Iraq is Vietnam
You'd Better Believe It
by John Graham
I was a civilian advisor/trainer in Vietnam, arriving just as
US troops were going home. I wasn't there to fight, but I hadn't
been in country a week when I learned that the word "noncombatant"
didn't mean much where I was posted, fifty miles south of the Demilitarized
Zone (DMZ) that then divided South Vietnam from North. I got the
message when a sniper's bullet whistled past my ear on the main
highway twenty miles south of Hué. Joe Jackson, the burly major
who was driving, yelled at me to hold on and duck as he gunned the
jeep out of range, zigzagging to spoil the sniper's aim.
Snipers or not, in 1971 it was the U.S. Government's policy not
to issue weapons to civilian advisors in Vietnam, even to those
of us in distant and dangerous outposts. The reason was not principle,
but PR-and here begin the lessons for Iraq.
Sometime in 1969, the White House, faced with unrelenting facts
on the ground and under siege from the public, had quietly made
the decision that America couldn't win its war in Vietnam.
Nixon and Kissinger didn't put it that way, of course. America
was a superpower, and it was inconceivable that it could lose a
war to a third rate nation whose soldiers lived on rice and hid
in holes in the ground. So the White House conceived an elaborate
strategy that would mask the fact of an American defeat. The US
would slowly withdraw its combat troops over a period of several
years, while the mission of those who remained would change from
fighting the North Vietnamese and Vietcong to training the South
Vietnamese to carry on the fight on their own. At the same time,
we would give the South Vietnamese a series of performance ultimatums
which, if unmet, would trigger a total withdrawal and let us blame
the South Vietnamese for the debacle that would follow. This strategy
was called "Vietnamization." Implementing it cost at least 10,000
additional American and countless more Vietnamese lives, plus billions
It was a rigged game from the start. All but the wildest zealots
in Washington knew that the South Vietnamese would not and could
not meet our ultimatums: an end to corrupt, revolving-door governments,
an officer corps based on merit not cronyism, and the creation of
a national state that enjoyed popular allegiance strong and broad
enough to control the political and cultural rivalries that had
ripped the country's fabric for a thousand years.
During the eighteen months I was in Vietnam, I met almost no Americans
in the field who regarded Vietnamization as a serious military strategy
with any chance of success. More years of American training could
not possibly make a difference in the outcome of the war because
what was lacking in the South Vietnamese Army was not just combat
skills but belief in a cause worth fighting for.
But none of that was the point. Vietnamization was not a military
strategy. It was a public relations campaign.
The White House hoped that Vietnamization would keep the house
of cards upright for at least a couple of years, providing what
CIA veteran Frank Snepp famously called a "decent interval" that
could mask the American defeat by declaring that the fate of South
Vietnam now was the responsibility of the South Vietnamese. If they
didn't want freedom badly enough to win, well, we had done our best.
To make this deceitful drama work, however, the pullout had to
be gradual. The plan (Vietnamization) had to be easily explained
to the American people. And the US training force left behind had
to be large enough and exposed enough to provide visual signs of
our commitment on the 6:00 news. Pictures of unarmed American advisors
like me shaking hands with happy peasants would support the lie
that Vietnamization was succeeding.
Living in the bulls-eye, we understood the reality very well,
especially when, as public pressures for total withdrawal increased
in 1971-72, most of the "force protection" troops went home too.
That left scattered handfuls of American trainers left to protect
themselves. As the very visible US advisor to the city of Hué, I
was an easy target for assassination or abduction, anytime the Viet
Cong chose to take me out. I kept a case of grenades under my bed,
I slept with an M-16 propped against the bedstead, and I had my
own dubious army of four Vietnamese house guards whom I hoped would
at least fire a warning shot before they ran away. In April 1972.
North Vietnamese forces swept south across the DMZ, scattering the
South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) defenders and driving to within six
miles of Hué. I and a handful of other American trainers and advisors
could only watch as a quarter-million panicked people gridlocked
the road south to Danang, in a terrifying night reverberating with
screams and explosions. We knew that any choppers sent to save us
would be mobbed by Vietnamese eager to escape. I'm alive because
American carrier jets caught the advancing North Vietnamese just
short of the city walls and all but obliterated them.
Now we have the Iraq Study Group Report, advising that the mission
of US forces shift from fighting a war to training Iraqi troops
and police. The Report calls for the US to lay down a series of
performance conditions for the Iraqis, including that the Iraqis
end their civil war and create a viable national state. I've lived
through this one before.
Deteriorating conditions on the ground soon will force President
Bush to accept this shift in mission strategy. It is Vietnamization
in all but name. Its core purpose is not to win an unwinnable war,
but to provide political cover for a retreat, and to lay the grounds
for blaming the loss on the Iraqis. Based on what I saw in Vietnam,
here's what I think will happen next:
The increased training will make no difference. It could even
make things worse since we will be making better fighters of many
people who will end up in partisan militias. What the Iraqi military
and police need is not just technical skill but unit cohesion and
loyalty to a viable central government. Neither can be taught or
provided by outside trainers.
When US troops pull back from fighting the insurgents, most Iraqi
units will lack both the military skills and the political will
to replace them. More soldiers and police we've trained will join
the militias. Violence and chaos will increase across the country.
As the situation continues to deteriorate in Iraq, anti-American
feelings will increase. Cursed for staying, we will now be cursed
for leaving. Iraq will become an ever more dangerous place for any
American to be.
At home, political pressure to get out of Iraq completely will
increase rapidly as the violence gets worse. The military force
left behind to protect the US trainers will be drawn down to-or
below-a bare minimum, further increasing the dangers for the Americans
who remain. Military affairs commentator General Barry McCaffrey
issued this sober warning in the December 18 Newsweek: "We're setting
ourselves up for a potential national disaster in which some Iraqi
divisions could flip and take 5,000 Americans hostage, or multiple
advisory teams go missing in action."
Nothing destroys troop morale faster than being in a war you know
is pointless. At this same stage in Vietnam, drug use among Americans
became a serious problem.
Our ultimatums and conditions won't be met. As the situation gets
worse, whatever remains of a central government in Baghdad will
be even less able to make the compromises and form the coalitions
necessary to control centuries of factional and tribal hatreds.
The civil war will spiral out of control, giving us the justification
we need to get out, blaming the Iraqis for the mess we've left behind.
Then we will face the regional and global ramifications of a vicious
civil war whose only winners will be Iran and al-Queda.
US leaders may decide, as they did 37 years ago, that we must
again create a "decent interval" to mask defeat and that the PR
benefits of that interval are worth the cost in lives and money.
If they do, however, they should-unlike the Iraq Study Group-not
lie to us that such a strategy has any military chance whatsoever
2006 John Graham