[Overseas view]Vietnam still provides lessons for IraqAs the confrontation over Iraq between President George Bush and Congress escalates, the current wave of violence in Baghdad includes one distinctive event: a terrorist bomb in a cafeteria within the national parliament building that killed a member of the legislature and wounded many others.
Ominously, insurgents have now breached one of the most “secure” locations in the country. They not only killed and injured people, but punctured the Pentagon posture that the enormous Baghdad bunker known as the “Green Zone” is secure.
As the American military ordeal in the Persian Gulf has dragged on far longer than the Bush White House initially anticipated, parallels increasingly are being drawn with our experience in Vietnam. This is understandable, though the two wars remain very distinctive. For example, there is no persuasive evidence that the armed insurrection in Iraq has achieved the very broad support of the revolutionary National Liberation Front that occurred in South Vietnam.
The NLF military arm, the Viet Cong, demonstrated highly disciplined unity that contrasts with the factionalized fighting in Iraq. There is also so far no counterpart to the heavily armed conventional forces of North Vietnam. Iran is not in a similar role, though that regime may ultimately benefit the most from the situation.
However, the NLF’s tactics and strategies are germane to a serious analysis of Iraq. That organization was exceptionally impressive in gathering and exploiting inside information regarding the activities and intentions of the South Vietnamese ― and of the Americans.
A U.S. Army Green Beret major who spent a year in Vietnam during the first half of the 1960s went on to serve as an instructor in the ROTC unit at UCLA. He described to attentive students and others the very eerie experience of hearing a letter from his wife read over Radio Hanoi.
When he received the same missive in the mail some time thereafter, the envelope was sealed and apparently pristine, with no evidence of tampering.
Henry Kissinger was involved in Vietnam policy as a consultant to the Pentagon during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration before he became national security adviser to President Richard Nixon. He told a Harvard audience in advance of assuming the White House post that he had become convinced the revolutionaries in Vietnam were not anxious for the Americans to leave. Among other considerations, the black market had become so pervasive that a large percentage of the material shipped for South Vietnamese and U.S. forces was diverted instead to revolutionary hands. American society emphasizes a very practical, empirical approach to life, and officials applied this perspective to the Vietnam conflict. Under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, body counts and weapons captured became the measure of progress, reinforced by false assumptions about urban areas being “secure.” In the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Viet Cong struck every major city and town in South Vietnam, destroying U.S. claims about security.
Likewise, tremendous emphasis was placed on locating and destroying COSVN (Central Office South Vietnam), the alleged headquarters of the NLF. When massive B-52 bombing raids resulted in major secondary explosions, analysts were immediately pressured by the high command to confirm that COSVN at last had been hit.
COSVN was a vital enemy organ, but never a fixed physical location. Rather, a group of highly intelligent, fanatically dedicated people were constantly on the move, replaced by others when they were killed or captured.
The Vietnam War also demonstrated that close and important alliance relations were not sufficient to overcome such fundamental problems. The experience of the Korean War, which resulted in the successful defense of South Korea from North Korean and Chinese forces, was one factor that encouraged the Americans to try to defend South Vietnam.
The Republic of Korea maintained approximately 50,000 troops in South Vietnam throughout the years of greatest American military involvement there, and they were virtually all combat forces. The powerful close relationship forged between the United States and South Korea during that war, in particular among our militaries, was reflected in this impressive commitment. There were also small but potent military contingents from Australia and New Zealand.
In total, including the very sizable South Vietnamese forces, the United States had more allied troops in South Vietnam than in Iraq today, yet this did not prevent the ultimate failure of the goal of maintaining the regime in Saigon.
Good intentions, and close allies, could not compensate for the structural weaknesses within South Vietnam.
Americans characteristically value imagination and innovation, often driven by commerce. In evaluating our nation’s leaders, regarding this war and other matters, you should apply this test.
*The writer is the Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis. and author of “After the Cold War.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Arthur I. Cyr