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Then And Now
Victor Davis Hanson
December 5, 2003
There are great differences between Vietnam and Iraq, and there are certain similarities, and all must be weighed
VIETNAM! Vietnam! The mere mention of it still sends shudders through Americans-and for that very reason it is alluded to almost weekly in the columns of Maureen Dowd, Molly Ivins, Paul Krugman, et al. After all, Vietnam was purportedly our Sicilian expedition, with 58,000 American soldiers dead, $150 billion spent, a country torn apart in a decade of protest, and, at the end, defeat and the vow "never again" to send American ground troops to wars in far-off lands about which we know little. Yet here we are again with televised images of foreign irregulars toting RPGs and killing Americans while Europeans advise us to get out and avoid their all-too-familiar "colonial" mistakes.
Is Iraq anything like the debacle of Vietnam-an impossible situation in which almost all the odds were heavily stacked against the United States? So far, the resemblance rests mostly with those who invoke it. The protest generation that in 1968 was 20, on campus, and angry is now 55, worried about 401(k)s, but also entrenched in the universities, media, and government. Once again they are increasingly furious that we are at war. Familiar critics have reemerged-now aging-ready for one last muster at the barricades. In lieu of the photogenic Eugene McCarthy, there is the maverick Howard Dean, similarly poised to triumph in the New Hampshire primary by promising to pull the troops out. Today's Democratic senators are as shaky about their past votes for American action in Iraq as their forebears were about signing on to Vietnam.
Noam Chomsky, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal still roam, long in the tooth, but still with suitably perverse things to say. Peter Arnett went from reporting the unsubstantiated but famous quip about Ben Tre ("It became necessary to destroy the town to save it") to broadcasting live from Baghdad-before being fired for comments that were a little too sympathetic to the enemy. Seymour Hersh and David Halberstam (who authored Ho, a sympathetic biography of the Communist tyrant) periodically weigh in with either sensationalist muckraking or the characteristic gloom of the past. For Jane Fonda in Hanoi we have Sean Penn in pre-war Baghdad. For every clownish and repugnant Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin there is now a similarly foul-mouthed-but far wealthier and cagier-Michael Moore or Al Franken. The wild scenes from the sit-ins and moratoriums find their carnival counterparts among A.N.S.W.E.R. and Not in Our Name.
The parallels seem unavoidable. After all, America is once again fighting an unconventional war far from home, with plenty of foreign critics-and at election time, with Democratic presidential contenders alleging that Saddam's weapons program was as phony a casus belli as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Our television screens, reminiscent of 1968, show scenes of mayhem and chaos in two-second images, while our Iraqi supporters, like the South Vietnamese, seem either unable or unwilling to take the fight to the enemy.
DISTINCTIONS WITH A DIFFERENCE
Close examination reveals these parallels to be mostly superficial, however. The first false analogy rests with matters of degree and scale. So far, we have lost not 58,000 lives, but a little over 400 combat dead in two years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. During our almost eight years on the ground in Vietnam, we averaged not twelve fatalities per week but over twelve times that number. By 1968, our enemies had mobilized almost 2 million Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops, along with thousands of Soviet and Chinese advisers. Saddam's loyalists, in contrast, are perhaps no more than 5,000 dedicated fighters. The Sunni Triangle, where 95 percent of the attacks on Americans take place, is a fraction of the size of South Vietnam. There is no Hanoi in this war, as Saddam lost his capital in 21 days.
Our enemies are far different as well. True, Ho Chi Minh was a killer with the blood of hundreds of thousands on his hands from his brutal collectivization programs. But he still managed to come across as a romantic, grandfatherly figure who appealed to naive idealists the world over. In contrast, Saddam Hussein was hated at home and abroad. Baathism, having long ago jettisoned its socialist roots, never had the resonance that Communism-with its pretensions about economic justice-had with poor and elite alike.
