by Mike Harpold
November 13, 2003
I was part of an earlier generation that was asked to provide security and help the South Vietnamese build a viable government, serving two years as an advisor to the Vietnamese National Police. In large measure we were successful, only to see our own government pull the rug from under what we had accomplished. Now a new generation must do the same, help build a nation committed to democratic principles where none have existed before. I have no doubt that the generation we have sent to Iraq can do it, but they deserve the commitment of our leaders to keep our country behind the effort until it is done.
Neither politicians, the press nor many Americans want to compare Iraq with Viet Nam. Yet ask any Viet Nam vet how he or she feels when he reads or hears on TV about an American soldier killed by a roadside bomb - in the Viet Nam era read "mine," or a rocket propelled grenade, read "B40 rocket." In the elaborate code-speak used to mask the similarities, the "insurgents" in Iraq are simply the Viet Cong of an earlier day. The killing or capturing of former Saddam loyalists, now the goal of American troops in Iraq, is no different from the goal of American troops arrayed against the Viet Cong, albeit yet to be encapsulated in that singularly Viet Nam term, "neutralize."
In Viet Nam we faced an enemy who lived, fought, and in varying degrees was supported by the very people we were trying to save, a situation little different from that our soldiers are facing in Iraq. People will only stop supporting an oppressor if they feel secure from retaliation. That is why making people feel secure where they live is the essential first step in building a democratic government in Iraq.
The effort to establish security in Vietnamese villages took several years. Success did not come until the United States trained and equipped hundreds of Vietnamese Regional and Popular Force units, local forces whose responsibility was protecting their own village or hamlet from attack, freeing up the South Vietnamese army (ARVN) to pursue and battle main force North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units. At the same time, the American supported Phoenix program paired intelligence and paramilitary police units to identify and eradicate the Viet Cong infrastructure, eliminating the support base for Viet Cong and North Vietnamese units operating in the south.
By late 1970, the war in Viet Nam was largely won. Over 90% of the villages were living in relative security. An inveterate counter, I marked progress by the number of water buffalo I could count tilling the rice paddies. In May 1970, I drove in a civilian jeep out to the villages near Khe Sanh, the site of a huge battle two years earlier between the North Vietnamese Army and surrounded U.S. Marines. In October 1971, the South Vietnamese government conducted its first national election. Over 87% of those eligible voted.
The U.S. objective in South Vietnam was to establish a government and develop its armed forces to the point that without help from U.S. ground forces, it would be capable of resisting aggression. It assumed that the U.S. would continue to provide logistical and financial support and enforce a future truce with the threat of renewed application of U.S. air and naval power. During the Easter Offensive in 1972, the South Vietnamese, with U.S. air support, successfully repulsed an invading North Vietnamese army, indicating that the U.S. objective had been largely achieved. Our troops were on the way home, and by the following year, 1973, a truce had been signed.
The Viet Nam story did not have a happy ending. Weary of the war, even after our own forces were brought home, the U.S. stopped all financial and logistical support for the South. In 1975, when a rejuvenated North Vietnamese army, with an unlimited supply of weapons and even tanks from the Soviet Union and China, rolled south across the Demilitarized Zone, the U.S. reneged on its' promise to come to South Viet Nam's aid with American air power. Although no longer strategically important to the United States, the fall of South Viet Nam was a tragedy costing hundreds of thousands of lives and setting over one million people in flight in small boats.
We don't want to be reminded of our failure in Viet Nam. Our reluctance to make the comparison however, prevents us from examining and then applying the lessons we learned from our successes in Viet Nam; and there were successes.
I did not support getting involved in Iraq, but that makes little difference now. We are engaged, and our soldiers will not be home until we have either seen this thing through or abandoned the effort. Establishing a viable democratic government in Iraq will take the courage and skill of our Armed Forces and civilian advisors working in many areas. It can be done, it has been done, but long months and years of casualty reports and frustrating setbacks lie ahead. Getting out of Iraq is going to take far better leadership than we had in getting us in.
For those interested in learning more about the pacification effort in Viet Nam, I recommend, "A Better War, the Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam," by Lewis Sorley. Harcourt and Brace (1999).
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