Iraq And Vietnam: Lesson Of The Past Lost On The Pentagon
It had to happen sooner or later but I'm sure any Republican Senator or Representative facing an election this coming first Tuesday of November would have preferred it four weeks later. George Bush used the V-word in reference to his folly in Iraq. He didn't actually use the word himself, but he acknowledged that the situation in Iraq was indeed analogous to the V-word.
Now die-hard conservatives are going to complain about leading questions from a Clinton Democrat (A.B.C. correspondent George Stephanopoulos who got the President to admit the similarity was a former Clinton administration flak) attempting to discredit the policies of the administration in the lead up to the elections. But George Bush has been around politics all his life and should know how to avoid an easy yes and no question.
In fact all he was asked was if he believed the current circumstances in Iraq were analogous to those surrounding the Tet offensive in 1968. He could have easily said, "No I don't believe the circumstances are at all similar". Truth be told he would have been quite correct militarily if that had been his reply. There is really nothing in common with the situation in Iraq and the circumstances of the Tet offensive in terms of what's happening in the field..
What Stephanopoulos was fishing for, and hooked George on, was a comparison between the feelings of the American public now towards the operation in Iraq and the burgeoning feeling of widespread outrage about the war in Vietnam that Tet engendered. It was George's willingness to go along with that assessment that could prove problematic.
Thinking about it some more I realize that any official administration statement linking the two operations, even saying weather conditions were similar would not look great in print. (Vietnam was never a war – it was a police action and the war has been won in Iraq so we're not allowed to call them wars. It's such a nasty word anyway, implying death and destruction like it does, maybe we should just do away with it altogether.). Bush likens Iraq to Vietnam as a headline, no matter what the fine print, would have any Republican hoping to be re-elected this November running from the President like their butt was on fire.
Vietnam is the great bogey monster of modern American military history. It's not so much that they lost the war on the battlefield; it was they didn't understand the battlefield well enough to be able to obtain the easy victory they felt was their due. From the earliest part of the twentieth century the American military had wandered the globe with relative impunity intervening whenever they felt the need.
Ever since Teddy and his roughriders rode up that hill they had protected American investments and interests without any difficulty. America loves a winner and it is her manifest destiny to be one with ease and end up covered in glory.
Vietnam ended all that. There was no easy victory and there was no glory, there was just a seemingly endless stream of unmet expectations and casualties. The Pentagon can blame the media all they want for turning the public against the war in Vietnam, but all they were doing was there job. They reported what the politicians and the generals promised and then they reported what actually happened. Was it their fault there was such a gulf between the two?
The military has spent the last thirty years restoring the finish to their reputation that Vietnam tarnished, There were a series of small wars and invasions, Panama and Grenada, that they carried out with apparent ease, and the first Gulf war gave them the opportunity to perfect their control of the media during an armed conflict.
America was going to be proud of their military if it was the last thing the Pentagon did and they didn't really care what they had to do to accomplish that end. The one lesson they learned from Vietnam was that without public support they weren't going to be allowed to play with their toys and be given millions of dollars to spend. So all their efforts have been geared towards that end.
For the first while things were going along just swimmingly. The invasion went according to plan, the non-existent Iraqi army collapsed like the house of cards they were and casualties were minimal. They even had a triumphal march into Baghdad. It's only been since the "war" has ended that things have begun to unravel.
First there were the revelations that soldiers had been having fun torturing prisoners, some even going so far as to have their pictures taken with them as mementoes of the occasion. There were the various "rebel clerics" who had to be put down which resulted in the heavier casualties then had occurred in the invasion. (That one of the "rebels" had been an opponent of Saddam', his father had been put to death by the ex dictator, seemed to get lost in the shuffle)
But the torture was able to be passed off as the work of rogue elements ("you're always going to get a few bad apples who are going to spoil if for the rest of the class" – although how they all ended up working together and how nobody else in the prison seemed to know it was going on remains a mystery) and the public was willing to accept a reasonable amount of casualties as long as there was the appearance of accomplishment. You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs after all.
So even those events weren't the disasters they could have been. The Pentagon handled them with the dexterity of a Madison Ave. agency smoothing over their celebrity endorser's nasal problems. It's only been as the occupation has dragged on and casualties have mounted that unease among the general public has begun to grow.
The problem for the Pentagon is that they have nothing they can announce except casualty reports. There are no battles, aside from the occasional raid on a suspected insurgency hide out, so there has been no decisive victories to celebrate and make the mission appear to be progressing.
Seventy-three American soldiers and who knows how many Iraqi military have been killed so far in October as they come under increased attack in Baghdad from insurgents. Ten Americans alone were killed last Tuesday and forty Iraqis yesterday in attacks in various regions. Numbers like this make it very difficult for the military and the administration to keep painting a rosy picture or predicting a day when American troops might start coming home.
It's that last detail that is most problematic for many Americans. It's obvious that if American troops were to withdraw today the Iraq would descend into an outright civil war. But it's also obvious that the American public is beginning to tire of the ever-increasing casualty numbers.
In a recent poll two thirds of the respondents said they disapproved of Mr. Bush's handling of the war, and that 45% thought the Democrats were more liable to make correct decisions regarding the war as opposed to 34 for the Republicans. Those are not the kind of numbers that make politicians running for election happy.
No matter how hard they've tried to prevent a repeat of Vietnam the military has failed. Iraq, like its predecessor, was the subject of many promises and while they have fulfilled some of them, they have yet to be able guarantee the one thing that is beginning to matter most; an ending. Public opinion turned against the war in Vietnam because of mounting casualties in a seemingly interminable campaign.
History is repeating itself whether the Pentagon likes it or not, and the longer the conflict drags on the more it will. If George Bush was correct in agreeing with his questioner that there are similarities between the current situation in Iraq and those surrounding the Tet offensive in regards to public opinion then the Republicans should look to their history books.
The Democrats were in power in at the time of the beginning of the Tet offensive. By the time the following November rolled around Richard Nixon was starting his first term as a Republican President. If things are allowed to continue as is it's not just this November they need to worry about, but 2008 as well.
The Pentagon thought they could correct the problem of losing public support by controlling the press. Unfortunately it also depends on producing results as promised. That's the real lesson they've failed to learn from the Vietnam War.