The Lesson George W. Didn’t Learn

Last November 17, as George W Bush visited Hanoi for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the US president had some philosophical thoughts to deliver about the lessons he said the United States had learned from the Vietnam War, the longest conflict in US history.

"We'll succeed unless we quit," Bush told reporters. "We tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take awhile.”

It is questionable what lessons the president took away from Vietnam, where nearly 58,000 American soldiers died and more than 300,000 were wounded in more than 14 years of hot and cold conflict before the Americans gave up. But if history is any yardstick, he probably ought to take careful consideration of ordering a surge in American troops in Iraq.

With US troop deaths in Iraq just having passed the 3,000 mark at the end of 2006, the president is reportedly about to order a “surge” in troop strength, by as many as 30,000, possibly shifting a military unit from Kuwait, redeploying or sending troops back to Iraq earlier than planned, or keeping US Marine units on duty longer than scheduled, or a combination of these, resulting in an instant boost to troop levels, particularly in an attempt to quell the growing violence in Baghdad.

One of the lessons the president might have learned when he visited Vietnam was about the number of “surges” Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson delivered from 1961 through 1968. The first American troops arrived in the country in strength in 1961, although advisers had been there since the early 1950s when the French left after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

By 1965, troop strength had “surged” to 125,000 from 75,000. At the end of the year, they had surged again, to 200,000. By January 1957, they had surged to 389,000. By July 1967, troop strength had surged to 475,000.

And, of course, by January 1968, they had surged to more than 500,000, when Gen. William Westmoreland, the military commander at the time, was reporting that the Vietnam insurgency had largely been quelled. Then the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong staged a surge of their own during the Lunar New Year. An estimated 165,000 civilians are believed to have died, creating millions more refugees. Hundreds of GIs and Marines died as the Viet Cong fought their way to the US Embassy in Saigon. The battle for the old imperial capital of Hue killed hundreds of US Marines and virtually destroyed perhaps the most beautiful city in the country.

Westmoreland asked for another 200,000 troops. At that point, Johnson, beleaguered in the White House as Bush has never been over Iraq, brought in Clark C. Clifford, a long-time Washington, DC insider, as Secretary of Defense to reexamine the US mission in Vietnam. After several weeks, Clifford concluded that “there is no concept or overall plan anywhere in Washington, DC for achieving victory in Vietnam.”

That may sound familiar to those reading the conclusions of the Iraq Study Group, headed by James A. Baker III, the 2006 version of the Washington Wise Man. The group’s report basically concluded that the war in Iraq cannot be won by the US. Recommendations include withdrawing US combat troops by March 2008, leaving only a limited number to help train and advise the Iraqis and involving Syria and Iran in negotiations as client states for the insurgents. The ISG’s belief that surges are out of the question has not been received warmly by the president.

Iraq and Vietnam are obviously vastly dissimilar. Iraq is in the middle of a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites as well as an insurgency against US troops. Fundamentalist Islam and jihadi fervor are on the rise. Vietnam had its own nationalist insurgency led by the communist Viet Cong that was augmented by direct over-the-border invasions by the North Vietnamese Army in set piece battles from the Ia Drang Valley in 1965 to Khe Sanh and Con Thien later in the 1960s.

But wars have a certain dynamic. There was plenty of “asymmetrical warfare,” as guerrilla activity is known, as there is in Iraq today, where booby traps have been elevated to a far finer art. A vast number of military operations in Vietnam involved battalion-sized helicopter envelopments into areas believed to have been occupied by the enemy, only to find no enemy there. It was depressingly common to creep through the jungle with US units only to have the point man shot by a sniper. Everybody would fall to the ground as rifle fire crackled through the forest and the unit commander radioed for air or artillery support.

Before long US Marine or Navy jets would arrive, coming in low as silvery canisters of napalm tumbled from below their wings to explode a few meters away. But in the minutes it took for those jets to arrive, the snipers would be half a kilometer away. The tally far too often was a dead or wounded point man and one or two men lost to antipersonnel mines or punji pits, a particularly gruesome phenomenon in which the enemy sharpened bamboo stakes, smeared them with excrement or poison, and covered them in pits for unsuspecting GIs to step into. The army combat boot’s steel insoles are testament to them.

Stories abounded of GIs who wandered no more than a few meters from their unit perimeters, only to be found later with their throats cut. The country was littered with land mines that killed or maimed hundreds of soldiers, sending them home without eyes or legs or arms, often burned hideously. I recall one midnight getting onto a C141 Starlifter at Tan Son Nhut in Saigon to find it filled scores of moaning, torn young men, some of whom would die before they ever landed at Travis Air Force Base in California.

Frustration boiled over far more often than ever was reported. But finally, in 1968, after the Tet offensive by the enemy, the angry, frustrated, ill-trained troops of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, of what was known as the Americal Division ended up in a small village called My Lai, at the northern end of Quang Ngai Province. It was a tough place to be. Aircraft going into Quang Ngai spiraled down almost directly over the airport in a steep dive, or they came in at treetop level to keep from being shot at. The jeep ride from the airport to the town was an invitation to get shot.

The 11th Brigade also had a terrible reputation – unmotivated troops, badly trained, in a war already known to be unwinnable. “Fraggings” – killing their own officers who were too enthusiastic about combat – took place.

Entering My Lai, Charlie Company believed they were after a Vietcong brigade, only to discover the enemy had melted away again. They rounded up the entire village, herded them into ditches and started shooting. It is believed that as many as 504 women, children and old men had been gunned down. It took a year for the truth of My Lai to come out, but it did, the same way that the truth is emerging today from massacres of civilians in Iraq.

These are the same kinds of strains facing US troops in Baghdad, or worse. Hundreds of violent incidents involving attacks on US troops occur every day, the preponderance of them with no one to shoot back at. It is easy to believe that US troops, at hair-trigger alert and frustrated by the lack of an enemy, are willing to gun down civilians and do.

By the time the war in Vietnam had concluded, the US had spent US$494 billion in direct spending an an incalculable amount in indirect costs. Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to raise taxes to pay for the war, as George Bush has refused today, resulted in spiraling inflation that lasted into the Reagan administration before it was stamped out. American cities were on fire from protest and the neglect of the black minority in favor of the war. The country's most popular leaders, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, were assassinated. More than three million American soldiers had been sent to Vietnam, a huge number of them coming back traumatized by their experience.

As many as 1 million to 3 million people are believed to have died in Vietnam. Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese general who prosecuted the war, once told reporters that 1 million North Vietnamese soldiers had died. More than 4.5 million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Laos, North Vietnam, Cambodia and South Vietnam itself. And, as in Iraq, one study found that at least 40 percent of the aid was being stolen.

Also as in Iraq, despite years of training by the US, when the final assault came by the North Vietnamese, the South Vietnamese military and police melted away.

When the president visited Vietnam, what he found was a country that, after more than 30 years, is finally recovering from the trauma of the war. It is not an enemy any longer, and it eagerly embraced the president’s visit. Like China under Deng Xiaoping, it had learned that it didn’t matter whether a cat is black or white if it can catch mice. Its communist ideology, like China’s, has largely disappeared. It was, in the end, a war that should not have been fought. This is the lesson that George Bush should have learned in Vietnam. That, and that surges didn’t work.