April day in 2003 when American troops first pushed into Baghdad, historian
Marilyn Young noted a strange phenomenon. In a single rush, the Vietnam
War vocabulary had returned to our media. She promptly dubbed Iraq, "Vietnam
on crack cocaine."
It's true that, for a while, the administration played an eerie opposites
game, spending much of its PR time avoiding any whiff of Vietnam terminology.
"Body bags" were renamed (and the homecoming dead hidden from the cameras);
"body counts" were excised from the official military vocabulary – or as Gen.
Tommy Franks, commander of our Afghan War, put it in 2002: "I don't believe
you have heard me or anyone else in our leadership talk about the presence of
1,000 bodies out there, or in fact how many have been recovered. … You know
we don't do body counts" (except
privately, of course).
But that was then, this is now. Here we are, well into the second term of
Bush's Vietnam-on-crack-cocaine, Global-War-on-Terror policies. Significantly
more time has passed, as Newsweek's
Michael Hirsh recently pointed out, than it took the U.S. to win World War
II in the Pacific:
"We are now nearly five years into a war against a group that was said to
contain no more then 500 to 1,000 terrorists at the start (in case anyone's
counting, 1,776 days have now passed since 9/11; that is more than a full year
longer than the time between Pearl Harbor and the surrender of Japan, which
was 1,347 days). The war just grows and grows. And now Lebanon, too, is part
And, as if giving up in its titanic struggle against the undead of our Vietnam
experience, the Bush administration is now openly recycling in ever more chaotic,
Iraq ancient, failed Vietnam-era policies. It's enough to give old-timers
that Post-Traumatic-Stress-Syndrome feeling, as Vietnam-era war correspondent
Judith Coburn explains vividly below.
Of course, we all know that Iraq is not Vietnam – and not just because of the
lack of jungle or the different language. But here's one difference between
the two eras that is perhaps worth a little more attention:
In Vietnam, the U.S. military, the mightiest force then on the planet, was
fought to a draw and defeated politically by a remarkably unified Vietnamese
national resistance movement led by North Vietnamese communists, but with a
powerful southern guerrilla element. The guerrillas in the south were backed
by the North Vietnamese (and, as the war went on, by enormous chunks of the
North Vietnamese military); North Vietnam was supplied with weaponry and massive
support by a superpower, the Soviet Union, and a regional power, emerging Communist
Now consider Iraq. The U.S. military – even more now than then the mightiest
force on the planet – has been fought to something like a stalemate by perhaps
20,000 relatively underarmed (compared to the Vietnamese) insurgents in a ragtag
minority rebellion, lacking a unified political party or program, or
support from any major state power. Now consider Lebanon, where the mightiest
regional military in the Middle East, the Israeli army, which in 1982 made it
to Beirut in a flash before bogging down for 18 years, has in the last three
weeks not managed to secure several miles on the other side of its own border
against another relatively isolated minority guerrilla movement. This perhaps
tells us something about the way, in this new millennium, we are not in the
Vietnam era, but you'd be hard-pressed to know that from the Bush administration's
What's so grimly fascinating, as Coburn indicates below, is that our old counterinsurgency
policies, which didn't work in Vietnam, have now proved utterly bankrupt against
vastly weaker forces. On guerrilla war, our leaders, political and military,
are evidently nothing short of brain-dead. Now, consider Coburn's striking piece
on two failed wars, two disastrous eras of U.S. military policy abroad, and
wonder whether we aren't really in Hell. Tom
How Not to Vietnamize Iraq
by Judith Coburn
Through a scrim of red, dry-season dust, the sign
appeared like an apparition hanging low over the no-man's land of the South
Vietnamese-Lao border: "Warning! No US Personnel Beyond This Point." Its big,
white expanse was already festooned with grunt graffiti, both American and Vietnamese.
