja and hit-and-run guerrilla attacks on American convoys resemble attacks four decades ago, when Vietcong terrorists and guerrillas were trying to shake the faith of the South Vietnamese in the Saigon government and discourage further American involvement. Instead, President Lyndon Johnson sent half a million men, shuttling them into battle in aircraft like the Chinook helicopter that a missile attack in Iraq brought down last weekend at the cost of 16 American lives.
But Iraq is not Vietnam, and 2003 is not 1975 or 1968. Saddam Hussein was driven out of power and his regime collapsed last spring. There is no independent sanctuary named "North Iraq" for his Baath Party henchmen to fight from, no Soviet Union to keep them supplied with arms and fuel, no equivalent of Laos or Cambodia in the Middle East for whole divisions of his loyalists to hide in, no Ho Chi Minh Trail that suicide bombers can use to drive to Baghdad. Nor is there an allied Iraqi government yet, elected or otherwise.
The terms of the American discussion about Iraq are often similar to the arguments about Vietnam, and small wonder: although the Vietnamese Communists won the war in 1975, nobody won the battle about it here at home. That may be why, when boiled down to their essence, parts of the current debate seem to be almost as much about Vietnam as about Iraq, as Senator John McCain pointed out in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington last week.
"Our stunning victory in the first gulf war, many said, exorcised the demons of Vietnam," Senator McCain said. "But it was only a partial victory," he added, because it left Mr. Hussein in power, "and it did not end the hold of the Vietnam syndrome over our national consciousness."
There are lessons from Vietnam worth remembering in Iraq, and one is to be clear about the reasons for going to war. Opponents of both wars have argued that the United States used false pretexts to attack both North Vietnam and Iraq. In Vietnam, it was the Tonkin Gulf resolution in 1964, after a North Vietnamese attack on an American destroyer that may or may not have actually endangered the ship. In Iraq the joint Congressional resolution in October 2002 authorized military action on the grounds that Mr. Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and ties to the terrorists behind the Sept. 11 attacks that may or may not have existed.
Supporters of the official position would say that at the time, neither administration was trying to deceive Congress. The fog of war obscured what was going on in the Tonkin Gulf. And intelligence about Iraq, under a dangerous regime led by a secretive tyrant, was imperfect at best. But skeptics say the lesson of Vietnam, that a White House bent on a course of action is capable of deceiving itself as well as Congress, is still valid.
The United States involved itself in countering the Communist-led struggle for the independence of Vietnam from French colonial rule because it feared that failure to resist Communism there could allow extension of the Iron Curtain to all of Southeast Asia, and eventually even to the beaches of Waikiki.
Only years later, after Vietnam and its Communist sponsor China went to war with each other in 1979, did American leaders fully appreciate that the Vietnamese Communists had distinct national interests. Some - but not all - American supporters of the Vietnam War also came to realize that many Vietnamese - but not all - saw Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader, as their liberator from colonialism, and Americans and their South Vietnamese allies as the new colonialists.
Most Iraqis would agree that Saddam Hussein was no liberator, and his die-hard supporters who attack the American forces and the appointed authorities in Iraq do not enjoy the popular support the Communists had in Vietnam. "The Iraqi Baathists and terrorists who oppose us are not guerrilla fish swimming in a friendly sea of the people," Senator McCain said.
But their attacks could be aimed at convincing people who still fear Mr. Hussein that the United States is not invincible, and that sometimes the harsh American responses cause innocent Iraqis to suffer. American attempts to get Turkey, Iraq's former colonial power, to send up to 10,000 troops to relieve the burdens on American soldiers played into the Baathists' hands, critics of the administration's strategy argue, just as American heavy-handedness and Saigon's increasing dependence on Washington for its survival played into the Communists' hands in Vietnam.
The American withdrawal from Vietnam after a struggle that lasted 15 years and took 58,000 American lives, plus millions of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian ones, has led some to worry about - or call for - withdrawal from Iraq before things get to that point.
Why the United States finally left South Vietnam to collapse has many explanations. Senator McCain, who spent six years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, said South Vietnam had "a corrupt government unwilling to defend itself." But opponents and supporters of that war would agree on one thing: the North Vietnamese had a greater will to prevail than the South Vietnamese or their American allies did.
"I think we were always working under the assumption that if you just keep hitting the enemy hard enough he would quit," a retired Army general, Douglas Kinnard, recalls in "Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides," a book of American and Vietnamese reminiscences by Christian G. Appy. "But the assumption was totally wrong. The enemy was not going to quit, no matter how good our statistics looked."
In the last phase of the war, President Richard Nixon sought a way out in "Vietnamization" - turning the war gradually back to the South Vietnamese and withdrawing the last combat troops in 1973, after a final burst of bombing stopped the North Vietnamese temporarily. But in the end, Vietnamization failed because the South's military still needed American air power to prop it up. Congress and the Ford administration decided enough was enough and let Saigon collapse when the Communists resumed their assault in 1975.
Nation-building did not work in Vietnam. And if it does not work in Iraq, it seems clear that the war that ended Saddam Hussein's regime will have been fought in vain. Some of President Bush's Democratic opponents argue that the war should never have been fought at all and want a pullout. But in the face of the attacks by Baathist remnants and the global terrorist network that now sees Iraq as Armageddon, Congress voted last week to approve $87.5 billion to support American troops and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. By training additional Iraqi security forces, the administration also said it hoped to reduce American troop strength in Iraq from 130,000 to about 105,000 next year.
Is that a big enough force, and will Americans have the stomach to see this one through, particularly with more Reserve and National Guard troops now likely to be called up to take the strain off the regular troops?
The shadow of Vietnam hangs over such questions. "We are winning in Iraq," Mr. McCain said, "but we sow the seeds of our own failure by contemplating a premature military drawdown and tempering our ambitions to democratize Iraqi politics. Winning will take time."
For President Bush, the struggle against terrorism leaves no option but victory, a goal that Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and even Nixon were reluctant to use unrestrained military strength to pursue, lest they ignite World War III with the Soviet Union. "Iraqi democracy will succeed, and that success will send forth the news from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every nation," President Bush said the day he signed the aid bill. "The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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