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This is not a map of Vietnam   (October 18, 200)

No one knows what this is a map of just yet. Is it a nascent democracy, a quagmire, an incipient civil war, or none of the above? Analogies to Vietnam are popular, for all the obvious reasons: an entrenched local insurgency is fighting a conventional-army invader/occupier with unconventional tactics, and the famously impatient American public is questioning whether the stated purpose of the war, as noble as it may be, is worth the cost in blood and treasure.

Fair enough, but politically the analogy falls apart. Vietnam was a nation arbitrarily divided after World War II, as a great-power sop to French illusions of continuing colonial grandeur. After the North Vietnamese disabused the French of that notion at Dienbienphu, then the U.S. foolishly cancelled a U.N.-sanctioned election on the grounds that Ho Chi Minh would have won.

So the U.S. subverted democracy in the name of fighting Communism in a nation with virtually no strategic value. It had no resources to speak of (offshore oil was just a rumor at the time), and no position globally except as a supposed domino which would topple all the other southeast asian nations. But this mistook the Vietnamese desire for independence as part of the global battle between ideologies. Yes, Ho was a Commie, and Vietnam a Soviet satrapy, but it was a poor one and strategically unimportant. From the vietnamese perspective, unity and independence were the driving forces, not a political ideology (though that undoubtedly fueled the North Vietnamese leadership).

Bottom line: the U.S. should have left Vietnam to its own devices and drawn a line in the sand at Thailand, which had a viable government its people were willing to fight for. In contrast, South Vietnam was a puppet state, ruled by a tiny elite whose prime directive was endless, pervasive corruption. Who wants to fight and die for such a regime? No one, and thus you had the sons of the elite riding scooters around Saigon while the peasant boys were drafted into an incompetently led Army.

Iraq, ont he other hand, is a fiat nation cobbled together by Britain early in the 20th century, a nation ruled for 50 years by the 20% of the populace who are Sunni Muslim. Their rule ended with the toppling of Saddam, and they either want the power back or fear the reduction of their status to minority; some percentage are willing to fight by any means to recover their privileges.

Restoring Sunni domination is not exactly a triumph of noble aspirations. From the long view, the situation in Iraq boils down to protecting the Sunnis from revenge and domination, while easing them out of the collective fantasy that they are somehow entitled to rule the other 80% of the citizenry (Shia and Kurds).

That will take time. It is complicated by the collusion of Iran and Syria with the insurgents (many of whom are not Iraqi), for the Syrians and Iranians are rightly terrified that the democratic experiment will succeed and infect their own populaces, thus threatening their venal and corrupt oligarchies.

The analogy few are making is to the media coverage of the war. I invite you to read a fascinating account of the Tet Offensive in 1968, the fierce series of battles which is widely seen as the turning point in the Vietnam War--the inflection point where U.S. public opinion turned against the war as not worth it and/or unwinnable.The book is Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington by Peter Braestrup. Braestrup details the complex interaction of a press corps which had largely turned against the war via their exposure to it on the ground, the wild melee of desperate Tet battles and a deceptive government and Army leadership which was determined to "spin" every facet of the war.

The combat result of the Tet Offensive was a catastrophic defeat not for American troops, but for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). It took them four long years to assemble enough manpower and supplies to launch another major offensive. But the loser ended up being the U.S. political and military leadership, for by this time their credibility had already been sqaundered. When they declared victory, no one believed them. And of course, Americans learned that a war of attrition against the Vietnamese was simply not worth the cost to the nation's youth.

In a similar fashion, people are again equating patriotism with supporting the government's decisions, rather than measuring patriotism by one's support of the nation's founding principles and spiritual heartstrings: honesty and transparency in government, the right to free speech, and a deep, abiding skepticism of centralized authority.

The other analogy which has not been stressed enough is the incompetence of the military and political leadership in both wars. The Vietnam War famously featured Lyndon Johnson poring over maps of Vietnam in his office, identifying which bridges he wanted bombed; for Johnson was fighting the war as if it was arm-twisting in the Senate-- if he could put enough pressure on Ho, then the war could be negotiated. Johnson was tragically wrong in his assessment, and tens of thousands of people died needlessly as a result.

For an account of just how incompetent the U.S.leadership was, read cover About Face/the Odyssey of an American Warrior by David H. Hackworth. Hackworth was a decorated combat veteran of the Korean War, and he devised tactics to beat the Viet Cong at their own game. But what he found in Vietnam was a command structure based on deception and incompetence. When he reached his new command, he found the troops dispirited and fatalistically waiting to die. He was able to turn things around and save them from being slaughtered, but his efforts encountered enormous resistance from the command structure. In other words, the rot at the top had spread all the way down to the poor draftees at the bottom.

By all accounts, the volunteer citizen-soldiers serving in Iraq have much higher morale than the draftees of the Vietnam Era. But they too need the support of the nation, and a leadership which is not based on deception and "spin". It is difficult to assess the true situation on the ground in Iraq, but it would be wise, as it was in Vietnam, to discount all "official" pronouncements.

For now we have a leadership who famously avoided service themselves declaring "I don't do quagmires" while disbanding the Iraqi Army and Police, unleashing a civil chaos which has yet to abate. There may be many terms which describe the nation's top political and military leadership, but "competent" is not one of them. As in Vietnam, it's the grunts on the ground and the Iraqi civilians who are paying the price.

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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