Worrisome echoes of Vietnam in Iraq

November 28, 2003|By Gordon Livingston

BAGHDAD (Nov. 21) - More than a dozen rockets fired from donkey carts slammed into Iraq's Oil Ministry and two hotels Friday - attacks dismissed by a U.S. general as "militarily insignificant" but which also exposed weaknesses gathering intelligence on insurgents." - The Associated Press

I REMEMBER the moment I knew we were going to lose the war in Vietnam.

Frustrated by our inability to find the elusive Viet Cong, U.S. forces developed a top-secret program to locate enemy troop concentrations. It was a "people sniffer," a device sensitive to the presence of ammonia in urine that could be hung from a helicopter flying low over the jungle. When a high reading was identified, artillery was directed at the area.

One evening in 1968, I was attending an end-of-the-day regimental briefing and an infantry captain was describing a sweep through the jungle. He and his men had encountered something they could not explain: buckets of urine hanging from the trees. The regimental commander and his intelligence officer exchanged looks as they silently acknowledged that we were firing artillery (at $250 a round) at buckets of urine all over Vietnam.

Much has been made of the differences between the war in Iraq and our defeat in Southeast Asia. The Iraqi insurgency, unlike the war in Vietnam, does not have the support of the majority of the people. Nor, we are told, does the enemy have the "outside assistance" that enabled the Viet Cong to keep fighting until we quit.

And yet I seem to be hearing echoes of an earlier time. "Iraqification" sounds suspiciously like the "Vietnamization" that never quite worked. The battle for the "hearts and minds" of the indigenous people is on again, with our fighting forces in the unfamiliar role of repairing infrastructure and trying to nurture democratic values in a society unfamiliar with the concept.

And then, of course, there are the lies. In Vietnam, it was the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, based on a fictitious attack on our ships, that justified a major escalation in our involvement. In Iraq, it is the disappearing weapons of mass destruction and the fabricated al-Qaida connection that were used to sell the war.

And now we have the spectacle, familiar to an earlier generation of Americans, of an administration that says: No matter how we got in there in the first place, we cannot cut and run. It would undermine our credibility as a nation and destabilize the Middle East.

Remember the "domino theory"? If Vietnam fell, the rest of the nations in the area would collapse into communism in turn. It is as if, standing on the ash heap of mistaken assumptions, outright falsehoods and the continuing deaths of our youths, we hear again President Richard M. Nixon's two choices: keep our word or become a "pitiful, helpless giant."

As was the case in the 1960s, anyone with reservations about the Iraqi war and occupation are subject to accusations of disloyalty or cowardice, even a presidential candidate who served in Vietnam while our current president sat out that war in the Texas Air National Guard.

And this just in: "The FBI has collected extensive information on the tactics, training and organization of antiwar demonstrators and has advised local law enforcement officials to report any suspicious activity to its counterterrorism squads." Shades of J. Edgar Hoover.

In April, CNN aired footage of a Marine in Baghdad who is confronted with a crowd of angry Iraqis. He shouts at them, "We're here for your [expletive] freedom."

Most of them, of course, don't understand what he is saying. But like those whose houses we see our troops entering (usually, it seems, after breaking down the door), what is on display is what I remember from Vietnam - namely our foreignness, our frustration and our puzzlement: "Why do you hate us? We're trying to help you." Maybe it has something to do with those tanks and guns.

So before you dismiss the analogy to an earlier adventure in nation-building, consider the similarities. One difference is that a body count of enemy dead is no longer used as an index of progress. The only corpses we keep track of now are our own. The numbers are more than 400 and counting.

On a restroom wall at Long Binh in 1969, I read the following: "Will the last person out of the tunnel please turn out the light?" Four years and 25,000 dead Americans later, bringing the total to about 58,000, someone did.

Gordon Livingston is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.

Columnist Thomas L. Friedman will return Tuesday.

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