Peril in Iraq:  A Vietnam parallel

By Stuart A. Herrington, Col. US Army (Ret)

A few short months after statues of Saddam Hussein tumbled from their pedestals in April 2003, opponents of the Iraq war began trumpeting their case that President Bush and his “neo-con” advisers had gotten the United States into a quagmire. Many observers, this writer included, noted then that the differences between Iraq and Vietnam far outweighed the similarities. Besides, had not the same critics trotted out the “Q” word within weeks of the invasion of Afghanistan?

As the long-awaited Iraqi elections draw near, and we approach the second anniversary of the war in Iraq, some unsettling parallels to Vietnam nonetheless arise. As one who abandoned the hapless South Vietnamese to their fate by fleeing from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in an evacuation helicopter on April 30, 1975, this writer has had almost 30 years to ponder the mistakes that led to that Embassy rooftop. Here are my nominations for perilous similarities which, if not corrected, bode ill for our chances of success in Iraq:

Waste valuable time by erroneous strategic thinking, thereby causing the American people to tire of the effort. In Vietnam, the United States tried to fight a war of attrition against Hanoi from 1965 through 1968. We spent three fruitless years striving to reach Gen. William Westmoreland’s elusive crossover point (when American forces would kill more young North Vietnamese than Hanoi could recruit). By the time Washington changed course and instituted a sophisticated pacification program that included Vietnamization, few Americans had the patience or confidence that the war could be won.

In Iraq, despite the success of the light, blitz-like attack that toppled Saddam Hussein, we are now spending lives and squandering political support at home as an undermanned force structure valiantly pursues a reactive, “whack a mole” campaign against the growing insurgency. Should we be surprised that polls show a declining number of Americans who believe that the war will end favorably?

Jeopardize the outcome of the war by overestimating our ability to rapidly create effective indigenous forces that can shoulder the burden of fighting, then depart prematurely. Vietnamization was the right course to adopt in 1969. As the rapid collapse of Nguyen Van Thieu’s army in 1975 demonstrated, we were wrong to proclaim Vietnamization a big success in order to justify a series of premature troop withdrawals.   We must urgently reconstitute an Iraqi army that never should have been disbanded. This said, today’s rush to create Iraqi armed forces so that American forces can withdraw bears an eerie resemblance to what happened in Vietnam. Despite what the Iraqi president told “Meet the Press” recently, it will take years, not months, to build an Iraqi military capable of defending the new Iraqi democracy from external and internal threats.  To pretend otherwise is to court the worst of follies.

Permit porous borders and insurgent sanctuaries to exist. After the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese military leaders acknowledged that the sanctuaries permitted by the Americans in Laos and Cambodia were critical to their ability to support the insurgency and military operations in South Vietnam. Insurgencies that are totally indigenous, with no external support or sanctuaries, rarely succeed.

In Iraq today, having disbanded the Iraqi army and with too few forces on the ground to secure the borders, we have allowed the insurgents both sanctuaries and external support. With our forces bearing the burden of this strategic disadvantage, the stubborn and bloody grunt work required to slug it out with the insurgents will probably take too long? far longer than American, and possibly Iraqi, public opinion can stand.

Making gratuitous enemies among the population. In Vietnam, massive American firepower and search and destroy operations often resulted in embittered, hostile citizens who were more readily inclined to support the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese. In Iraq, sweep operations have resulted in excessive civilian detainees, some of whom have been mistreated and abused. We have caused excessive property damage and civilian casualties, while our operating forces have often humiliated citizens who must be on our side if the war is to be won.

Sacrificing one’s ally in the name of what is deemed a more critical strategic priority. The Nixon administration took office in 1969 persuaded that the war in Vietnam was a hindrance to achieving a larger strategic objective of engaging both China and the Soviet Union. In the case of Iraq, the sirens are singing a similar song ? that the war in Iraq is intruding on the war on terrorism.

This logic, were it to prevail, would lead inevitably to measures (such as premature troop withdrawals) that imperil our cause in Iraq. It puts interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi or his elected successor, not to mention the decent majority of Iraqis who desire a democratic government, in a position similar to that of South Vietnam in 1973. Many South Vietnamese still believe that their country was sacrificed on the altar of the Cold War. Will thousands of Iraqi refugees some day have to lament that a free Iraq was sacrificed on the altar of the war on terrorism?

All of this is not to say that the situation is beyond retrieval, or that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should necessarily heed calls for his resignation. But history can repeat itself, and we cannot afford to continue making these kinds of serious strategic errors in Iraq.

The American and Iraqi people who supported the invasion to remove Saddam Hussein have an altogether appropriate expectation that the United States “get it right” during this critical phase of the war. This requires a bottom-up assessment of what forces and equipment are required on the ground to stabilize the situation. Asking young Iraqis to become police officers, election workers and members of their country’s armed forces while at the same time not affording them the security they deserve is stupid policy and it is immoral.   Nor is it fair to place our nation’s men and women in harm’s way to execute a strategy that requires a far greater investment in forces and equipment if it is to succeed.

These are some of the disturbing similarities between Vietnam and Iraq, but one key difference stands above all others. Despite the context in which it was viewed by the well-intentioned Cold Warriors who committed us to war in Vietnam, that conflict was important to that region of the world but did not have global consequences, as events in the wake of the fall of Saigon revealed.

An unfavorable outcome for the United States and its allies in Iraq will likely have catastrophic global consequences. Does anyone doubt the mortal peril for our nation if we fail in Iraq at the hands of jihadists?

The Bush administration must get it right, and soon. If it fails to do so, this Vietnam veteran sees images of humiliation and disappointment like those of April 30, 1975, followed by unthinkable strategic consequences.

Herrington, a retired Army colonel, has visited Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and advised the Army on counterinsurgency operations and interrogation of enemy combatants. He is the author of several books, including “Traitors Among Us: Inside the Spy Catcher’s World,” and “Stalking the Vietcong: Inside Operation Phoenix.”

Courtesy The San Diego Union-Tribune

©Vietnamese & American Veterans of the Vietnam War, 2005 All Rights Reserved

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