Senator Kennedy, Iraq is No Vietnam

Mackubin T. Owens

April 1, 2004

In a speech on Monday, Senator Ted Kennedy asserted that Iraq has become “George Bush’s Vietnam.” This charge, popular among Democrats, makes it clear that the senior gasbag from Massachusetts understands neither Iraq nor Vietnam. The upturn in violence in Iraq notwithstanding, I believe that the points I made in my November article, “No Comparison,” are still valid. Indeed, Coalition forces are taking the steps I suggested. This doesn’t mean I am particularly smart; it simply means that the steps I suggested constitute military common sense.

In “No Comparison,” I observed 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, inflict casualties in ambushes or by mining roads, shoot down a helicopter on occasion, and even mass for an attack, as they did in Ramadi on Tuesday. 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. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas operated in conjunction with the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN), a conventional force we referred to as the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

The insurgents in Iraq lack anything like the coherent strategy pursued by Hanoi against the Americans and South Vietnamese. Both the VC and PAVN operated in South Vietnam under the direction of the Lao Dong party in Hanoi, which followed a strategy called dau tranh (struggle). Dau tranh consisted of two operational elements: dau tranh vu trang (armed struggle) and dau tranh chinh tri (political struggle), which were envisioned as a hammer and anvil or pincers that crush the enemy. Armed dau tranh had a strategy “for regular forces” and another for “protracted conflict.” Regular-force strategy included both high-tech and limited offensive warfare; protracted conflict included both Maoist and neo-revolutionary guerrilla warfare. Political dau tranh included dich van (action among the enemy), binh van (action among the military), and dan van (action among the people).

From 1959, when the Lao Dong party in Hanoi decided to launch dau tranh in the south, until 1965, political dau tranh prevailed. Then it shifted to armed dau tranh until mid-1968. Two more full cycles followed: political dau tranh from 1969 to 1971, armed dau tranh from 1972 to 1973, political dau tranh from 1974 to 1975, and a hurried shift to armed dau tranh as Saigon collapsed in 1975.

In other words, contrary to the belief of those who invoke comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq, the former was not primarily a guerrilla war. Unlike what is going on in Iraq today, there were major conventional aspects of the war. The strategic thrust that culminated in the battle of Ia Drang in 1965 (portrayed in the Mel Gibson movie, “We Were Soldiers”), was part of armed dau tranh regular-force strategy, as was the 1972 Easter Offensive, and the final push in the spring of 1975. But after Ia Drang until 1967, armed dau tranh seems to have followed a protracted war rather than regular-force strategy. In fact, to defeat dau tranh both arms of the pincer had to be blunted. Unfortunately while the United States able to defeat armed dau tranh, it never dealt successfully with political dau tranh, which led ultimately to defeat.

In “No Comparison” I also observed that guerrillas require a secure sanctuary to operate. 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 conventional wisdom 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.

But with time and perseverance, an army can always defeat guerrillas acting alone, especially if it can optimize its force structure for counter-guerrilla operations. Thus, I believe my original point still holds: since there is no enemy conventional force in being, anti-Coalition forces can harass the U.S. forces and inflict casualties, but they cannot prevail unless we permit them to.

Coalition forces are now doing what is necessary to defeat the guerrillas. They are organizing themselves optimally to fight the guerrillas. They are isolating the Baathist regions. They are developing good intelligence and acting on it quickly. In Fallujah, the Marines have begun an operation reminiscent of the “country fair” operations in Vietnam: isolating a guerrilla stronghold, preventing anyone from entering or leaving, and them systematically identifying, capturing, or killing the trapped guerrillas. This is a useful method of eliminating the guerrillas’ internal sanctuary.

But we also have to secure the borders between Iraq and its neighbors, especially Iran and Syria. Recent operations are focusing on this requirement. For instance, Robert Alt, an Ashbrook Adjunct Fellow in Iraq, sent this CENTCOM press release on Wednesday describing the operations around Ar Ramadi and Fallujah:

Operations from the Syrian border to the Baghdad suburbs have resulted in the capture or death of a significant number of anti-Iraqi Forces and foreign terrorists. To the west, a combination of the ongoing efforts in the Husaybah and Al Qa’im regions are undercutting the ability of the anti-Iraqi Forces to import foreign fighters, cash and equipment. Heightened operations to the east, to include the cordon around Fallujah and combat operations in other major cities in the Al Anbar Province, are drawing out anti-Iraqi Forces.

As I concluded in November, Iraq is not like Vietnam. There is no PAVN to prevent Coalition forces from optimizing for guerrilla war. There is no anti-Coalition strategy akin to Hanoi’s dau tranh. There is no external sanctuary of the scope enjoyed by Hanoi during the Vietnam War. If we isolate the guerrillas, they will die on the vine. And we can. There is nothing new about fighting guerrillas. 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.

Perhaps pacifying the Sunni triangle, disbanding the Shia militias, and arresting the rabble-rousing Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, are steps that should have been taken earlier. The failure to do was no doubt the result of undue optimism about the postwar situation or America’s desire to be loved rather than feared.

But it is too late for “shoulda, coulda, woulda.” Machiavelli reminds us that the reverse is true: it is better to be feared than loved. Indeed, numerous experts on the Middle East point out that the Iraqis may have interpreted U.S. restraint as weakness. I believe that the new approach indicates that the Coalition is getting serious about extirpating the guerrillas. The Marines in Iraq have adhered to a simple principle: “no better friend, no worse enemy.” That’s a pretty good guide to action for the Coalition as a whole.

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.