- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2003

ANKARA, Turkey, March 30 (UPI) — In 1967 you could stand on the balcony of the U.S. military officer's club in Saigon and watch "H&I;" fire in the distance, much as the world is watching the destruction of Baghdad now. You could hear the crump of the shells, see the blast, but not quite imagine what it was like to be under it.

Artillery "harassment and interdiction fire" was the "shock and awe" of its day, designed to break the will of the Viet Cong, carpeting a designated area of rice paddies and jungle where they had been sighted with 155mm rounds.

Civilians, the military spokesmen assured us, had been cleared from the area.

Later the attack would be carpet bombing with B-52s and probably some of the airframes are still in use over Iraq.



But of course, we learned later, civilians were often still there; afraid to abandon their villages and homes for government resettlement, threatened by the VC, distrustful of the Vietnamese government. We didn't know then either, though many front line U.S. soldiers did, that the VC were below the ground in deep, complex tunnels. They suffered certainly, their noses and ears disgorging blood from the concussion of the blast, but they lived to struggle above ground and finally defeat the invaders of their country.

In this, the 10th day of the second Gulf war, there are similarities enough to chill the hearts of Vietnam veterans and indeed veterans of Beirut or the first Gulf War.

There were three wars in Vietnam. The war as seen at the Pentagon, the war as seen at the "5'clock follies," the daily briefing in Saigon, a look alike for Gen. Tommy Franks' headquarters briefing in Qatar — and the war as it really was.

We are told the same things today as we were told then. Despite the fact that the United States said it had come to Vietnam to free the people of the south from the communists, we were warned that any woman, any child, an innocuous looking youth on a motorbike coming at you on the road could be VC.

We called them acts of terror there too. The blowing up of the telephone exchange in Saigon, operated so GIs on in-country leave could call home; the booby-trapped "hootches," with a wired grenade under a baby's blanket. Every restaurant or public garden bar had netting up so that a person on a motorbike could not drive by and hurl a grenade in. And every "ville" we knew had VC. In the daylight they worked in the paddies, by night they ambushed GIs.

So the killing last week of four soldiers by a car bomb triggered by a suicide bomber is perhaps new to Pentagon planners, but age old in wars of the late 20th Century. In 1967, a military briefer would tell you something very similar to what they are saying in Qatar. The people, they said, are terrorized by the "hardcore" VC in their midst and forced to hate and attack Americans.

Later we learned that was in small part true, but in part a great falsehood, a falsehood that underlies so much of western military and political planning. We coined the phrase "hearts and minds" in those years in Saigon. It came to have a derisive and cynical meaning in the end. If you grabbed them by the genitals, went a crude and telling line of 1967, their hearts and minds would follow.

But winning the hearts and minds by warfare was a deceptive goal and impossible on the face of it. The American military machine, already 45 years ago perhaps the most powerful on earth, uses such destructive weapons that it cannot attack anything without what the military now calls "collateral damages."

Those 155mm rounds, puny compared to the munitions we are dropping on Baghdad, inevitably killed the innocent as well as the guilty. Each day in Vietnam, no matter how many VC or North Vietnamese regulars our soldiers killed, scores of others were converted to the cause.

Perhaps the most telling photograph of the Vietnam War was a small child, her clothes burned by napalm, running from a U.S. aerial attack. Perhaps the most telling video frames of the Second Gulf War have already been shown by al-Jazeera television of men at a Baghdad mortuary identifying their children killed by a missile blast.

The briefing officers in Qatar quibble with whether this was a U.S. missile or an Iraqi missile, but that isn't the point. It happened during a bombing by a nation that claims that it comes as liberators not conquerors.

The next chapter of the falsehood of a war of liberation is unfolding: young American soldiers will be asked to determine who in the streets of Basra and Baghdad are the enemy and who are the innocent. That was what a platoon of Americans under Lt. William Calley could not do at MyLai, South Vietnam, so they killed everybody.

It is likely no easier here.


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