Some lessons from Vietnam may help in the gulf

Global Viewpoint

October 04, 1990|By William C. Westmoreland

THE HOPE for a new era devoid of armed conflict has been destroyed by Saddam Hussein. Again, world war seems possible. And, again, America has been drafted as a world policeman.

In some ways, the problems faced by American forces in the Persian Gulf are profoundly different from those faced by U.S. troops in Vietnam when I was commander. But in several ways they are similar, and those similarities offer insights into the current conflict.

The stakes in the Persian Gulf -- strategic oil reserves and the building of a new world order jointly supported by both the United States and the Soviet Union -- are far greater than they were in Vietnam. This alone translates into greater public support than the Vietnam War enjoyed.

While the military buildup in the gulf has taken place rapidly, the Vietnam buildup was slow and measured because it was the policy of then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to try to bring the conflict to an end with minimum cost. It was like pulling teeth to get troops and reinforcements.

The unanimity of the United Nations Security Council against Saddam Hussein, which has translated into troops on the battlefield from some 16 nations, makes this conflict profoundly different from Vietnam. In effect, the U.S. fought the Vietnam War alone.

There were no world sanctions against North Vietnam. On the contrary, cargo ships flying the Union Jack of Great Britain went in and out of Haiphong Harbor during the whole course of the war.

In Vietnam, the U.S. carried the full economic burden of the war; there was no sharing of the costs with our Cold War allies.

Combat with an enemy, not ideology and strategy, is the concern of the soldier on the battlefield. Heat, cold, fear, boredom, the elation of a victory and the despair of tactical defeat all hang in some degree over any battlefield.

The climate, the desert terrain and the mores of Saudi Arabia and the gulf pose a new challenge not only for combat troops, but also for logistic and administrative personnel. It has been duly commented that, for the first time, American troops are being deployed without the classic staples of beer or pin-up pictures.

As the U.S. commitment continues, these circumstances will present our senior commanders with some difficult decisions. American soldiers cannot be expected to sustain their morale and peak effectiveness for long, indefinite tours of duty in a disagreeable environment. My experience in Vietnam suggests a couple of methods that must be contemplated: timely replacement of both individuals and units.

Replacement by unit has great merit, but is complicated and expensive. Replacement of individual soldiers is less costly, but detrimental to unit effectiveness and individual morale. The best combination of these two methods would seem to be to replace units of combat soldiers that have been trained as a team; and to relieve individual administrative and logistical support personnel after they have served a number of months.

Another issue that has arisen already in Saudi Arabia is the matter of what nation has strategic and tactical command of troops. Who gives the orders on the battlefield? This important matter can and should be solved quietly and informally, according to national sensitivities. Indeed, generals are more congenial and practical than civilian officials in working with one another.

This was certainly my experience in Vietnam. In that conflict, we never announced that I had de facto command of the Vietnamese, because that could have caused a loss of face for our "brothers in arms." But they knew who was in command. When instructions were issued, they followed them because it was in their interest to do so.

Another issue concerns the role of the media in reporting on war. Classified information related to battlefield actions must be protected and not selfishly exploited by the media. It is up to the local commander to point out to reporters the sensitive nature of classified information.

Because our troops are deployed in a Moslem region, the media have not only the responsibility of protecting classified information, but of also not offending indigenous mores by exporting the malaise of our society. Recently, for example, I saw a U.S. network television broadcast showing a striptease act put on for our troops in Saudi Arabia by an American corporation. How must the avid applause for this show have seemed to the strictly moralistic Moslems on whose territory we are stationed?

As with the North Vietnamese under the command of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, we are facing in Iraq under Saddam Hussein an enemy who can suffer massive casualties that are just not acceptable in our society.

While this creates a psychological imbalance in terms of motivation, technological superiority is our compensation. Our weapons are more accurate and we are better able to concentrate our firepower. And we come to the battlefield in the Middle East with the asset of intelligence from a new source -- satellites.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.