Friday, June 6, 2008

Collateral Damage: Vietnam Analogies to Iraq

Few debates can be more important for Americans concerned about the course of our involvement in Iraq than the issue of how and to what degree analogies to the American war in Vietnam can teach relevant lessons for the American war in Iraq. The two wars are obviously in some ways very different, in particular the glaring distinction that South Vietnam was fighting both a civil war and a defensive war against a North Vietnamese invasion before the U.S. intervened. The Lebanese war against the Israeli invasion of 1982-2001 and the Algerian effort to end French colonialism are probably much closer analogies to Iraq, but it is only the Vietnam War that one can hope many Americans will be conscious of, so drawing analogies from Vietnam is important.

I have tried repeatedly in this blog to stimulate thinking about this infinitely complex and so very poorly understood issue. My point here is simply to focus attention on the real impact of large-scale U.S. attacks on a highly mobile enemy with the following intriguing quotation from a Vietnam War website:

Westmoreland's operational concept emphasized the attrition of North Vietnamese forces in a "war of the big battalions": multi-battalion, and sometimes even multi-division, sweeps through remote jungle areas in an effort to fix and destroy the enemy. Such "search and destroy" operations were usually unsuccessful, since the enemy could usually avoid battle unless it was advantageous for him to accept it. But they were also costly to the American soldiers who conducted them, and to the Vietnamese civilians who were in the area.

Now, replace sparsely populated jungle with densely populated cities, and consider the import of the remark that such mass attacks were “costly” to the local population. One can easily hypothesize about the meaning of the word “costly” in terms of friends losing their ability to help because their lives have been ruined, neutrals turned into enemies, propaganda bonanzas for the other side, and the impact of on the rate of recruitment of volunteers from the local population to join the rebels. It would be valuable to collect and assess confirmatory or disconfirmatory evidence for this hypothesis either from the Vietnam or Iraq War, not to mention other conflicts, in particular Israel’s wars on Gaza and Lebanon.

Whatever the truth about the impact of “collateral damage” on the ultimate outcome of wars may be, it is pretty obvious (e.g., from recent harsh U.S. tactics in Sadr City) that Washington has not accepted the hypothesis that it is critical. We will all no doubt discover over the next few years to what degree this may turn out to be the key issue deciding the outcome of Washington’s war in Iraq.

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