Saigon to Baghdad: Reasoning by Historical Analogy

For over thirty years the American left raised the specter of Vietnam to oppose US military interventions from Central America to the Balkans to Afghanistan and, most recently, Iraq. Reasoning by historical analogy can be dangerous, as the Munich analogies used to bolster “bearing the burden” in Vietnam showed. Still, there are only two ways to approach the future: faith and history; the latter has the advantage of being fact-based. With that in mind, what can Vietnam teach us about the ongoing war in Iraq?

Both wars took place on the other side of the world, in places with inhospitable climates and topography. Just as the war in Vietnam was part of the larger Cold War, the fighting in Iraq is part of a global struggle to define the international parameters of the twenty-first century. Since Vietnam had been a part of French Indochina, America inherited the albatross of neo-colonialism. Likewise, there is European colonial baggage in Iraq. Like Vietnam, Iraq is bordered by countries willing to aid our enemies. The world community also is no more supportive of American intervention in Iraq than it was of America’s war in Vietnam.

What about military analogies? Early in the Vietnam War, in November 1965, a qualitatively superior American Army stood toe-to-toe against the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam to win the month-long Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. Similarly, Operation Iraqi Freedom began with a three-week drive on Baghdad in which American forces displayed operational and tactical excellence.

While operational and tactical excellence is important to battlefield victories, superior strategy wins wars. The United States had two vulnerabilities in Vietnam. First, it lacked a strategy appropriate to the war at hand. Second, Washington hitched its prestige and power to an ineffectual Saigon regime. To keep Iraq from becoming a quagmire, the United States must avoid those two pitfalls.

After suffering defeat in the Battle of the Ia Drang, where superior American firepower and mobility prevailed, the North Vietnamese and their southern cohorts, the Viet Cong, adopted a strategy of attrition. North Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap correctly posited that when American losses reached 50,000 killed, Washington would give up. Giap’s most abundant resource to pursue this strategy was manpower. In a war of attrition, Giap was willing to lose 500,000 soldiers to kill 50,000 Americans. Giap, a student of the nineteenth century Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz, understood that war is as Clausewitz stated in his 1832 book, On War, an act of force to compel the enemy to do your will.

The United States also adopted a strategy of attrition. General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of Military Assistance Command Vietnam, devised a strategy based on a kill ratio of ten-to-one. Neither strategy was inherently superior, but the North Vietnamese strategy was more appropriate: it was not worth 50,000 American lives to achieve Washington’s ill-defined goals in support of our dubious Saigon ally.

In Vietnam, the North Vietnamese had a robust army and Hanoi mobilized its society to “liberate” the South. While that situation does not obtain in Iraq, elements of the Saddam Fedayeen and other Iraqi elite units escaped battlefield defeat and faded away to fight another day as an insurgent force. They have adopted an attritional strategy focused on killing Americans.

With definitive goals like taking Baghdad and other major cities accomplished, the US military measures of success have become quantitative. Numbers of Iraqi “suspects” detained or killed, weapons confiscated and neighborhoods “pacified” have a hauntingly familiar ring for those of us who remember the body and weapons counts that resulted from “search and destroy” missions like Operation Attleboro and Junction City. This also is an attritional strategy and, as such, is bound to fail. Forget 50,000 or 5,000 US dead. The American public may balk when the toll reaches 500. The war in Iraq, like the one we lost in Vietnam, shares the same thing all wars share: it is an act of force aimed at breaking the enemy’s will.

The US Army cannot win the war against Iraqi insurgents without suffering unacceptable casualties, risking demoralization and, in the process, alienating a majority of Iraqis. To win this war, to keep it from devolving into a Vietnam-like quagmire and ending in a politically disastrous defeat, the United States must first devise a winning strategy. Only an indigenous force, like the one we are training and supporting in Afghanistan, can win in Iraq. American Special Operations Forces and Army Civil Affairs soldiers can train such a force. They must do so as quickly as possible. Second, the new government in Iraq has to offer a popular and effective alternative to the regime we deposed.

As Clausewitz so rightly understood, while winning or losing in war is a function of many variables, it remains an act of force to compel the enemy to do your will.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism. Email: [email protected]

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