- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2004

Iraq is not Vietnam. I believe you’ll find my geography impeccable. Unlike Ted Kennedy’s. And Robert Byrd’s. Not to mention all the other politicos, critics and opinionators who never pass up the chance to equate the two.

Despite the best efforts of these speechifiers, Iraq and Vietnam remain different countries with different histories populated by different peoples.

But whenever American casualties mount, or television screens are filled with scenes of cities aflame and Marines and GIs in battle, the first word out of critics’ mouths is Vietnam. Well, maybe Quagmire.

It’s as if there existed a whole subclass of politicians and pontificators in this country forever beset by a nostalgia for the Vietnam War, or at least the years of opposition to it. They may fall silent for a time — as when the Taliban are defeated or Saddam Hussein is hunted down. But then, like sharks who have been quietly waiting their chance, they strike.

Nothing brings out this breed quicker than bad news out of Iraq. Or any news out of Iraq so long as it’s violent or threatening. That’s when worst-case scenarios begin cropping up like deadly nightshade. And the effect is remarkably similar: The nervous system is paralyzed as fear takes hold.

News like last week’s has given a whole breed of commentators a chance to relive their youth, or, in the case of those too young to have taken to the streets in the ‘60s, an opportunity to re-enact that heady decade. This is their chance to be Prophets of Doom, a role so regularly denied them since the successful conclusion of the Cold War.

With this week’s outbreak of attacks and counterattacks in the Sunni triangle, followed by violence in Shi’ite territory elsewhere in Iraq, the familiar danse macabre began — in the public prints, on the Web, on NPR and CNN… in all the old familiar places. One half expected Baghdad Bob to reappear. He would have been welcome; the news needed comic relief.

Inevitably, the Vietnam analogy will be dusted off and rolled out, not that it was ever really stored away. It has been ready to go since the first American troops crossed into Iraq last spring, but Baghdad fell too soon, and then Saddam Hussein’s capture delayed its deployment again. Still, the analogy with Vietnam was always there, just waiting its cue.

The cue came this week. As firefights erupted in Fallujah, Sadr City, Ramadi, Karbala, Najaf, Kut and half a dozen other spots, the ghost of the Tet offensive in Vietnam rose again. All the armchair generals reappeared, as if they had just been waiting in some big Green Room until they got another chance to chant their favorite words: Vietnam. Quagmire. Tet.

Lest we forget, Tet was not a military defeat for American and South Vietnamese forces, but a psychological one. Wherever the Viet Cong struck in their dramatic, coordinated attacks across South Vietnam, they were thrown back, even if it took a while.

But our enemy understood the vital front in that war: the American home front. And support for the war in the United States never recovered from that offensive. Tet may have been a military disaster for the enemy, but it was a political success. The key battle in that struggle, it turned out, was waged not in Hue or at Khe Sanh but on American television screens. And the enemy won. Millions would lose their freedom, even their lives. With the Americans gone, massacres could safely begin.

Will it all happen again — the years of war, the tens of thousands of casualties, then the labor camps and killing fields — like a bad movie that can’t be turned off? That’s certainly what Sheik Moqtada al-Sadr wants us to think.

If enough blood can be shed, enough chaos created, and, most important, enough specters raised, maybe the Americans can be forced to flee again. Fallujah can be another Mogadishu. Karbala another Beirut. Baghdad another Saigon. And, yes, Iraq another Vietnam. At least that’s the plan.

Sheik al-Sadr knows his audience well, not just in his country but in this one when he invokes the shade of Vietnam. He could be addressing Americans not from his hideout in Najaf but standing on the floor of the U.S. Senate alongside Ted Kennedy, who has already called Iraq “Bush’s Vietnam.” Sen. Byrd loves to trot out that line, too: “Surely I am not the only one who hears echoes of Vietnam… .” And he isn’t. The enemy dreams of another Vietnam, too.

Fear remains the enemy’s greatest weapon. Fear of a wider war, of a longer war, of an unending war, of… another Vietnam. Sheik al-Sadr and Osama bin Laden may both be fugitives unable to show themselves. But they’ve dispatched a mighty expeditionary force to the West. It is called Fear.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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