Lessons of Vietnam

Henry L. Trewhitt

January 07, 1991|By Henry L. Trewhitt

SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO — Santa Fe, New Mexico. COL. HARRY SUMMERS, talking with victors after the fall of Saigon, once decided to provoke his Vietnamese counterpart. Never, he said, had North Vietnamese troops defeated Americans on the battlefield. The Vietnamese nodded thoughtfully. ''That is true,'' he replied. ''It is also irrelevant.''

North Vietnam's Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap was less concerned abut winning battles than about winning a war. Because he succeeded, many Americans warn against ''another Vietnam'' if war comes again to the Middle East. The anguish is understandable, and some political lessons apply. The main one is that war requires dogged support not only of Americans but also of the locals in whose name war is fought. Politics aside, the military lessons of Vietnam for the Mideast are skimpy.

Unable to match American technology, Giap demonstrated what America could not, readiness to continue fighting despite ghastly casualties. No one knows how many North Vietnamese died; 600,000 is widely accepted. Americans rebelled long before their dead reached the final toll of 58,000. Giap expected that, having learned about public opinion in democracies from his earlier defeat of France. But for strategic victory while losing tactically he enjoyed other advantages too.

Hanoi received massive logistic support from the Soviet Union and sometimes China. Haphazard though heavy U.S. air attack could not stop supplies moving unseen through jungles along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. For Saddam Hussein's Iraq there is no longer a Soviet Union or a China and no Ho Chi Minh Trail. The supply lines are desert, vulnerable to bombing in ways denied to the Americans in Southeast Asia. The U.S. Air Force general fired for forecasting massive bombing in a Mideast war was reading from the official script.

Other tools of war are vastly different. Post-Vietnam weapons are untested. Today's fighter-bombers were not aloft 20 years ago. Tanks, and the weapons to counter them, are mostly new. Blackhawk helicopters, flashing past the plodding Hueys of old, think for their crews. Much of the advanced hardware in fact was inspired by Vietnam. If it is true that the military always prepares for the previous war, then desert war will be fought with jungle weapons. The point presumably is more rhetorical than real, but the only way to find out how the new tools work is the way least desired.

American commanders can take little for granted. Mr. Hussein has front-line equipment from many sources. If he can keep it serviced he will remain a formidable enemy.

The most important questions, however, are about the users. Americans are warned that as many as half of Mr. Hussein's million-man army was hardened in the war with Iran. But skeptics say that presumed advantage cost too many lives and that Iranian teen-agers fought Iraq's army to a standstill. Vo Nguyen Giap and his hordes of small soldiers, some Vietnam specialists say, would have taken the measure of both Mideast armies. That is probably wrong and anyway irrelevant. The desert is not the jungle, and the Iraqis are not the Vietnamese.

On any purely military issue, therefore, except relative use of air power, references to Vietnam are empty. Yet one set of references, all emerging from the political lessons, remains valid. As in all conflicts, political context is inseparable from military balance.

After the early heroics of the Australians and, briefly, the South Koreans, Americans were alone in Vietnam beside a corrupt client. Much of the local population was hostile. Today the world, excepting a few nations, stands against Saddam Hussein. Much of that world is non-combatant. Yet there is no reason to suspect the commitment either militarily or politically of, say, the British, the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Syrians and -- often forgotten -- the Turks. National or individual interest drives democrats, monarchs and bloody dictators alike. It is an improbable coalition; for now it remains intact.

But for how long? Time, decisive in Vietnam, will weaken the alliance against Mr. Hussein as it reinforces sanctions against him. As other interests intrude, fear of him will fade in some member states. Time already is eroding the resolve of Americans. Sadly for President Bush, the record suggests that Americans, as in Vietnam, do not understand their interests in the Mideast. Most appear to believe the U.S. intervention is only about gasoline prices and punishment of aggression. The president obviously has failed to convince them -- some say he hasn't even tried -- that it is also about the workings of the whole industrial system and prevention of another war, possibly nuclear, later in the future.

As always such decisions are made ultimately by the public in democracies, a truism often forgotten. That may be the only true strategic lesson from Vietnam, one the president does well to heed. All others, both military and political, are too great a stretch. But Vietnam provides the most recent standard, and comparisons are inevitable. So are the judgments of hindsight, as the post-Cold War world throws out a new array of questions with no perfect answers.

Mr. Trewhitt, former diplomatic correspondent of The Sun, teaches at the University of New Mexico.

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