Lesson from Vietnam

December 06, 2005|By GORDON LIVINGSTON

It is a tribute to the flexibility of the Bush administration that untruths uncovered about initial rationales for the Iraq war have been replaced by the assertion that the United States invaded Iraq to correct human rights abuses and that the elimination of Saddam Hussein has opened the way for a flowering of democracy in the Middle East.

All that is required of us now, so the latest story goes, is to persist in defeating an insurgency that continues to kill Iraqis and U.S. troops at a rate that is becoming unacceptable to most of our citizens. We are, in other words, about at the point where we were following the Tet offensive in Vietnam. (At that juncture, more than 20,000 Americans had died in the war, so it might be argued that we are 10 times as smart as we were in 1968.)

To those of us who were in Vietnam and who came home to watch another 33,000 troops die before we finally left, the Bush administration arguments about "staying the course" have a familiar ring. With Vietnam, we were told that if we left too soon, the South Vietnamese government would fall and America's standing and credibility in the world would be compromised. There would be a "bloodbath" as the North Vietnamese took revenge on our South Vietnamese allies. Other governments in Southeast Asia would fall like dominoes under the influence of the Communists. And we would be abandoning our POWs.

Thirty years later, the Vietnamese prime minister is entertained at the White House, and we trade with our former enemies and go on guided tours of that beautiful country. Are we better off today because of the sacrifices of the 58,000 Americans whose names are on that black granite wall in Washington?

The great unanswered question of the Vietnam War remains: How is it that with all the training and support we gave the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) over more than 10 years, it never developed into a force capable of defending the country? When North Vietnamese conventional forces attacked ARVN troops in 1975, they folded within weeks.

This is important because we are now depending on the growing competence of the Iraqi army to give us the cover to leave. Early indications are that it will be no more able to defend itself than was the ARVN.

Why is this? We hear much about the importance of "training," but anyone who has been in combat knows that the effectiveness of any military organization is predicated not simply on training or equipment, but on the willingness of soldiers to fight.

It was our presence in Vietnam that ensured that the indigenous forces would not consistently risk themselves. It is equally true in Iraq. Any government that emerges from the Dec. 15 elections in Iraq (we had those in Vietnam, too) will be seen by a substantial portion of the citizenry as our creation. We will not convince Iraqi troops that such a government is worth dying to defend.

You cannot train someone to display the will to risk one's life for an idea. That determination flows from a belief in your cause and from your commitment to the people at your side with whom you fight. This is what is missing in the Iraqis we seek to "train" (and what is present in those who are prepared to blow themselves up to defeat us).

As occupiers from a "crusader" country, we are not going to instill this willingness to fight in Muslim soldiers. This is one of the fundamental lessons of Vietnam, right up there with the futility of fighting an insurgency in someone else's country.

When the administration, standing on the ash heap of its mistakes and deceptions, challenges the war's opponents to come up with a better way to disengage from Iraq, they really mean less awful. Recall those transmission ads on TV where the mechanic wipes fluid from a parking lot on his fingers and says, "You can pay me now or pay me later." The implication is clear: No matter how much it costs now, it will be more expensive later. U.S. policy in Iraq has been leaking fluid for some time.

Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia, is a West Point graduate who served in Vietnam for seven months in the late 1960s as the surgeon of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. He is the author of "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart." His e-mail is GSLCVK@aol.com.

Columnist Trudy Rubin is on vacation.

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