Having just returned from visiting our troops in Iraq, I couldn’t help but see parallels with Vietnam. But not in the way you’d think.
Usually Vietnam is invoked to warn of a quagmire, of an impending U.S. defeat against a guerrilla foe. El Salvador, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan were all going to be the “next” Vietnam before winding up U.S. victories. Now it’s Iraq’s turn to be seen, unfairly, as the looming quagmire.
But the real parallel with Vietnam is the disparity between battlefield realities and home-front perceptions.
In the popular view, Vietnam became “unwinnable” after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Actually, that campaign was a major American victory that all but destroyed the Viet Cong as an effective fighting force. By 1970 more than 90% of South Vietnam’s population was under Saigon’s control. But by then it didn’t matter: Congress, the media and the voters had tired of the war and forced a sharp decrease in American aid. The result was that Saigon fell in 1975 -- not to guerrillas but to North Vietnamese regulars driving T-54 tanks.
Now the media are portraying Iraq as a proto-Vietnam, a land where U.S. troops can’t do anything right and where they can expect a prolonged and painful defeat. But as in Vietnam, U.S. troops in Iraq are slowly winning the war on the ground, even as they’re losing the public relations battle back home.
That, at any rate, was the conclusion I reached after spending 10 days last month with the 1st Marine Division, based in south-central Iraq, and the 101st Airborne Division, based in northern Iraq. Speaking with everyone from privates to three-star generals, I was impressed by an overall sense of optimism and resolve in spite of well-publicized setbacks such as the horrific bombing of a mosque in Najaf. Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, put it succinctly: “We’ve got the bastards on the run.”
The success that both divisions are having is based on a smart counterinsurgency strategy that combines carrots and sticks. Both are careful not to use indiscriminate firepower that would alienate civilians. Their raids are carefully focused so that they hit Baathist safe houses while minimizing inconvenience for and humiliation of the innocent.
I went with the Marines’ Task Force Scorpion on one such raid, in a Sunni neighborhood south of Baghdad. As we drove, three remote- controlled bombs went off on the roadside. Luckily no one was injured; the blasts missed our vehicles. The Marines immediately got out and searched for the perpetrators. One suspect tested positive for explosive residue on his hands. He was plexi-cuffed and stuck in the back of an armored vehicle next to me. A corporal asked me to cover him with a 9-millimeter pistol. I was happy to comply. The next day, the task force caught four suspected Fedayeen who had explosive devices. Through such successes, Scorpion has managed to dramatically reduce terrorism in its area.
But the bulk of what U.S. forces are doing in Iraq isn’t strictly military. Rather, it’s what used to be known as winning “hearts and minds.” Col. Joseph Anderson, commander of the 101st Airborne’s 2nd Brigade, which garrisons Mosul, took me on a tour to see all the projects being undertaken by his “Screaming Eagles” in Iraq’s third-largest city. They range from training police officers to providing medicine for the local hospital, to painting schools, to refurbishing an Olympic-size swimming pool, to building houses for refugees. The list is long -- and all of it is earning the goodwill of Iraqi citizens. This has had a payoff in increased tips about troublemakers.
While the news coverage focuses on terrorism, a drive through Mosul or through southern cities like Najaf and Karbala shows a high degree of normalcy returning. Shops are crammed with goods ranging from stereos to tomatoes. The streets are packed with pedestrians, the roads jammed with cars.
What was most encouraging was the attitude of civilians toward the U.S. military. Every drive through Iraq in a U.S. military vehicle becomes a referendum on the occupation. Do the people smile or frown as you pass? In the “Sunni Triangle” around Baghdad and Fallujah, U.S. Army patrols are often met with sullen stares. In south-central and northern Iraq, smiles and waves are almost universal. Little kids are especially enthusiastic, indicating that their parents have not poisoned their minds against the Americans.
In fact, as I traveled around south-central Iraq, the biggest concern I heard was that the Marines were leaving. They are turning over their sector to Polish, Bulgarian, Spanish and other coalition troops. “Don’t go,” numerous Iraqis implored the “Devil Dogs.” (In partial answer to their pleas, the Marines delayed their pullout from Najaf after the recent mosque bombing .) I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish. Clearly major problems remain in Iraq -- not only a surfeit of terrorism but also a shortage of electricity, fuel and jobs. The rebuilding of the country is still in its early stages, and much needs to be done. But we shouldn’t exaggerate today’s security woes -- or, even worse, try to address them by repeating the mistakes of Vietnam.
Many voices, on both the left and right, are now arguing that we need more troops in Iraq. Precisely the same thing was claimed in Vietnam. But there, as our troop commitment escalated above 500,000, the war was steadily Americanized and the South Vietnamese became less capable of fending for themselves. That’s not a model we should follow in Iraq.
Every U.S. officer I talked to said that the 150,000 soldiers we have in Iraq now are sufficient. What’s required is not more troops, they said, but better policing methods. Both the 101st Airborne and the Marines are disdainful of some of the heavy-handed tactics, such as large-scale “cordon and search” operations, employed by Army units in Baghdad and the surrounding areas. They argue that the focus should be on getting better intelligence and training Iraqi security forces to police their own country. That process is now underway, but it will take time to create a new army and police force.
The biggest problem I saw in Iraq was not with the U.S. military but with the civilian arm of the occupation -- the Coalition Provisional Authority run by L. Paul Bremer III. One well-intentioned CPA project, to hire agricultural laborers to clear canals, caused a riot in the southern city of Diwaniyah when the ditch diggers weren’t paid for three weeks. More often, the CPA is guilty of sins of omission. Its television station, the Iraqi Media Network, is not received in the north, thus ceding the information war to anti-American satellite channels like Al Jazeera.
The problem is that the CPA lacks both personnel and money. In the north, the 101st Airborne deploys 21,000 soldiers; the CPA has no more than a couple dozen employees there. And what few people the CPA has don’t last long. Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police chief, arrived in Iraq at the beginning of the summer to run the Justice Ministry, and already he’s going home.
Instead of sending more troops, the administration needs to beef up the CPA and decentralize its operations. Congress needs to provide more funding because, as Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne, told me, “Money is ammunition.” But neither the CPA’s woes nor the well-publicized terror attacks should distract us from the substantial progress that’s been made in the four months since the war ended. As long as we keep our nerve, we will prevail. As in Vietnam, so in Iraq: Only defeatism on the home front can stop our soldiers.