It was February 1971, the afternoon before the invasion of Laos, and the sign
but the latest bizarre development in the Pentagon's campaign to "Vietnamize"
the war in Vietnam. The journalists who had hoofed it all the way to the border
found the sign so grimly funny that we lined up for a group photo in front of
It all started in late 1969, when President Richard Nixon announced
the first withdrawal of American soldiers from South Vietnam and their replacement
by South Vietnamese troops. The new policy was dubbed "Vietnamization" by
Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and hailed as the beginning of the end of
America's war in that land. But the North Vietnamese leadership in Hanoi wasn't
fooled for a minute. The communists believed Vietnamization was only intended
to de-Americanize the war, not to end it.
Hanoi was right – more right than anybody at the time could have
imagined. In the five-plus years of war that followed, more than 20,000 American
soldiers would still die; Nixon would actually widen the war by invasions
of both Cambodia and Laos; and brutal American bombing campaigns would kill
over a million more Indochinese. In fact, more Indochinese and Americans would
be killed or wounded during the Vietnamization years than in the war before
While comparisons to Vietnam and terms from that era like "quagmire,"
"hearts and minds," and "body counts" swamped the media the moment the invasion
of Iraq began in March 2003, "Vietnamization" didn't make it into the mix
until that November. Then, the White House, which initially shied off anything
linked to Vietnam, launched a media campaign to roll out what they were calling
"Iraqification," perhaps as an answer to critics who doubted the "mission"
had actually been "accomplished" and feared that there was no "light at the
end of the [Iraqi] tunnel." But the term was quickly dropped. Perhaps it resurrected
too many baby-boomer memories of Vietnamese clinging to the skids of choppers
fleeing the fruits of Vietnamization.
It seems, however, that there is no way of keeping failed Washington policies
in their graves, once the dead of night strikes. I was amazed, when, in 2005,
Affairs magazine, Melvin Laird resurrected a claim that his "Vietnamization"
policy had actually worked and plugged for "Iraqification" of the war there.
Soon after, journalist Seymour Hersh, famed for his reportage on the Vietnam-era
My Lai massacre (and the Iraq-era Abu Ghraib abuses), reported in the New
Yorker that the Vietnamization policy of the Nixon era was indeed being
reclothed and returned to us – with similarly planned American drawdowns of
ground troops and a ramping up of American air power – and I wondered if we
could be suffering a moment of mass post-traumatic stress syndrome.
When Gen. George William Casey Jr. – whose
father, a major general, died in Vietnam in July 1970 – announced in June
2006 that the Pentagon might soon begin the first American troop withdrawals
from Iraq, I couldn't help wondering where the Iraqi version of that sign might
eventually go up. In the desert? On the Iranian or the Syrian border? (The "withdrawals"
were, however, rescinded before even being put into effect in the face of an
all-out civil war in Baghdad.)
However it feels to anyone else, it's distinctly been flashback
city for me ever since. One of the great, failed, unspeakably cynical, blood-drenched
policies of the Vietnam era, whose carnage I witnessed as a reporter in Cambodia
and Vietnam, was being dusted off for our latest disaster of an imperial war.
Some kind of brutal regression was upon us. It was the return of the repressed
or reverse evolution. It was enough to drive a war-worn journalist to new
heights of despair.
While brooding about Iraqification, I was reminded of what historian and Vietnam-era
New York Times journalist A.J. Langguth said about Vietnamization. "By
, well over a hundred thousand [South] Vietnamese soldiers were dead,
crops destroyed, cities in ruins, and we're talking about Vietnamization as
though the Vietnamese weren't already bearing the brunt of the war," he told
historian Christian G. Appy for his oral history of the Vietnam War, Patriots.
"It was one of those words that gave a reassuring ring in Washington, but it
was really insulting."
A point well taken as Iraqification is heralded in the land.