So there are no posters of Saddam or Osama bin Laden in college dormitories, and little likelihood of a mass uprising in Iraq to bring back the Baathists. If Parisian intellectuals once more want us to lose, it is still not quite clear that they really want al-Qaeda and the Saddamites to win. After all, even the French are starting to recognize a general and consistent pattern in who is doing the blowing up and who is being blown up in places such as Pakistan, Ball, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Grozny, Jerusalem, Baghdad-and Paris.
The geopolitical situation is equally different. During the conflict with Vietnam, American options were carefully circumscribed by a nuclear Soviet Union and China. Both were neighbors of the Vietnamese and both made it clear that there might be repercussions should the United States invade and topple the North Vietnamese government-the only real way to end the war. Even the flight paths of American bombers were designed not to antagonize our irrational global rivals, who in turn were free to send to Hanoi their advisers and materiel. True, Syria and Iran are aiding our enemies, but so far only haphazardly-since they as yet possess no nuclear deterrence to prevent a massive American counter-response. Saudi money and Saddam's cash are not comparable to the Soviet bloc's funding and abetting of our enemies in Vietnam. Now Russia has its hands full with its own Muslim killers and wants no part in promoting our enemies' pan-Islamic agenda.
Tactically, the cities and open deserts of Iraq are not the dense jungles and remote villages of Vietnam. What's more, the latter was a decade-long, indecisive war; the present fighting is the chaotic aftermath of a three-week victory that toppled the ruling government. Iraq is not a divided country, but rather contains pockets of diehards surrounded by unsympathetic Kurds and Shiites-who for the most part support the U.S. effort to subdue the remnants of Hussein's regime. The enemy relics on a finite supply of stockpiled weaponry and cash, not daily infusions through a port like Haiphong or a steady, stealthy stream of trucks over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We are rightly wary of waging another high-tech conventional war against low-tech enemies. That being said, the large supply of everything from night-vision goggles and body armor to GPS bombs and Abrams tanks serves American troops well. Targets are more unobstructed and bombs are far more accurate than in Vietnam. Counterinsurgency, asymmetrical warfare, and fourth-dimensional or postmodern war are not trendy catchphrases, but 30-year-old realities for the U.S. military.
Politically, the parallels at first may seem ominous, inasmuch as the American presence is as obtrusive and resented in Iraq as it was in South Vietnam. Neither country, after all, had a tradition of democracy or anything resembling government by consent. And it is always easier to destroy a dictatorship than to create a democracy; a few hardcore enemy fanatics are usually more dynamic than a silent majority of supporters. But the depressing political similarity between the two wars is-once again-superficial: How can we judge our progress in creating a democratic alternative after so little time? At least our efforts in urging elections now are clearly democratic and not utilitarian-and thus not so vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy and cynicism as was our backing of a strongman like South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu solely because of his staunch anti-Communism. "Iraqization" is proceeding in our first, not our sixth, year of ground fighting. Moreover, the pragmatism of John Foster Dulles is mostly gone. Our recent record is not one of backing anti-Communist authoritarians, but of rooting out dictators and insisting on elections in places like Panama, Serbia, and Afghanistan.
A DIFFERENT UNITED STATES
September 11, 2001, started a hot, not a cold, war. Saddam's Iraq-as we are seeing more confirmation of each day-was connected to the terrorists, whose killers incinerated 3,000 Americans in the worst attack on American shores in our history. Thus, millions in the United States see the toppling of Saddam Hussein as integral to the war on the Middle Eastern terrorists who struck at us first-unlike Vietnam, which we were never really sure was a domino critical to the spread of global Communism. With the specter of Vietnam constantly present, we are also not as naive as we were going into Vietnam, which followed the startling success of World War II.
