Iraq is Vietnam-and You’d Better Believe It
by John Graham
I was a civilian advisor/trainer in Vietnam, arriving just as US troops were going home. I wasn’t there to fight, but I hadn’t been in country a week when I learned that the word “noncombatant” didn’t mean much where I was posted, fifty miles south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that then divided South Vietnam from North. I got the message when a sniper’s bullet whistled past my ear on the main highway twenty miles south of Hué. Joe Jackson, the burly major who was driving, yelled at me to hold on and duck as he gunned the jeep out of range, zigzagging to spoil the sniper’s aim.
Snipers or not, in 1971 it was the U.S. Government’s policy not to issue weapons to civilian advisors in Vietnam, even to those of us in distant and dangerous outposts. The reason was not principle, but PR – and here begin the lessons for Iraq.
Sometime in 1969, the White House, faced with unrelenting facts on the ground and under siege from the public, had quietly made the decision that America couldn’t win its war in Vietnam.
Nixon and Kissinger didn’t put it that way, of course. America was a superpower, and it was inconceivable that it could lose a war to a third rate nation whose soldiers lived on rice and hid in holes in the ground. So the White House conceived an elaborate strategy that would mask the fact of an American defeat. The US would slowly withdraw its combat troops over a period of several years, while the mission of those who remained would change from fighting the North Vietnamese and Vietcong to training the South Vietnamese to carry on the fight on their own. At the same time, we would give the South Vietnamese a series of performance ultimatums which, if unmet, would trigger a total withdrawal and let us blame the South Vietnamese for the debacle that would follow. This strategy was called “Vietnamization.” Implementing it cost at least 10,000 additional American and countless more Vietnamese lives, plus billions of dollars.
It was a rigged game from the start. All but the wildest zealots in Washington knew that the South Vietnamese would not and could not meet our ultimatums: an end to corrupt, revolving-door governments, an officer corps based on merit not cronyism, and the creation of a national state that enjoyed popular allegiance strong and broad enough to control the political and cultural rivalries that had ripped the country’s fabric for a thousand years.
During the eighteen months I was in Vietnam, I met almost no Americans in the field who regarded Vietnamization as a serious military strategy with any chance of success. More years of American training could not possibly make a difference in the outcome of the war because what was lacking in the South Vietnamese Army was not just combat skills but belief in a cause worth fighting for.
But none of that was the point. Vietnamization was not a military strategy. It was a public relations campaign.
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