The Sound of Vietnamization
One night back in 1971 on the Lao border, not far from that big, white sign,
I was to witness Vietnamization in action in its starkest terms. Two photographers,
another reporter, and I were camped out with South Vietnamese army troops who
were to lead the next morning's invasion of Laos. (As it happened, the Vietnam
War lacked a speech-writerly slogan like President Bush's, "As
Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," but the policy was the same.) What
I heard then was three sharp cracks, the sound – we figured later – of cluster
bombs hitting the ground no more than 20 feet from us, mistakenly dropped by
an American Navy bomber. A hurricane clatter of shrapnel fanned out toward us.
It felt like sharing the same foxhole with a machine gun drawn dead on you.
As the universe exploded in flames, our brains were blasted blank.
We thrashed for cover in what seemed like slow motion. Minutes later,
with the plane long gone, the slopes around us were drenched in blood and
strewn with the broken bodies, shredded or pockmarked with shrapnel, of hundreds
of young Vietnamese soldiers. Helping drag the wounded to the medics, I left
my tape recorder running. For me, the screams recorded on that tape have remained
forever the sound of Vietnamization.
The Air Force called it "precision" bombing back then – and still does. In
guerrilla war, where fighters live among civilians, no bombing missions, no
matter how carefully targeted, can avoid killing civilians. The Pentagon reports
that, right now, on average on any given day, 45 American and British war planes
are in the air over Iraq, plus Army, Marine, and Special Forces helicopters.
Most of the bombing is being done by American F-15s and F-16s from bases outside
Iraq and F-14s and F/A-18s from carriers in the Persian Gulf. They mostly drop
500-pound bombs, though Hellfire-missile-armed Predator drones and other unmanned
aircraft do their share of damage, and in Afghanistan both B-52s, those old
Vietnam warhorses, and B-1s have been called in. In addition, as one would expect
in a "Vietnamization" program, the number of air strikes has risen sharply in
recent months. Last summer, air missions in Iraq averaged 25 a month; by last
November, they had jumped to 120 a month and have remained at that level ever
Occasionally, American military commanders remark that civilian casualties,
sanitized with the euphemism "collateral damage," are regrettable; but, in areas
where local residents are believed to support the guerrillas, civilian casualties
may actually be the goal rather than so many mistakes. In Vietnam, the Pentagon
created "free-fire zones" in the countryside where any living thing was fair
game. The theory was simple, if bloody-minded: If the guerrillas swam in the
sea of the peasants, as Chinese Communist leader Mao Ze Dong had so famously
argued, then, as American counterinsurgency experts were fond of explaining,
it was necessary to "drain the sea."
With last week's announcement that more American troops were being rushed to
Baghdad to put a brake on the fast-developing civil war in the capital, we may
be seeing a new twist on the old theme of Vietnamization – Americans may up
the use of air power in al-Anbar province and elsewhere in the heartland of
the Sunni insurgency as a substitute for troops "drawn-down" to Baghdad. As
I saw in Indochina, however, air operations rarely succeed anywhere as a substitute
for crack ground troops. They can kill enormous numbers of people without significantly
tipping the military balance.
Here's how one helicopter pilot described the effectiveness of air
ops during Lam Son 719 (the official name for the invasion of Laos): "Before
the first insertion of ARVN [South Vietnamese] troops on one firebase, we
laid in B-52 raids, tac air, and napalm for five hours. Then we waited a half
hour and went in. Our first three helicopters were shot down. There were still
a million guys out there."
Flunking Counterinsurgency 101
In his recent book Fiasco
and accompanying articles in
the Washington Post, reporter Thomas Ricks argues that neither the
American military nor the Bush administration learned even the most elementary
counterinsurgency lessons from Vietnam. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,
Ricks reports, has refused even to admit that his troops were fighting a guerrilla
war in Iraq, just as the Pentagon insisted in Vietnam that the North Vietnamese
were the real enemy, discounting the guerrillas in the South.
The use of high-profile, aggressive tactics like roundups, constant patrolling,
indiscriminate firepower, and the abuse of prisoners has alienated civilians
in Iraq just as such tactics did in South Vietnam. When American soldiers in
Iraq complain – just as they did in Vietnam – that the enemy "melts" away or
that they're "hiding" among civilians, it's because, on some very basic level,
they and their commanders just don't get how a guerrilla war actually works.
