For more than 30 years, the American left raised the specter of Vietnam to oppose U.S. military interventions in Central America, the Balkans, Afghanistan and, most recently, Iraq. Yet reasoning by historical analogy can be dangerous, as the Munich appeasement analogies used to bolster "bearing the burden" in Vietnam showed.
Still, there are only two ways to approach the future: faith and history. The latter has the advantage of being fact-based. With that in mind, what can Vietnam teach us about the ongoing war in Iraq?
Both wars took place on the other side of the world, in places with inhospitable climates and topography. Just as the war in Vietnam was part of the larger Cold War, the fighting in Iraq is part of a global struggle to define the international parameters of the 21st century.
Because Vietnam had been a part of French Indochina, America inherited the albatross of neocolonialism. Likewise, there is European colonial baggage in Iraq. Like Vietnam, Iraq is bordered by countries willing to aid our enemies. The world community, moreover, is no more supportive of American intervention in Iraq than it was of America's war in Vietnam.
What about military analogies?
Early in the Vietnam War, in November 1965, a qualitatively superior American army stood toe-to-toe against the Peoples' Army of Vietnam to win the month-long Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. Similarly, Operation Iraqi Freedom began with a three-week drive on Baghdad in which American forces displayed operational and tactical superiority.
While operational and tactical excellence is important to battlefield victories, superior strategy wins wars. The United States had two vulnerabilities in Vietnam. First, it lacked a strategy appropriate to the war at hand. Second, Washington hitched its prestige and power to an ineffectual Saigon regime.
To keep Iraq from becoming a quagmire as Vietnam became, the United States must avoid those same two pitfalls.
After suffering defeat in the Battle of the Ia Drang, where superior American firepower and mobility prevailed, the North Vietnamese and their southern cohorts, the Viet Cong, adopted a strategy of attrition. North Vietnam's General Vo Nguyen Giap correctly posited that when American losses reached 50,000 killed, Washington would give up. Giap's most abundant resource to pursue this strategy was manpower. In a war of attrition, Giap was willing to lose 500,000 soldiers to kill 50,000 Americans.
The United States also adopted a strategy of attrition. General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of Military Assistance Command Vietnam, devised a strategy based on a kill ratio of 10-to-one. Neither strategy was inherently superior, but the North Vietnamese strategy was more appropriate. It simply was not worth 50,000 American lives to achieve Washington's ill-defined goals in support of our dubious Saigon ally.
The North Vietnamese had a robust army that Hanoi mobilized to "liberate" the South. While that situation does not exist in Iraq, elements of the Saddam Fedayeen and other Iraqi elite units escaped battlefield defeat and faded away to fight another day. They have adopted an attritional strategy focused on killing Americans.
With definitive goals like taking Baghdad and other major cities accomplished, the U.S. military measures of success have become quantitative. Numbers of Iraqi "suspects" detained or killed, weapons confiscated and neighborhoods "pacified" have a hauntingly familiar ring for those of us who remember the body and weapons counts that resulted from "search and destroy" missions like Operation Attleboro and Junction City.
This also is an attritional strategy and, as such, is bound to fail. Forget 50,000 or 5,000 U.S. dead. The American public may balk when the toll reaches 500. The war in Iraq, like the one we lost in Vietnam, shares the same thing all wars share: it is an act of force aimed at breaking the enemy's will.
The U.S. Army cannot win the war against Iraqi insurgents without suffering unacceptable casualties, risking demoralization and, in the process, alienating a majority of Iraqis.
To win this war, to keep it from devolving into another Vietnam and ending in a politically disastrous defeat, the United States must first devise a winning strategy. Only an indigenous force, like the one we are training and supporting in Afghanistan, can win in Iraq. American Special Operations Forces and Army Civil Affairs soldiers can train such a force. They must do so as quickly as possible. Second, the new government in Iraq has to offer a popular and effective alternative to the regime we deposed.
As Carl von Clausewitz so rightly understood, war is politics by other means.
Dr. Earl H. Tilford is a professor of history at Grove City College, a private school in Pennsylvania. After retiring from the U.S. Army, he served as professor of military history at the U.S. Air Force Air Command and Staff College. In 1993, he became director of research at the U.S. Army's Strategic Studies Institute, where he worked on a project that looked at possible future terrorist threats.
Publication date: 07/17/03