Wednesday, July 30, 2003

It’s amazing how many people who’ve never been to either place say Iraq is “another Vietnam.” There are a few differences worth noting.

To begin with, at no point in the Vietnam war did the United States utterly destroy the North Vietnamese Army; occupy North Vietnam; send Ho Chi Minh into hiding, and kill or capture most of his Politburo. Had we done so, the war might have had a different outcome.

Vietnam is mostly jungle. I don’t like jungles, but guerrillas do. There is plenty of cover and concealment. There is plenty of water. There are a lot of things to eat. Creepy crawly yucky things, but you can eat them if you have to. A large guerrilla force can live, relatively securely, in jungles for long periods.

Iraq is mostly desert. Desert offers little cover or concealment, less food and water. Large guerrilla forces cannot live in the desert, period, much less live without detection.

The North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies were bright, skilled, resourceful, well-led, and very brave.

In Iraq, we’re fighting Arabs.

In South Vietnam, we were burdened by supporting an unpopular, corrupt and incompetent government that was riddled with spies.

In Iraq, we overthrew an unpopular, corrupt and incompetent government whose surviving officials are being ratted out by the local population.

In Vietnam, the war progressed in classic Maoist fashion: from terrorism, to guerrilla warfare, to conventional combat between main force units.

In Iraq, Saddam’s forces have regressed from Stage 3 all the way back to Stage 1. Once in absolute control of the entire country, the Ba’athist remnant is now restricted to sniping and remote ambushes. Saddam is spending more time and effort fleeing for his life than in plotting a comeback.

In Vietnam, more than 58,000 Americans lost their lives. At the height of the war, 500 soldiers were being killed each week.

In the Iraq war and the subsequent occupation, we have lost fewer men to hostile fire than in a single terrorist attack in Lebanon in 1983. We’ve been losing about a soldier a day since the first of June. At this rate, we’ll reach the Vietnam total in about 158 years.

In Vietnam, the communists received massive assistance from China and the Soviet Union, and had sanctuaries from which to operate in Laos and Cambodia.

The Ba’athist remnant is receiving some support from sources in Syria and Saudi Arabia, and the Iranian government is doing what it can to stir up trouble among Shi’ite Islamic fundamentalists. But this “outside interference” is nowhere near as great as it was in Vietnam, and there are signs that the governments in both Syria and Saudi Arabia are beginning to crack down on terrorists.

It is, moreover, not such a bad thing that al Qaeda types have been drawn to Iraq. It is not good to have Islamic terrorists attacking American soldiers. But if Islamic terrorists are going to be attacking Americans somewhere, better to have them attack U.S. soldiers in Iraq — where there is a high likelihood they will get their one way ticket to Allah punched — than to have them attacking women and children in Chicago.

The Canadian columnist David Warren has suggested the U.S. has a “flypaper strategy” to entice terrorists from the region into Iraq, so that they might be killed there. This is not the sort of policy one announces, but it could be true, and it would be shrewd if it were true.

Finally, those who draw the comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq tend to forget that the U.S. military did not lose the Vietnam war. The U.S. military did not lose a single battle in the Vietnam war. It was American politicians who lost the war, by failing to come to the aid of the South Vietnamese in the face of a North Vietnamese invasion three years after almost all U.S. troops had come home.

The one similarity between Vietnam and Iraq is that the only way we can lose in Iraq is the way we lost in Vietnam — through a failure of political nerve.

Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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