One American general I interviewed in Vietnam was incredulous when
I told him that I attended a Vietnamese wedding in the largest, most "secure"
provincial capital in the Mekong Delta, only to discover that about half the
guests were National Liberation Front (NLF) officials – that is, southern
He was no less shocked to hear about a day I spent in 1971 in a
"secure" Delta village watching most of the residents line up placidly to
vote for the only candidate on the ballot, American-backed President Nguyen
Van Thieu. The next morning, back in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital,
I found an NLF flag in my hotel mailbox wrapped in a message from those same
villagers. The point they were making was a simple one about the hidden complexities
of that war. The NLF, they explained, had decided to urge the villagers to
vote for Thieu so that the area would continue to look "secure" and village
support for the NLF would remain under the radar screen.
Recently, the Pentagon claimed that it was changing course in its counterinsurgency
tactics in Iraq, each zig and zag like this one seemingly intent on replicating
the worst of that long-gone era. In an eerie echo of Vietnamization, the old,
failed military policy of "clear and hold" – the idea of clearing designated
limited areas of guerrillas and supportive civilians, securing those areas,
and then, in "ink
blot" fashion, spreading out from there – is being resuscitated. It is meant
to replace the modern equivalent of Gen. William Westmoreland's discredited
big-unit "search and destroy" operations. In Iraq, however, in a deft, cynical
PR twist, the phrase has been recoined as "clear, hold, and rebuild." (No matter
ago bankrupted by corruption, cronyism, and pure
administration incompetence, has already wound down without a "mission accomplished"
banner in sight.)
Standing Up or Standing Down?
Well, forget "rebuild." Key to whatever new strategy does exist
is the Bush administration's stumbling, fumbling, already bloody Iraqification
policy aimed at "standing up" a national army. Our media dutifully passes
on the administration's impressive stats on new troops and police trained.
insist those troops are ill-equipped and badly trained.
I remember identical glowing reports on American-trained troops
in South Vietnam in the early 1970s. Unfortunately, deeper questions about
the effectiveness of proxy armies are almost never explored. How do you really
get them to do your bidding? How do you even make them believe that what they
are doing is for them and not for you?
In South Vietnam, there was a draft for the army and, by 1970, when President
Nixon was praising our efforts to create an effective indigenous force (as is
George Bush today), the desertion rate was 50 percent. In Iraq, there's no military
draft, but there is an economic one in which the desperate and jobless sign
up because they can find no other way to get a half-decent paycheck or support
their families. Many of them, like the South Vietnamese grunts I spent time
with, are loyal to the idea of survival, not to a corrupt, divided, and ineffective
government. Any number of these Iraqi young men are, in fact, already pledging
allegiance to powerful Shi'ite militias, even while serving in the government's
police or army.
Now the U.S. finds itself fighting those same militias as well as the insurgents.
American troops have battled the Mahdi Army on more than one occasion, have
demanded the disbanding of Shi'ite militias and death squads to no avail, and
are now being drawn into a Sunni/Shi'ite civil war, which is now killing an
estimated 100 Iraqi civilians a day.
As George Orwell wrote in his famed essay, "Shooting
an Elephant," about his days as a British colonial policeman in the Burma
of the 1920s, pesky locals always seem to manage to muck up the best-laid plans
of foreign occupiers, no matter how good those plans may look on paper or sound
on the lips of high officials.
Two weeks into Lam Son 719, we international journalists mounted
our daily assault on U.S. and South Vietnamese military flacks at the Saigon
press briefing known then as the "five o'clock follies."
"Why haven't the so-called crack South Vietnamese troops from the
First Division advanced even a meter in Laos in the last week?" my notes quote
one exasperated reporter as asking. "Why did General Abrams [commander of
American forces in South Vietnam] fly north yesterday?" shouted another. "General
Lam [South Vietnamese commander of I Corps] will advance his troops when he
desires to," the South Vietnamese military briefer answered stiffly. "General
Abrams is reviewing the situation," his American counterpart added wearily.
