Critic sez US needs MORE Vietnam viciousness

Chris Brady cdbrady at
Sun Nov 16 18:18:29 MST 2003

Prepare to have your flabber gasted:
Like other critics of US military action in Iraq, Max Boot [ironic nom
de guerre?] advises Americans to learn the lessons of Vietnam.  His
twist, though, is that he regards the colossal horror the US military
distributed across Southeast Asia as clumsy and ineffective.  For Iraq,
instead of an invasion of armies of common GI’s and mass bombings, Max
Boot advocates an influx of hordes of self-guided assassins, torturers
and con artists for a more meticulous application of one of—if not
THE—most vicious examples of US repression.

The Lessons of a Quagmire

New York Times, November 16, 2003

This month’s setbacks in Iraq — the downing of American helicopters, the
suicide bombing of an Italian headquarters — have made President Bush’s
mantra of “progress” ring increasingly hollow. It’s true that 80 percent
of Iraq remains peaceful and stable, but we seem to be losing in the
other 20 percent, mostly among Sunni Muslims who benefited from Saddam
Hussein’s rule. The escalating violence lends credence to critics who
see parallels with Vietnam.

In truth, there is no comparison: In Vietnam, we faced more than 1
million enemy combatants backed to the hilt by North Vietnam and its
superpower patrons, China and Russia. In Iraq we confront a few thousand
Baathists and jihadis with, at most, limited support from Iran and
Syria. But even if this isn’t “another Vietnam,” we can still learn
important lessons from that earlier war about how to deal with the

The biggest error the armed forces made in Vietnam was trying to fight a
guerrilla foe the same way they had fought the Wehrmacht. The military
staged big-unit sweeps with fancy code names like Cedar Falls and
Junction City, and dropped more bombs than during World War II. Neither
had much effect on the enemy, who would hide in the jungles and then
emerge to ambush American soldiers. Seeing that his strategy wasn’t
working, Gen. William Westmoreland, the American commander, responded by
asking for more and more troops, until we had 500,000 soldiers in
Vietnam. And still it was not enough.

President Bush seems so intent on avoiding this mistake that the Defense
Department has unveiled plans to cut the total number of troops in Iraq
next year from 132,000 to 105,000. It is hard to see what, in the
current dismal strategic picture, convinces the Pentagon that this makes
sense. Such a slow-motion withdrawal will only embolden our enemies in
Iraq and discourage our friends.

Senator John McCain has suggested that, far from reducing our forces,
it’s time to send another division. There are certainly tasks where we
could use more troops, such as securing Iraq’s porous borders and
guarding arms depots that have become virtual Wal-Marts for terrorists.
But as the experience of Vietnam suggests, more troops will not
necessarily solve our central challenge: defeating guerrillas.

Sending more soldiers could even be counterproductive if it results in
more civilian casualties, as it did in Vietnam, complicating our effort
to win over the population. American forces in Iraq have tried hard to
avoid “collateral damage,” but they have nevertheless made some costly
mistakes. A week ago, an army sentry shot dead the American-appointed
mayor of Sadr City in Baghdad.

What proved most effective in Vietnam were not large conventional
operations but targeted counterinsurgency programs. Four — known as CAP,
Cords, Kit Carson Scouts and Phoenix — were particularly effective.

CAP stood for Combined Action Platoon. Under it, a Marine rifle squad
would live and fight alongside a South Vietnamese militia platoon to
secure a village from the Vietcong. The combination of the Marines’
military skills and the militias’ local knowledge proved highly
effective. No village protected under CAP was ever retaken by the

Cords, or Civil Operations and Rural Development Support, was the
civilian side of the counterinsurgency, run by two C.I.A. legends:
Robert Komer and William Colby. It oversaw aid programs designed to win
hearts and minds of South Vietnamese villagers, and its effectiveness
lay in closely coordinating its efforts with the military.

The Kit Carson Scouts were former Communists who were enlisted to help
United States forces. They primarily served as scouts and interpreters,
but they also fought. Most proved fiercely loyal. They had to be: they
knew that capture by their former Vietcong comrades meant death.

Phoenix was a joint C.I.A.-South Vietnam effort to identify and
eradicate Vietcong cadres in villages. Critics later charged the program
with carrying out assassinations, and even William Colby acknowledged
there were “excesses.” Nevertheless, far more cadres were captured
(33,000) or induced to defect under Phoenix (22,000) than were killed

There is little doubt that if the United States had placed more emphasis
on such programs, instead of the army’s conventional strategy, it would
have fared better in Vietnam. This is worth keeping in mind today as
Sunni towns like Fallujah and Ramadi increasingly turn into an Arab
version of Vietcong “villes.” The Army is running some valuable
counterinsurgency programs in Iraq, but too often it responds to major
setbacks with big-unit sweeps (the ongoing one is called Iron Hammer).
In a move reminiscent of some of the excesses of Vietnam, the military
has taken to dropping 500-pound bombs and sending out M-1 tanks in a
largely futile attempt to wipe out elusive foes.

To secure the Sunni Triangle, the army would do better to focus on
classic counterinsurgency strategies. We need closer cooperation between
Iraqi and coalition forces, as in CAP. We need better coordination
between the military and L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional
Authority, as in Cords. We need better intelligence to identify and
neutralize Iraqi insurgents, as in Phoenix. We might even want to
recruit Baathists and induce them to turn against their erstwhile
comrades, as in the Kit Carson Scouts.

The common factor in all these initiatives is solid help from Iraqis.
Only locals can pick out the good guys from the bad. Also — and this is
a more delicate matter — Iraqis would be able to try some of the
strong-arm tactics that our own scrupulously legalistic armed forces shy
away from.

Excessive brutality can be counterproductive in fighting an insurgency
(as the French discovered in Algeria), but there is also a danger of
playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules against ruthless opponents. Our
military — which is court-martialing an Army lieutenant colonel who
fired his pistol into the air to scare an Iraqi suspect into divulging
details of an imminent attack — may simply be too Boy Scoutish for the
rougher side of a dirty war. Iraqis who suffered under Saddam Hussein’s
tyranny likely feel no such compunctions. More should be done to recruit
relatives of those killed by the Baathists who would be eager to pursue
a “blood feud” against Saddam Hussein’s men.

While Mr. Bush’s plans to accelerate the turnover of political authority
to Iraqis and the deployment of Iraqi security forces make sense, for
now the brunt of the military campaign will still have to be borne by
Americans. If American forces fear to spend time on the streets of
Fallujah and other Sunni towns, what hope is there for undertrained
Iraqi security officers who will be branded collaborators by their own

Even if the American forces do everything right, there is no quick or
easy end in sight. No halfway competent guerrilla force has ever been
defeated as easily as the Iraqi army was in 1991 and 2003.

The Iraqi guerrillas, like the Vietcong, realize that a conventional
military victory is beyond their grasp. Their only hope is to continue
ratcheting up the cost of the conflict until the desire of the American
public to continue the struggle is shattered. This worked in Vietnam. It
might — sobering thought — work today. Is the American will to sustain
casualties greater than our enemies’ ability to inflict them? Upon that
question will turn the future of Iraq.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and
author of “The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American

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