Conservatives have resisted the notion that Iraq is “another Vietnam,” but in fact, as President Bush did two weeks ago, we should embrace the history of Vietnam as an example of how — and how not — to conduct a remote and unpopular war.
The history of Vietnam, after all, is not all shame and defeat. Americans fought bravely and in the end we achieved most of our objectives. Southeast Asia didn’t fall to communism. More to the point, we learned important lessons in adjusting our goals to the mission and recognizing when we are achieving success. It is a lesson that will serve us well in Iraq.
Vietnam was the country’s first postwar venture into counterinsurgency. The Korean War was fought very much the same as World War II, with conventional standing armies. As Communist subversion penetrated Southeast Asia, however, President John Kennedy decided to oppose it with a new kind of warfare. He created the Green Berets and put them into South Vietnam as military advisers, attempting to shore up the South Vietnamese government and beat the Viet Cong at their own game.
By 1965, however, the situation had deteriorated to the point where the military advised President Lyndon Johnson that only the introduction of American troops could save the day. Theater commander General William Westmoreland was eager to engage the enemy and try a new form of anti-guerilla warfare called “search-and-destroy.”
The strategy was to surprise and out-maneuver the enemy using the rapid deployment of helicopter-based troops. In the first major engagement in November 1965, the army dropped 450 soldiers of the 1st Air Cavalry Division into the Ia Drang Valley — where they were immediately surrounded by 2,000 seasoned North Vietnamese regulars. Only about 200 Americans made it out.
Faced with such losses, Westmoreland embraced the “body count” as the standard of success. The idea was to keep score between American and North Vietnamese casualties, with the side racking up the greater number of kills supposedly headed for victory. Critics questioned the wisdom of getting into a war of attrition with a nation of 20 million people that didn’t seem to mind sacrificing lives. Westmoreland persisted, however, and the casualties mounted. By 1968 Westmoreland had 500,000 troops in the field and was asking for 250,000 more.
The Tet offensive finally prompted a re-evaluation and Johnson decided to drop out of the race for re-election. President Richard Nixon won the presidency while touting a “secret plan” to end the war. Less than six months after Nixon took office, the body-count reached its climax on “Hamburger Hill,” where the 101st Airborne suffered 500 casualties in a weeklong battle — only to abandon the hill in another a few days when it turned out to be strategically useless. Life magazine published individual photos of all 242 Americans killed during the week, effectively dramatizing the costs of the failed strategy.
GENERAL CREIGHTON ABRAMS, APPOINTED by Nixon to replace Westmoreland, soon implemented a new strategy called “clear-and-hold.” (In Iraq it is “clear, hold and build.”) Conventional ground offensives were terminated. Instead, American soldiers moved in with the Vietnamese, setting up security and winning them to our side. Whereas search-and-destroy missions had ended up “burning villages in order to save them,” the new strategy concentrated on gaining the confidence of the people. By 1971, an entire American division was living in villages in the Mekong Delta.
In the meantime, Nixon presided over “Vietnamization,” which meant withdrawing American troops and turning responsibility over to the Vietnamese. Within four years, the last American combat brigade had sailed home. Sensing an opportunity, North Vietnam’s legendary General Vo Nguyen Giap launched an all-out invasion in the spring of 1972. Nixon responded with “Operation Linebacker” (he always liked football metaphors) and gave the South Vietnamese full air support, including the bombing and mining of Haiphong harbor. The invasion failed and General Giap was punished for his miscalculations. The renewed conflict set off waves of protests on American campuses, however, and the divisions became almost irreconcilable.
George McGovern ran his 1972 presidential campaign on the grounds that the war was immoral and we should be terminated immediately — as if nothing had happened in four years. He suffered a historical defeat. The electorate’s show of resolve drove the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table and on January 15, 1973, Nixon announced the suspension of offensive action against North Vietnam. Two weeks later both sides signed the Paris Peace Accords. The release of American POWs followed soon after.
One year later, the South Vietnamese government was still standing, protected by American air and naval support. Nixon’s opening to China had rearranged pieces on the world chessboard and stability seemed to be coming to Southeast Asia. You could almost call it a victory.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT WAS purely domestic. Despite the end of the fighting, critics could not let go of the idea of “Nixon’s War.” My Lai, the supposedly immoral invasion of Cambodia, the supposed “war crimes” of Nixon and Henry Kissinger — on and on it went. When the catastrophe of Watergate brought down the Nixon presidency, the effort to defend the fragile edifice collapsed. Riding the tide of Watergate, the Democrats achieved their largest majorities in Congress since World War II in the 1974 elections. They immediately began clamoring for a withdrawal of all support from the South Vietnamese government. Before the new majority had even taken its seats, Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act, which ruled that all military assistance to South Vietnam must end by July 1976.
Emboldened by this turn of events, the North Vietnamese made a tentative probe into the Central Highlands in March 1975. Stripped of American air support, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam failed miserably. President Ford entreated Congress for $1 billion in military aid to the South Vietnamese but to no avail. The new Democratic majority was ready to renounce the whole ten-year effort.
Realizing America was not going to intervene, the North Vietnamese continued southward. Although individual ARVN units fought bravely, the government in Saigon panicked and the retreat turned into a rout. Within six weeks Saigon fell. Almost simultaneously, Cambodian Communist leader Pol Pot marched into Phnom Penh, overthrowing the military regime in neighboring Cambodia. The result — as President Bush recounted in his recent speech — was the re-education camps, the Boat People (actually a pogrom against ethnic Chinese), and the Killing Fields, in which one-fourth of the population of Cambodia died.
IT IS REMARKABLE HOW CLOSELY our experience in Iraq has paralleled the Vietnam experience to date. At first we thought we could overwhelm the opposition with superior military force. The “shock-and-awe” campaign and the lightening invasion seemed enough to rout an overmatched enemy. Yet gradually we found ourselves drawn into a war of attrition. Only after several years of mounting casualties did we make a midcourse correction and implemented a much more sophisticated strategy that concentrates on securing and winning the population. This has led to lower casualty rates and growing signs of life in the indigenous government.
Still we face almost the same situation at home as we did in 1972. Anti-war Democrats, refusing to acknowledge the success of the new strategy, are intent on ending the war at any cost, even if it means abandoning millions of people to their fates. Fortunately this time we don’t have a Watergate Congress that can override a President of any persuasion. Even so, the danger remains.
The Lesson of Vietnam is that we didn’t have to lose Vietnam. A war that had been essentially won on the ground, followed by a successful American disengagement, was ultimately squandered by the triumph of defeatist attitudes at home. As the election approaches, it will be crucial for candidates to avoid a similar outcome. Their task will be to convince a war-weary public that the conflict must be judged by current conditions rather than past mistakes and that every sign of growing stability in Iraq is a true measure of success.