It took only a few days for Vietnamese reporters to nail down the
painfully obvious story. Lam Son 719 was an American construct – we all knew
that from the get-go. It was to be a major test of Vietnamization, wherein
South Vietnamese troops were to, in today's parlance, decisively "stand up."
But President Nguyen Van Thieu didn't like it much, his generals even less.
When the invasion almost immediately turned into a rout, Thieu feared his
generals might try to overthrow him.
Lt. Gen. Hoang Xuan Lam commanded the only South Vietnamese troops tough enough
to rescue the operation, but he was also the only general Thieu could depend
on to block a coup in Saigon. He didn't want Lam's troops bogged down in Laos;
he wanted them poised to rescue the "palace."
American planning, the shock-and-awe air ops of that moment, and pressure from
the Pentagon simply couldn't prevail in the face of local politics on either
side of the armed struggle. Former South Vietnamese Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge,
ever frustrated by how little "our" South Vietnamese followed his orders, once
complained that when he told Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky something and Ky nodded
yes, all it meant was that he understood what the ambassador had just said,
not that he would lift a finger to do it.
Those Pesky Proxies
Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki hasn't
exactly been rolling over for the White House recently either. He has demanded
that American soldiers be subject to Iraqi courts, that Israeli attacks in Lebanon
be stopped, and that the Bush administration send even more aid. In fact, so
many of the Bush administration's manipulations in Iraq, including the financing
of favorite candidates in elections and strong-arm pressure on the Iraqis to
form a government more or less to our liking, have, for an old Vietnam hand,
a painfully Yogi Berra-ish déjà vu all over again feel
The Bush administration finds itself trapped in a contradiction
even the United Nations has experienced: that democracy introduced by occupying
forces is almost certain to prove undemocratic. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker
was fond of telling reporters that the United States was "neutral" in South
Vietnamese elections. But the American embassy worked tirelessly to manipulate
Vietnamese politics: trying to hand-pick electoral candidates, approving the
disqualification of "neutralist" ones, sanctioning a presidential race with
only one candidate ("one man, one vote, and the man is Thieu," I headlined
that one), okaying the jailing of Thieu's most serious opponents because they
advocated negotiating with the communists, and making sure the South Vietnamese
police were fully equipped to "neutralize" any other opponents – especially
from the South Vietnamese antiwar student movement. Eventually, with Vietnamization
in ruins, the Nixon administration would pressure Thieu – with absolutely
no success – to accept a "coalition government" so America could finally exit
Vietnam with all due speed.
a majority of Americans thought the Vietnam war was a mistake, almost exactly
the same percentage now feels the same about Iraq. Back then, the White House
clung for dear life to Vietnamization while Congress dithered. Now, the same
holds true. Even the language – "Cut and Run," "Stay the Course" – remains largely
the same, as the repetitive bankruptcy of the enterprise deadens even our linguistic
life. As then, so now, the complications on the ground in Iraq seem insurmountable
from the point of view of an administration and a Congress intent on maintaining
what in the Vietnam era was called "credibility" and now has no name at all.
George Orwell would have grasped what our politicians are going through: "my
whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to
be laughed at…" is how he summed up his Burmese days.
Every now and then, as yet another grim Vietnam déjà vu
rockets by me, I think back to Sen. George Aiken, the flinty moderate Republican
from Vermont (the John Murtha of that time), who, tiring in 1966 of endless
hand-wringing from his colleagues about how to get out of Vietnam, told the
assembled solons one day that it wasn't hard. All we had to do was declare victory,
Aiken said, and fly the troops home. That would have been real "Vietnamization."
Judith Coburn covered the war in Indochina from 1970-73 for the Far
Eastern Economic Review, the Village Voice, and Pacifica Radio. She
is working on a memoir about Vietnam and the 1960s.
Copyright 2006 Judith Coburn