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Good mourning, Vietnam

Greg Mitchell, Editor & Publisher


March 10, 2006

Two years ago they laughed when we said the U.S. would get bogged down in Iraq. No one is laughing now, especially not Lt. Gen. William Odom, who issued a strong report this week on the grim connections between Apocalypse Then and Apocalypse Now.

It may surprise most in the media to learn that the U.S. has now been waging war in Iraq for precisely the same length of time that passed between the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1965 and the humbling of President Lyndon Johnson at the polls that led him to promise to exit the White House in 1968.

As a survivor of the late-1960s, I can recall that three years sure seemed like a long time THEN, as the Vietnam war escalated. Yet the months and years slip by now, with the daily deaths and other carnage in Iraq seemingly occurring in slow motion, while newspapers refuse to cry, "enough!"

Perhaps they need to be reminded that many more years passed after that LBJ turning point before the killing ended--and that the majority of the 55,000 Americans who died in Vietnam were lost in that drawn out when-will-it-ever-end finish.

I was reminded of all this today by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's reply at a Senate hearing, when asked what would happen if a real civil war did break out in Iraq (something our own ambassador almost promised earlier this week). "The plan is to prevent a civil war and, to the extent one were to occur, to have the Iraqi security forces deal with it, to the extent they are able to," he said.

Of course, we all know "the extent they are able to." Good morning, Vietnam.

Gen. Peter Pace told Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" this week that, contrary to much evidence, things were actually "going well" in Iraq, adding, inanely, "though I wouldn't put a smiley face on it." This is the man who chairs the Joint Chiefs.

Rumsfeld will leave his post in a little less than three years, and his war (civil or not) will quite likely still rage. I can imagine him looking back and saying, in a haunting echo of those old Vietnam veteran bumper stickers: "I don't know what happened. When I left we were winning."

Of course, too much can be made of Vietnam analogies. On the other hand, there are far more fatal consequences in refusing to make them at all, which is the media's default mode to this day. It's as if the uneven death toll and the difference between desert and jungle is enough to discourage such connections.

More than two years ago, I started warning of the Vietnamization of Iraq. My first column on the subject, in fact, was titled, "Good Morning, Vietnam." It observed that our soldiers do not know who is on our side -- who they should save and who they should shoot. By April 2004, I had observed that some of those who once chortled about the Vietnam link--including Bill O'Reilly and Pat Buchanan-- were now invoking it.

Yet the war has gone on, unabated: Apocalypse then, and now.

I could repeat here all of my prescient arguments from back then. But let me cite a source with more credible hawkish credentials. No, not Vietnam vet Rep. John Murtha, but Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, U.S. Army (Ret.), director of the National Security Agency from 1985 to 1988 under President Reagan, now teaching at Yale University. In an article posted at Nieman Watchdog on Wednesday, he argues:

"The Vietnam War experience can't tell us anything about the war in Iraq - or so it is said. If you believe that, trying looking through this lens, and you may change your mind.

"The Vietnam War had three phases. The War in Iraq has already completed an analogous first phase, is approaching the end of the second phase, and shows signs of entering the third."

I can't possibly do justice to this long piece in these few words, as Odom goes through the three phases in the two wars (you can find it all at www.niemanwatchdog.org). But here's his summary of phase 2 in Vietnam. Sound familiar?

"Phase Two in Vietnam was marked by a refusal to reconsider the war's 'strategic' rationale. Rather, debate focused only on 'tactical' issues as the war went sour.

"By 1965 things had begun going badly for U.S. military operations. By the end of March 1968, public opinion was turning against the war and Johnson chose not to run for re-election. His own party in Congress was breaking with him, and the pro-war New York Times reversed itself that summer.

"During this phase, no major leader or opinion maker in the United States dared revisit the key strategic judgment: did the U.S. war aim of containing China make sense? Instead, debate focused on how the war was being fought: on search-and-destroy operations, on body counts, and pacification efforts.

"This obsession with tactical issues made it easier to ignore the strategic error. As time passed, costs went up, casualties increased, and public support fell. We could not afford to 'cut and run,' it was argued. 'The Viet Cong would carry out an awful blood-letting.' Supporters of the war expected no honest answer when they asked 'How can we get out?' Eventually Senator Aiken of Vermont gave them one: 'In boats.'"

But Odom's article ends on this hopeful note, as he observes that "even in its differences, Vietnam can be instructive about Iraq. Once the U.S. position in Vietnam collapsed, Washington was free to reverse the negative trends it faced in NATO and U.S.-Soviet military balance, in the world economy, in its international image, and in other areas.

"Only by getting out of Iraq can the United States possibly gain sufficient international support to design a new strategy for limiting the burgeoning growth of anti-Western forces it has unleashed in the Middle East and Southwest Asia."

Greg Mitchell ( gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com ) is editor of E&P.

(c) 2006 VNU eMedia Inc.

Source: Editor & Publisher

:: Article nr. 21409 sent on 11-mar-2006 00:58 ECT


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