Hearts, minds and bodybags
Date: Saturday, April 05 @ 01:37:34 UTC
by James Fox, The Guardian
Iraq can't be a Vietnam, pundits insist. Those who were there know better
In Vietnam in 1972 there was a hearts and minds programme called chieu hoi to entice the population in the south to rally to the government. The late Gavin Young of the Observer quipped: "I think the Americans have bitten off more than they can chieu hoi ." Is this the case with Iraq if, whatever happens in Baghdad, liberation turns to occupation and resistance?
To lose the hearts and minds, which the Americans have surely done so far in Iraq, would surely be to lose the war, whatever the strategic results. But don't whisper "Vietnam", and certainly "quagmire", the word with which the Iraqis daily taunt the Americans. To do so in print has invited the reflex denial that the topography - desert versus jungle - is different and not good for guerrilla war; that Vietnam took 10 years to lose and we've been here two weeks. One historian wrote last week that the Iraqis were not "politicised as the Vietnamese were by the Vietcong", a startling observation given the evidence of recent days.
Nationalism, patriotism and fatwas from the Arab world are surely enough. Iraqi strategists, according to one Arab editor, study Vietnam constantly. And they talk of it too. Not only will 100 Bin Ladens be unleashed by this struggle, they say, but "100 Vietnams". "Let our cities be our swamps and our buildings our jungles," Tariq Aziz told the Institute of Strategic Studies before war began. Yesterday Iraq's information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, talked of turning Iraq into "another Indochina". Has Baghdad become a mini Ho Chi Minh trail of hidden tunnels and arsenals?
George C Scott, as General Patton in the eponymous film, hisses: "Rommel, you sonofabitch, I read your book". The key book for the Iraqis was written by General Vo Nguyen Giap, the brilliant architect of the war against the French and the Americans. It was published in English in 1961, under the title People's War, People's Army, long before the US war in Vietnam hotted up. Though full of partyspeak, it shows how easy it is to hold up and demoralise a hugely superior army that has a long supply convoy. Giap exploited what he called "the contradictions of the aggressive colonial war". The invaders have to fan out and operate far from their bases. When they deploy, said Giap, "their broken-up units become easy prey". First harass the enemy, "rotting" away his rear and reserves, forcing him to deploy troops to defend bases and perimeters.
"Is the enemy strong?" wrote Giap. "One avoids him. Is he weak? One attacks him." There will never be enough troops to hold down the scattered guerrilla forces. General William Westmoreland, commander of US forces in Vietnam, estimated that he would have needed 2 million troops to "pacify" the country. At the peak of the war he had half that number. You can apply the principle to Baghdad or the country beyond - the topography matters less than the principle. Commanders talk of their puzzlement at Republican Guard units "melting away" after the onslaught of last week. Are they preparing a trap?
It was astonishing to read of the surprise on the part of the military at the Iraqis' methods. The commander of the Desert Rats said that their "terror tactics" were "outside the rules of war", although anyone who has attended a war knows there aren't any rules. Hue was the last pitched battle fought by the Americans during the 1968 Tet offensive. In that battle, 5,000 Vietcong infiltrators climbed out of their civilian clothes in the city to reveal their North Vietnamese uniforms. General Westmoreland complained that Tet "was characterised by treachery and deceitfulness" - the same outrageous methods Bush speaks about today.
The Americans were surprised and outraged by the Vietnamese tactics right to the end, consistently underestimating the North Vietnamese army's strength and determination. I remember the shock in 1972 when the North Vietnamese launched a fierce barrage far from its bases with deeply dug-in 130mm guns south of the demilitarised zone. Giap had stockpiled massive underground arsenals.
The Iraq campaign has swiftly changed from a "hearts and minds" operation of liberation to one of winning the war. The Anglo-American forces have not won the cooperation of the local population that is so vital for military-political control. From the Iraqi point of view, since you can't win, the only real weapon is the demoralisation of the enemy, keeping the war going as long as possible and uniting the population against them. Mark Franchetti reported vividly last weekend on frightened marines shooting up any taxi that moved, describing the fresh-faced soldiers he had met a few days ealier turning into scared, demoralised killers - echoes again of the Vietnam era.
Giap wanted to wage a protracted guerrilla war of attrition and mount a parallel political offensive aimed at the US democratic system, which would not bear for ever a long, inconclusive war. The Iraqis are doing the same. What took years to build up in the US during the Vietnam war - scepticism and finally widespread opposition - could happen in just weeks with the help of 24-hour television. Now the actual speed and success of the war will come down to whether the Americans are prepared to kill civilians more or less indiscriminately, as Saddam does and Giap did before him. If it is a question of televised bodybags versus civilians, the civilians will have to go.
Finally, there is the Giap maxim: "War without politics is like a a tree without a root." At the moment, the coalition politics stink. It is impossible for Rumsfeld, and perhaps also Tony Blair, to understand how insulting it is to be told what "liberation" is by a superpower you have reason to distrust. The doctrine forgets how instructed Iraqis are with a deep sense of their history, as were the Vietnamese and as are the Palestinians, now coming to fight in Iraq because they fear they may be next.
I remember, too, in Vietnam in 1972 the anger among the South Vietnamese - even when facing defeat - at being denied a hand in their own destiny. The sentiment was eloquently put by one Iraqi in Basra last week: "Even if I do not support Saddam, I do not want the invasion. They want to change the system but this is not the way. This way there will be only death, the death of children and women."
Maybe the Iraqis who simply want to defend their country out of patriotism should be taken at their word; that Baghdad is indeed the first quagmire they advertise. It can't be besieged because that would lose any final support for the coalition cause. In house-to-house fighting it will take, according to one military expert, a battalion to clear one office block; the battle could last many weeks or even months. If air strikes are used, it will kill many civilians and wreck any last hope of cooperation.
"What if they get to Baghdad and nobody's home?" asks Dan Plesch, senior researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, "if they've all melted away to the towns set in the marshes of the Tigris?" With or without Saddam, the guerrilla war then extends to the country beyond and then perhaps to the whole Arab world, whose united desire at the moment, according to Egypt's leading newspaper, is to see the "invincible" US defeated, in whatever cause.
· James Fox reported from Vietnam for the Sunday Times in the early 1970s. He is the author of White Mischief and The Langhorne Sisters JamesFox@compuserve.com