Here at home, we are in the midst of another hotly contested election. As in 1968 and 1972, the Democratic primary is beginning to hinge on the war, with every bit as much slurring of George W. Bush as that dished out to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. But, unlike with Vietnam, few credible Democratic candidates urge cutting off funding for a war that some of them voted for. The various Senate amendments that denied funding for air support of the beleaguered South Vietnamese-ending the American determination to enforce the 1973 Paris peace accords in the face of Communist violations and invasion-were blowback from the Watergate scandals, when President Nixon's crimes and political impotence emboldened the anti-war opposition. George W. Bush's Republicans, in contrast, won an impressive off-year election. For all the Democratic efforts to taint the administration with Halliburton and Bechtel or faked reports of WMD, we are a long way from the plumbers, the "Saturday night massacre," "I'm not a crook," and presidential tape-recording. The final defeat in Vietnam is inexplicable apart from Watergate.
Thus far even Candidates Dean, Kerry, and Clark sense that the public wants harping and venting rather than quitting, and so they quite opportunistically damn our efforts while making no concrete attempt to stop them. Donald Rumsfeld is facing a firestorm of criticism, as his detractors cry that he is the bottom-line CEO Robert McNamara come alive. Hardly: Rumsfeld is not an idealistic forty-something technocrat, but a 71-year-old veteran of the job, and wants not more but fewer troops in the theater.
The calling-up of National Guardsmen-the great bugbear of Vietnam-era politics-has already occurred in massive numbers and without much opposition, which may explain the hesitancy of the Democrats to short-circuit the war. Nor is the current anti-war movement the nexus of broad-based racial, sexual, and class unrest that it was during Vietnam. The protesters who turn up at A.N.S.W.E.R. rallies are not pressing for the passage of civil-rights legislation or equal pay for equal work, but rather for fringe causes such as independence for Puerto Rico and the release of the cop-killer and honorary citizen of Paris Mumia Abu-Jamal. In short, the United States is a far more stable society than it was in 1968-and this time young people are far more likely than their grandparents to support this war.
TRUE PARALLELS AND THEIR LESSONS
But does the fact that Iraq is not really analogous to the military situation in Vietnam mean that our eventual victory is assured? Not quite. To understand why we should still worry about winning Iraq, we must remember two salient facts about losing Vietnam, a war far more formidable than our present conflict. First, the war dragged on for a decade because of America's inability or unwillingness consistently to bring to bear its full power against the enemy. Second, the fighting took place while America was not psychologically prepared for the burdens of conflict.
On very few occasions did we embrace the tactics needed to win the Vietnam War: bombing key targets in the North, crossing the DMZ in force, and hunting down the Vietcong through counterinsurgency teams in the South. This time around there is no Soviet Union or nuclear China quietly setting the parameters of our fighting, but that does not mean that other forces-mostly self-created-have not once more emerged to curtail the American response. The U.S. military realizes that, in an age of instant global communication, for every Iraqi civilian mistakenly killed or house bombed, there is a host of print and television journalists eager to allege deliberate American culpability. Already, fear of such distortion in a war of public relations has put a damper on our military, which for the first six months after the war seemed more interested in winning world approval for sobriety and restraint than in killing hundreds, if not thousands, of recalcitrant Baathist murderers.
The ironclad laws of war, however, remind us that the ease of post-bellum reconstruction and reconciliation is directly proportionate to the degree of pain and humiliation inflicted on the enemy, which, in the case of the hardcore Baathists, for the most part fled and melted away rather than be killed or captured-an unpleasant fact not always recognized by Americans. Moreover, if the use of force is a priori always a bad idea, if America is always suspected of lying, cheating, or exploiting when it goes to war, and if public and private careers arc predicated on restraining the use of American power through prognostication of both its failure and its amorality, then the dissemination of the news itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if, as happened during Vietnam, our leaders have no long-term vision of what we can and must do, they can easily become captives of news-driven and mercurial polls-a recipe for floundering and defeat.
