War to be measured in lives Newswatch...on politics today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

February 01, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush launched the first air attacks against Iraq, he pledged to the American forces in the Persian Gulf and to the nation that "there will be no more Vietnams." This pledge had two components: The gulf war would be swift and decisive, and American troops "will not be asked to fight with one hand tied behind their back."

It is much too early, with the fighting only in its third week, to suggest that the gulf war will be, like the Vietnam War, a drawn-out affair.

But what optimists first thought would be a matter of weeks now is conceded to be a matter of months, with guarded hopes that the war won't go on longer.

As for the notion that U.S. military might was shackled in Vietnam but will be unleashed in the gulf, that impression belies some statistics indicating that U.S. forces delivered an assault on Vietnam that was just as heavy -- if not nearly as sophisticated and high-tech -- as is being rained down on Iraq today.

It is true that American forces were held back in Vietnam from what some military experts said was imperative to win -- invading North Vietnam. But, so far at least, Bush's stated objective is to drive Iraq forces from Kuwait, not invade Iraq itself.

Indeed, the president has made a point of saying the United States is not out to destroy Iraq -- while bombing its infrastructure heavily, just as was done in Vietnam.

If America fought in Vietnam with one hand tied behind its back, the free hand certainly delivered a most devastating, if not conclusive blow.

There are American military men of high rank who are contending, in fact, that U.S. forces pounded Vietnam at an even more punishing rate than they are hammering Iraq now.

Retired Rear Adm. Eugene J. Carroll Jr., a naval commander in the Vietnam War, says American air power averaged 1,700 sorties a day over Vietnam, close to how many the Pentagon says are being flown over Iraq, and that the B-52 heavy bomber sorties reportedly being flown now do not approach the average of 78 daily that he says were engaged over Vietnam.

Carroll, deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, a private group headed by retired U.S. admirals and other ranking officers often critical of the Pentagon, also says a reported 3,500 sorties made from six aircraft carriers in the first 13 days of the gulf war average out to less than half the number made per carrier flown in the normal operational pace during the Vietnam War.

Such figures argue that the war in Vietnam was not lost for lack of firepower, and that the chief impediment to victory in the Persian Gulf could well prove to be the same one that blocked it in Vietnam -- lack of staying power on the home front. It is no wonder that Bush has pledged that the gulf war will not be "another Vietnam."

The disintegration of home-front support for the Vietnam War was directly tied to the American casualty rate -- to the return of body bags even as the U.S. military leaders tried to quantify victory in terms of enemy "body counts."

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. and allied commander in the gulf, has said this time around that body counts are meaningless in gauging the war's progress. But the rate of returning body bags cannot be similarly dismissed in gauging home-front patience with it.

The news that 11 Marines were lost in a border fight is undoubtedly a hint of things to come once a ground war begins in earnest.

Although Vietnam was not a set-piece fight between massed ground forces, according to Admiral Carroll, 88 percent of all U.S. combat deaths there were "Army and Marine troops fighting on the ground" -- another figure that suggests the sort of casualties that will put home-front tolerance to a supreme test in a ground-war face-off in the desert.

Thus, it may not be so easy for President Bush to live up to his pledge that the gulf war will not be "another Vietnam." Even the most pessimistic outlook does not foresee the United States getting bogged down in a desert war for a decade. But the operative factor in whether the gulf war will be considered "another Vietnam" at home will not be elapsed time as much as the cost in American lives in what already, like Vietnam, is a controversial war.

Political columnists Germond and Witcover of The Evening Sun's

staff appear Monday through Friday.

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