Not another Vietnam

Posted: Apr 01, 2003 12:00 AM

A new land-speed record has been established for calling an American military conflict "another Vietnam." New York Times writer R.W. Apple seemed to establish an unbeatable mark during the war in Afghanistan, by warning of a quagmire after three weeks of fighting against the miserable Taliban.

But now quagmires are apparently measured in days, not weeks. According to The Baltimore Sun, "This war in its early stages recalls the pitched battles and bloody skirmishes of the Vietnam War." Times columnist Maureen Dowd finds it "hard not to have a few acid flashbacks to Vietnam at warp speed." By the second weekend of the war, warnings of "another Vietnam" filled the media ether.

Well, maybe Gulf War II is like Vietnam -- except there's no Cold War, no rival superpower arming our enemy, no danger of escalation to nuclear war, no fear of China intervening and, oh yeah, so far the war has lasted two weeks, not 10 years.

There are other niggling differences -- the low casualties (roughly 50 combat deaths so far, compared with 58,000 in Vietnam), a high level of public support, a volunteer, highly motivated Army and a definable enemy, cause and endgame.

A real stickler might note still other distinctions -- we're not in Iraq to prop up a corrupt regime, but to eliminate one; we haven't escalated slowly, but sent 100,000 troops in almost immediately; there is no triple-layer jungle canopy to protect Saddam Hussein's forces; and our weaponry is more precise and more fearsome by several orders of magnitude than 30 years ago.

Finally, one last subtle difference -- Ho Chi Minh was never a target in the Vietnam War, but we took a shot at Saddam the first night of Gulf War II.

Those commentators who just can't help invoking "another Vietnam" are caught in a fatal romance with that war. They tend to believe that Vietnam was won by a bunch of plucky guerrilla fighters, bravely resisting the American colossus.

The Baltimore Sun darkly warns, "The Fedayeen are displaying the same passion and brutality as the Viet Cong." If the Fedayeen are still fighting a couple of decades from now, maybe that comparison would be apt. Even for the Viet Cong, however, passion and brutality weren't enough.

Guerrilla forces almost always need a conventional component to succeed. The Vietnam War was lost, ultimately, to an enormous conventional military assault from the totalitarian North. Saigon fell to an army of 570,000 North Vietnamese regular soldiers and some 900 Soviet tanks.

North Vietnam, in turn, was receiving massive aid from the Soviets and Chinese. As historian Michael Lind has pointed out, in addition to military equipment and civilian goods, the Chinese sent 327,000 soldiers to North Vietnam, freeing North Vietnamese troops to be sent elsewhere. The Soviets eagerly chipped in too. "Between 1964 and 1974," Lind writes, "aid to North Vietnam amounted to 50 percent of the Soviet Union's aid to communist satellite regimes."

The United States chose not to try to choke off these supplies, and also allowed the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese sanctuaries outside the borders of South Vietnam. Saddam, in contrast, is getting only a trickle of smuggled help from Syria and Iran, and his troops will be given no quarter.

Part of the romance of Vietnam is that, in the liberal imagination, it was a war won by the media and the professors and the protesters. They exposed the lies and corruption of the military, destroyed two warmongering presidents (LBJ and Nixon) and took important steps in its wake to remake American in their image.

So they want to relive that war over and over, even when the U.S. military gains control of 40 percent of the enemy's territory and 100 percent of its airspace in about a week. "Another Vietnam" is largely wishful thinking. The phrase brings to mind one similarity to Vietnam in today's circumstances: A segment of American elite opinion is still, 30 years later, reflexively hostile to the application of American power.