The second cause for concern-that Americans are not ready, psychologically, for war-can be seen across the culture. Just as an overconfident America never declared war or mobilized the full extent of its military capability in Vietnam, so too after the first Gulf War, Serbia, and Afghanistan we have come to expect that about 150,000 professional soldiers can rout the enemy while the rest of us attend to Sex and the City and Jackass: The Movie. We are quibbling about the scope of our commitment, whether we disbanded the Iraqi army too early, whether we have too many Baathists in our employment, whether elections should be now or later . . . and, all the while, our vast resources to defeat the enemy and finish the war go virtually untapped.
The Baathists know that they cannot defeat America. Nor can the fundamentalists, despite bin Laden's pop-philosophizing about strong and weak horses. But, like the Vietcong, they sense that their grotesque killing can finally get under the skin of complacent Americans, long enough for them to sigh, "Can't it simply go away?" Our post-war enemies know that they will lose a Khe Sanh, Gulf War I, or Baghdad showdown where American firepower blows our enemies to smithereens, and so they look instead to Tet and Mogadishu, and hope one dead GI for 25 of them will shake America to its core.
In response, we must remember that our enemy is not really the Taliban or the Baathists, but rather, as in Vietnam, an ideology-one that kills now in Bali, now in Morocco, sometimes in Baghdad, at other times in Kandahar or Istanbul. In short, we are in a struggle for our very values and way of life, against enemies cruel and clever who seek to rid civilization and its influence from a great part of the world, so that in the decades ahead they can do even greater harm to us. They will kill us in Manhattan, Washington, and pretty much anywhere else-or die trying. Vietnam teaches us that when we confront such terrible foes only half-heartedly, the resulting stalemate can quickly turn to quagmire and then defeat-with dire repercussions for decades.
Finally, of all of Vietnam's many sad chapters, none is more instructive than that of the 1968 Tet offensive: a dramatic American military victory that was reinvented into a terrible nightmare. Walter Cronkite may have returned from Vietnam to announce from on high that "the only rational way out . . . will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people." Yet despite a massive surprise attack during a holiday truce, the first stage of the fighting in Saigon was essentially over in a little less than a month. By the end of February 1968, the city of Hue was freed; in early April, the base at Khe Sanh was relieved. Public-opinion polls continued to show that a majority of Americans supported involvement all through Tet. Nearly 50,000 Vietcong and NVA regulars were killed in a few weeks; in all the various theaters of Tet, fewer than 2,000 Americans were lost. More of the enemy died in the single year of 1968 than all of the Americans lost throughout the entire decade of the conflict. The Communist strategy of bringing local cadres into the streets proved an unmitigated disaster. Far from causing a general insurrection, Tet ended in a bloodbath, destroying the Vietcong infrastructure in the South for at least two years. After Tet, there was no effective military arm of the National Liberation Front left.
Yet this stunning American victory was not followed up with a final push. Indeed, General Giap's military catastrophe proved a political windfall to the Communists, confirming their hunch that televised images of Vietcong dying on the grounds of the American embassy in Saigon and their troops' killing of one American for every 25 Communists lost could be reported to the American people as proof of the hopelessness of the cause, thus sapping the will of the Johnson administration. And that was precisely what happened-even though polls continued to show conclusively that a clear majority of Americans felt the problem was not getting out of Vietnam, but rather conducting the war forcefully enough to win.
Last April we achieved a miraculous military victory in Iraq. Somehow, we are already crafting a consensual government after thirty years of chaos. Indeed, the American success in Iraq, despite the tragedy of 400 dead, is nearly unprecedented in the recent history of the Middle East. This is not Vietnam. That nightmare will only return if this administration loses its nerve, fails to mobilize the public behind a just cause, listens to its hysterical critics, and vacillates, thereby convincing Americans that, once again, our leaders have gotten us into a war that we do not really wish to win.
Vietnam teaches us that when we confront terrible foes only half-heartedly, the resulting stalemate can quickly turn to quagmire and then defeat.
Mr. Hanson's most recent book is Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think.