The US armed forces launched their first air raid against post-war Iraq last week, when F-16 fighter-bombers dropped 500-pound bombs on Tikrit. The new campaign against Iraq's resistance fighters, dubbed Operation Ivy Cyclone, recalls President Lyndon Johnson's Operation Rolling Thunder over Vietnam in 1965. That campaign of bombing Vietnam would eventually see Indochina devastated by 7 million tons of aerial explosives.
These are early days in Iraq, where the conflict between a growing percentage of the native population and the occupying forces is escalating far more rapidly than it did in Vietnam. It took two years, from 1963 to the end of 1964, for American combat deaths to reach 324. The US has surpassed that figure in only seven months in Iraq, where 398 American soldiers have died already. In the last 12 days, 38 have been killed. As for the Iraqi dead, the US does not count them with similar precision. Vietnam offers examples to the US, but it is learning the wrong lessons.
Parallels with Vietnam are asserting themselves again and again in Iraq. They start with the justification for committing American troops to battle. In both cases, politicians lied to persuade Congress and the public to go along. In 1964, the year Lyndon Johnson officially upgraded the US military role from advisory to combat, the secretaries of state and defence accused North Vietnam of attacking the USS Maddox.
Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, in a bravura performance emulated by Secretary of State Colin Powell at the UN last February, announced: "While on routine patrol in international waters, the US destroyer Maddox underwent an unprovoked attack." The only phrase corresponding to reality was that the Maddox was a destroyer. Otherwise, the routine patrol was in fact an attack on North Vietnam's shore installations. The international waters were really North Vietnam's. And the unprovoked attack was not only provoked, it did not take place at all.
The Johnson administration's deception, like George Bush's over Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, worked. Johnson won passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, allowing him to take "all necessary measures". Bush passed his war resolution after telling Congress that Saddam was threatening the US. The Bush administration's dance around facts to achieve the invasion of Iraq made Johnson's chicanery look amateur.
Tonkin was shown to be a lie when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The lies over Iraq were exposed almost as soon as the US erected barriers in Baghdad to protect itself from the people it had liberated. No one found the nuclear programme, the Niger uranium or the elusive connection to al-Qa'ida. From the beginning in Iraq, as in Vietnam, the credibility gap lay wide open.
At a recent dinner in Washington, US Marine officers told me of their opposition to the occupation of Iraq. Two reasons they gave were: occupation cannot work; and young Marines risking their lives know that the sons of the war's architects, like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, will not face combat or risk death in Iraq. These officers were born about the time US troops left Vietnam. Their voices echo those of generals Matthew Ridgway and Douglas MacArthur, who warned Kennedy that the US could not win a land war in Asia. Many commanders were outspoken critics of the Vietnam war. The most consistent was the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David M Shoup.
In 1966, Shoup, who had already warned both Kennedy and Johnson that the military had no business in Vietnam, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that most of the South Vietnamese people were fighting against "those crooks in Saigon", leaders whom the US had imposed upon them. In one of his many speeches throughout the country, Shoup said, "If we had and would keep our dollar-crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own. [A solution] that they design and want. That they fight and work for. [Not one] crammed down their throats by Americans."
Robert Buzzanco, in Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era, observed that the reward for Shoup's candour was to be placed, alongside other military and civilian opponents of the war, under FBI surveillance.
Robert Buzzanco wrote that, while the American officer corps was sceptical, "they nonetheless ignored their own bleak analysis with the full complicity of the civilian policy-making establishment." Many officers saw what happened to Shoup and protected their careers. Most of all, they did not want the military to take the blame for a war directed by Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Avoiding blame for disaster was preferable to telling presidents what they did not want to hear.
As in Iraq, getting into Vietnam was easier than getting out. The US attempted to impose a viable South Vietnamese government and army capable of defeating the popular resistance of the National Liberation Front. It never succeeded. The Bush administration tried a similar manoeuvre with its appointment last July of the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). Now Paul Bremer, head of the occupyin g administration, has been recalled amid reports that they are seeking alternatives to the IGC.
In South Vietnam, a state the US more or less created after the Geneva Accords of 1954, Washington installed Ngo Dinh Diem as leader. When it became dissatisfied with Diem's inability to control the insurgency against his rule, Kennedy allowed some of South Vietnam's generals to assassinate him and take over. The US presided over one military coup after another in the elusive search for a government acceptable to South Vietnam's people.
When American soldiers died in Vietnam, the US reacted with various programmes to protect them: saturation bombing, camps called strategic hamlets in which it confined hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese peasants, and the Phoenix Programme, under which the CIA and Special Forces assassinated 30,000 suspected Viet Cong cadres. The CIA chief William Colby called Phoenix the only successful operation of the war. How far is the US willing to go to preserve the notion that it can impose a government acceptable to both itself and the Iraqi people? Will it employ the old techniques, the only ones in its counter-insurgency arsenal, as it suffers more casualties? Old words come howling out of the past: body count, kill ratio, search and destroy, destroying the village to save it and the light at the end of the tunnel.
America lost 58,000 dead in Vietnam. It killed two million Vietnamese. It was warned against that war, as it was warned against this one - and often by the military men who did not want their soldiers to risk their lives except in defence of their own country.
The last exit strategy in Vietnam was Vietnamisation, training South Vietnamese soldiers to fight South Vietnamese guerrillas. Now the word is Iraqisation and amounts to the same thing. In Vietnam, the US created a state apparatus that was corrupt and a local army that did not want to fight. Both collapsed when America pulled out. In Iraq, the Bush administration promises a different outcome - despite pursuing the same goals with the same methods.
The author was ABC News Chief Mideast correspondent, 1983-1993Reuse content