WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In an earlier age it would have been a Churchillian moment: The head of state makes a high-risk, secret trip to the war zone; is briefed by combat commanders on the military situation; meets with allies and commends the troops for their steadfast resolve in defeating a brutal adversary. Sir Winston was lionized by the British press for more than 20 such trips during the course of World War II. But that's not the treatment given George W. Bush.
The president was still on the ground in Iraq commending U.S. troops for eliminating the brutal terror-leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi when the carping began. Liberal Democrats, perhaps feeling snubbed that the Commander in Chief's visit to Baghdad had upstaged their "Take Back America" conference in Washington, rushed to the microphones to critique the presidential mission. Fellow-travelers in the media compliantly followed the script in an effort to denigrate the import of the trip. On air that evening, Alan Colmes of FOX News' "Hannity & Colmes," pondered aloud why President Bush found it necessary to keep it all so furtive, "even from the Iraqi government." Note to liberals: Call the Secret Service.
Senator John Kerry went even further while Bush was in Baghdad. The Democrat's' favorite failed presidential candidate told a crowd of adoring, anti-military, blame-America-firsters that the U.S. Head of State visit to Baghdad changed nothing and that Iraq and Vietnam are the "two most failed foreign policy choices'' in our nation's history. "As in Vietnam," he continued, resurrecting a theme that resonates with radicals, "we have stayed and fought and died even though it is time for us to go. It was right to dissent from a war in 1971 that was wrong and could not be won. And now, in 2006, it is both a right and an obligation for Americans to stand up to a president who is wrong today."
The "Iraq equals Vietnam" argument is not new -- nor is it the exclusive purview of the American political left. Osama bin Laden has alluded to Vietnam in several of his "video diatribes" released in the Islamic press. U.S. and European media elites have tried to equate "atrocities" in Iraq with events like My Lai in Vietnam. Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, has said that we are "bogged down" in Iraq and that the situation is not "dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam. The longer we stay there, the more similarities are going to come together." Fortunately for us, Messer's Kerry, bin Laden and Hagel are wrong.
Having spent a good bit of time in both wars, it's my observation that there are few if any parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. Aside from the reality that bombs and bullets still kill and maim, and the blood of courageous American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen and Marines is still red, Baghdad isn't Saigon; Fallujah isn't Hue City and battling terrorists in Al Anbar Province is totally unlike fighting the North Vietnamese Army in the A-Shau Valley. Those who think otherwise should watch this week's episode of "War Stories" on the FOX News Channel about the sanguinary, 10-day fight to take Hamburger Hill.
By May of 1969, when the famed 101st Airborne Division slogged to the top of Dong Ap Bia -- the cloud-shrouded mountain's real name -- there were more than 400,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam and over 48,000 had been lost to enemy combat. Today, after three years of war in Iraq there are fewer than 135,000 U.S. troops on the ground and as of today, 2,500 that have been killed in action or died of wounds.
Critics of how President Bush has handled the war in Mesopotamia cynically point to mounting casualties as a way of linking combat in Iraq with what took place nearly four decades ago in Vietnam. There is no doubt that every casualty is a tragedy. Yet the difference in combat losses between the two wars is staggering. At the peak of the war in Vietnam -- 1968-'69, we were losing more than 35 killed in action daily. In Iraq, the "morbidity rate" is fewer than 2.5 per day.
Then there is the difference in enemies. Our opponents in Vietnam, though certainly capable of extraordinary cruelty, never made videos of their captives being beheaded. Unlike homicidal suicide-terrorists I have seen in Iraq, the NVA soldiers I confronted then -- and those I interviewed in Vietnam just a few weeks ago in the shadow of Hamburger Hill -- all wanted to survive the experience.
Finally, there is the issue of outcome. We lost the war in Vietnam -- not on the battlefield -- but in the corridors of power in our nation's capital. We pulled out and abandoned our South Vietnamese allies, and two years later they were overwhelmed. We can still lose this war the same way.
On his trip to Baghdad this week, President Bush sought to reassure Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that, "I've come to not only look you in the eye. I also come to tell you that when America gives its word, it keeps its word." Let's hope we do.