As the insurgency in Iraq gets bolder, more sophisticated and more deadly, the hawks are falling all over themselves to pooh-pooh comparisons of Iraq to the debacle in Vietnam. But the White House should be alarmed that such comparisons are even being made. Despite some differences between the conflicts, in both wars avoiding defeat means winning “hearts and minds” — of the American people.
The Vietnamese guerrilla war was larger, took advantage of jungle terrain and was blatantly sheltered and supported by outside powers. In Iraq, the insurgency is on a smaller scale (at least for now), but also gives the guerrillas some advantages. To win a war, you must first know whom you are fighting, and the U.S. Army’s intelligence in Iraq is deficient. In Vietnam, the U.S. military at least knew its enemy. In Iraq the situation is murky. In fact, it appears that U.S. forces may have multiple enemies using a variety of tactics and taking advantage of urban, rather than jungle, terrain.
At the turn of the last century, the Army exhibited competence in fighting guerrillas in the Philippines (albeit by killing 200,000 Filipinos). But within the service, counterinsurgency warfare is now a lost art. During World War II and the Cold War, the Army became much more interested in buying high-tech weapons to fight the conventional armies of nation-states. Even the botched counterinsurgency in Vietnam did not cause much soul searching within the service. The Army essentially just vowed to avoid allowing the civilian leadership to embroil them in “half-in-half-out” limited wars in the future. And it redoubled its efforts to conduct total war against conventional enemies more effectively — which culminated in the easy victories in Gulf Wars I and II (at least initially). Despite the U.S. experience, the loser is often the one who learns most from the previous war. Saddam Hussein likely learned from Gulf War I that the only way he could survive a future confrontation with a superpower would be to fight guerrilla-style. He probably concluded that the U.S. military would be better at fighting the war than dealing with a hostile occupation. Like the North Vietnamese calculated, Saddam knows that the Achilles’ Heel of the United States is the staying power — or lack thereof — of U.S. public opinion.
And Saddam has one big advantage that the Vietnamese communists didn’t have — 24-hour news. It took years for the American public and press to become disenchanted by the drip-drip-drip of U.S. military casualties in Vietnam. More recently, as U.S. interventions in Lebanon in the early 1980s and Somalia in the early 1990s demonstrated, when U.S. vital interests are not at stake, public and media support for a war can quickly erode after only modest American casualties. Saddam and his allies have undoubtedly noticed that American impatience and have gained inspiration from the successful Palestinian intifadas against Israel and the continuing Chechen insurgency after Russia declared victory in that war.
The American public has been more patient with the U.S. government in Iraq than in Lebanon and Somalia. After the September 11 attacks, the President and his people repeatedly implied — disingenuously — that Saddam was implicated in that tragedy. But after President Bush was finally forced to admit that no Saddam-September 11 link had been discovered and that no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq were found that could be given to terrorists, the Bush’s administration’s justifications for war are now in shambles. During Vietnam, the public and press didn’t focus on the questionable justification for taking the country to war — the shady Gulf of Tonkin incident — until the war went bad. Today the press has had a field day with the “no WMD” issue, and mushrooming casualties may make the public examine the original reasons for invading Iraq more closely.
And the casualties will likely continue to mount. Although the Iraqi guerrillas are not getting blatant assistance from outside powers, Iran and Syria — fearing that they could be the next targets of U.S. invasions — may be actively assisting the insurgency to keep U.S. forces pinned down in Iraq. At the least, they may be looking the other way as fighters and supplies transit their territories and porous borders. Also, Saddam may have squirreled away billions in advance for the fight, foreign Islamic fighters also are likely to be well-financed, and unguarded arms caches in Iraq abound.
So while the circumstances of the insurgency may differ from Vietnam, the political problem of being half-in and half-out is the same. The press is already demanding to know when U.S. troops can be reduced, while at the same time Joseph Biden, the senior Democratic Senator on the Foreign Relations Committee, is pressuring for American forces to be added. Perhaps Biden knows that committing more forces would mire the administration deeper in the quagmire, belie administration rhetoric that the situation in Iraq is improving — the way the Tet Offensive in Vietnam belied the Johnson administration’s claim that the United States was winning the Vietnam War — and be the beginning of the end for both public support for the war and the president’s political career. Iraq begins to look more like Vietnam every day.