No Comparison: Iraq is Not Like Vietnam

Mackubin T. Owens

November 1, 2003

I am officially sick of the constant claims of reporters and politicians that Iraq is becoming a rerun of the Vietnam “quagmire.” These people don’t know what they are talking about. They remind me of the old adage that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. The fact is that there is little similarity between Iraq and Vietnam. Indeed, there is little comparison between the real Vietnam War and the facile description of it that we get from critics of the Iraq operation.

Some time ago in a piece for NRO, I stated that I could think of no instance in which guerillas alone had ever prevailed in a war. Of course, they can harass Coalition troops with mortar attacks, they can inflict casualties in ambushes or by mining roads, and they can even shoot down a helicopter on occasion. But these things don’t win a war, unless they break the will of the stronger power.

For the most part, guerillas contribute to real success by serving as an auxiliary to a “force in being,” a conventional military formation that concentrates the mind of the enemy. After all, the term “guerrilla” was first used to describe the Spanish partisans who, in conjunction with a British force, harried Napoleon’s army during operations in Spain in 1810. The guerrillas were effective only because the French had to focus on Wellington’s army. Because they always had to contend with the British main force, they could not organize their forces in such a way as to pursue and kill the guerrillas. That is essentially what the Viet Cong guerrillas did in Vietnam, as well.

Guerrillas also need a secure sanctuary. Sometimes remote, inhospitable terrain, e.g. jungles and mountains, provides such sanctuary. Sometimes sympathetic or weak states, e.g. Laos and Cambodia in the case of Vietnam and Syria and Iran in the case of Iraq, provide the necessary sanctuary. Of course, the ideology of “people’s war” holds that the most important sanctuary for guerrillas comes from a sympathetic population that, in the famous formulation of Mao, provides the “water” in which the guerrilla “fish” may safely swim.

With time and perseverance, an army can always defeat guerrillas acting alone, especially if it can optimize its force structure for counter-guerrilla operations. But if that army must contend with a conventional force in being, it cannot organize optimally to fight the guerrillas.

This is what happened in Vietnam. The Viet Cong (VC) constituted the guerrilla arm of the National Liberation Front (NLF), an insurgent network operating in South Vietnam, (officially the Republic of Vietnam) under the direction of the Lao Dong party in Hanoi. Setbacks to the NLF insurgency against South Vietnam and the decision of the United States to commit combat forces to South Vietnam in 1965 led Hanoi to change its own strategy. Units of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), what we referred to simply as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), began to establish base areas in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

The first large-scale clash between U.S. forces and the PAVN occurred in November 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley of South Vietnam’s Pleiku Province in the central highlands. Despite the popular perception of Vietnam as a guerrilla war, most of the fighting in that conflict was between U.S. and the PAVN, not guerrillas. The VC did play a role, of course, but it was subordinate to the main conflict.

This is not the case today. The anti-Coalition forces can harass the U.S. forces and inflict casualties, but they cannot prevail unless we permit them to. But we do need to acknowledge what is happening there and to modify our approach. In Iraq, we need to isolate the Baathist regions. We need to develop good intelligence and act on it quickly. We need more aggressive patrolling. There is no force in being to prevent us from optimizing our forces for counter-guerrilla operations—which is the way to eliminate the guerrillas’ internal sanctuary. To return to Mao’s adage, we need to “drain the lake.” Of course, the main goal is to develop an Iraqi constabulary that eventually can do the heavy lifting in maintaining internal security.

But we also have to secure the borders between Iraq and its neighbors, especially Iran and Syria. These countries need to understand that they will pay dearly for supporting the jihadists that cross their borders into Iraq. Those who believe this is a diplomatic issue need to recall the observation of Frederick the Great: “Diplomacy without force is like music without instruments.”

Iraq is not like Vietnam. The conditions are entirely different. If we can isolate the guerrillas, they will die on the vine. The point is that we can do this. We have waged successful counter-guerrilla campaigns before. The Marines have a book on guerrilla war: The Small Wars Manual, first compiled in 1940 and recently reissued. But we also have to realize that counter-guerrilla operations are manpower-intensive. Guerrilla wars are not won without blanketing the guerrilla strongholds. As Edward Luttwak recently observed, many of the troops we have in Iraq are part of combat-service support units. They are necessary, but they aren’t trained to do the aggressive patrolling that a counter-guerrilla campaign requires. We need to get serious about this at the operational level. Otherwise, we risk the danger of losing a kind of war we should be able to win relatively easily.

In the future, I plan to address the way politicians and reporters misunderstand the Vietnam War. After all, if you’re going to use Vietnam as a club to beat up U.S. policy and strategy in Iraq, you should be required to know something about the policy and strategy of Vietnam. As Will Rogers is reputed to have said, “It’s not the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t true.”

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.