Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Vietnam and Iraq

Charles A. Krohn, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, fought in Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive. In a column in today's Washington Post, Krohn notes that the Iraqi elections on January 30 will occur on the 37th anniversary of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

Krohn wonders if the insurgents in Iraq understand the historical lessons of the Tet Offensive, when the American people lost their belief that an acceptable victory could be won in Vietnam. Krohn points out that we're in a different war now, one that began after our highly successful war to defeat the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. He also observes, accurately, that Donald Rumsfeld apparently failed to understand that a new war had started. In Krohn's words,

I support the war in Iraq because I believe its people deserve more breaks in life than they had under Saddam Hussein. I also hope a democratic Iraq will influence regional politics. And, yes, I define democracy in very loose and liberal terms at the moment. I know that we failed to find weapons of mass destruction, and perhaps there was some manipulation of details in the buildup to the war. It doesn't matter now.

Regardless of whether weapons of mass destruction were found, the war we started off with in March 2003 doesn't exist anymore. We defeated Hussein. This war is more serious, because it pits us against a fundamentalist Islamic insurgency that will keep growing if we fail. Insurgents will learn that murder works -- that they are strong and the West is weak. Not all fundamentalists are murderers, but enough are to create a threat that's hardly trivial.

I'm aware that nearly half of polled Americans think that going to war in Iraq was a mistake. The fact that early reports of strategic success failed to materialize was a political depressant, especially among conservatives like me who thought Rumsfeld was the ultimate realist. When he denied for so long that there was an insurgency, he fractured his reputation permanently in some circles, discrediting himself and the president. The public at first accepted his explanation that there were only "dead-enders" making mischief and that they'd soon run out of steam. But after a few months people saw that the facts were otherwise, especially as casualties grew and the ranks of the insurgents swelled. This trend continues.

The counterinsurgency war in Iraq hasn't become another Vietnam by any measure. However, there is valid cause for concern that a crescendo of violence leading up to the election could result in a fundamental change in the way the American people see the war. As in Vietnam, the long downhill slide to political defeat could begin with loss of confidence that victory is ultimately possible.

The important thing to remember, a point that Krohn doesn't make, is that Vietnam was not a military defeat for the U.S. We began losing the war politically when the media, led by the venerable Walter Cronkite, erroneously declared Tet a defeat. The insurgents in Iraq, like the North Vietnamese, are not capable of defeating the U.S. militarily. But we can defeat ourselves again, and in the long run it won't matter why it happened.

The new media environment includes many sources of reporting and analysis independent of the mainstream media and its biases. Perhaps that will protect us from the negative effects of narrow reporting designed to further a political agenda. We don't need another political defeat by the likes of Dan Rather and Christianne Amanpour.


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