Senator, Iraq Is No Vietnam
By Pavel Felgenhauer
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has plenty of enemies both at home and abroad. A lot of people would love to see Bush get a bloody nose in Iraq, or anywhere else. Last week the critics had a field day: With heavy fighting in Fallujah and sporadic clashes breaking out elsewhere, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy said that Iraq had become "George Bush's Vietnam," and declared that the United States needs a new leader.
It was Kennedy's older brother, John F. Kennedy, who dragged the United States into the Vietnam quagmire, and the senator should know better than to compare Vietnam and Iraq.
The Vietnam War was a battlefield in the global Cold War that pitted the United States against the Soviet Union and its allies. The Soviet defense industry supplied the North Vietnamese with the latest weapons. In 1975 North Vietnamese regulars, armed and trained by the Soviets, took Saigon. "Winning" the war in Vietnam was impossible without first winning the Cold War. So long as the Soviets were able to maintain a global balance of power, any local war -- in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Nicaragua -- tended to develop into a quagmire.
Today the world is a very different place, and the scope of the fighting in Iraq cannot be compared to Vietnam. The United States lost more than 60,000 soldiers and 8,000 aircraft in Vietnam. U.S. casualties in Iraq number fewer than 500. The nature of combat of Iraq, as demonstrated in Fallujah last week, is also different. Four U.S. civilian contractors were killed and their bodies mutilated by local residents. Less than 2,000 Marines moved in to find and punish the perpetrators.
Under Saddam Hussein, the Sunni Muslims of Fallujah, a city of some 400,000 inhabitants, were regularly recruited to serve as officers in the armed forces and the security services. When Baghdad fell, these loyalists found themselves out of a job and returned home. In Fallujah, they formed underground armed groups and waited for the Marines to attack. It is possible that the killing of the four contractors was a deliberate provocation intended to lure U.S. forces into the streets of Fallujah, where local armed bands lay in wait. In Vietnam, and more recently in Somalia in 1993, U.S. losses during street fighting led to outcry back home and the unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah outnumbered the Marines and were armed with Kalashnikov automatic rifles, RPG-7 antitank grenade launchers and mortars. Chechen fighters used the same weapons in Grozny in 1995, 1996 and 2000, killing thousands of Russian soldiers and destroying hundreds of armored vehicles.
Just like the Russians in Grozny, the Marines last week were supported by tanks and attack helicopters, but the end result was entirely different. U.S. forces did not bomb the city indiscriminately. The Iraqis fought well but were massacred. According to the latest body count, some 600 Iraqis died and another 1,000 were wounded. The Marines lost some 20 men.
The Marines are far better trained, of course, but the Iraqis were fighting in their hometown. The decisive difference between the two sides was the extensive use of a computerized command, control and targeting system by the U.S. military. Satellites, manned and unmanned aircraft collected precise information on enemy and friendly movements on the battlefield night and day.
Modern U.S. field commanders have real-time access to this system, allowing them to monitor the changing situation on the battlefield as no commander in the history of war has been able to do. This technology has greatly enhanced the effectiveness of aerial bombardments in the last decade. And now the nature of house-to-house combat has changed as well.
The more accurate historical analogy to the current war in Iraq is not Vietnam but, say, the battle at Omdurman, Sudan, in 1898, when Horatio Herbert Kitchener, a British field marshal, crushed the Sudanese forces of al-Mahdi by bringing machine guns to bear against the enemy's muskets and spears. Today the United States has the capability and the technical superiority to fight and win colonial wars against numerically superior enemies.
But military superiority is not enough. Will the Bush administration -- or the Democrats, should they win the White House in November -- prove better, kinder rulers of the world than the British Liberals and Tories of a century ago?
Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.
The American Marine Division has the highest combat effectiveness in the American armed forces. It seems not enough for our four divisions to surround and annihilate its two regiments.
---Mao Tse Sung to General Song, prior to Chosin Reservoir