Through a scrim of red, dry-season dust, the sign appeared like an apparition hanging low over the no-man's land of the South Vietnamese-Lao border: "Warning! No US Personnel Beyond This Point." Its big, white expanse was already festooned with grunt graffiti, both American and Vietnamese. It was February, 1971, the afternoon before the invasion of Laos, and the sign but the latest bizarre development in the Pentagon's campaign to "Vietnamize" the war in Vietnam. The journalists who had hoofed it all the way to the border found the sign so grimly funny that we lined up for a group photo in front of it.
It all started in late 1969, when President Richard Nixon announced the first withdrawal of American soldiers from South Vietnam and their replacement by South Vietnamese troops. The new policy was dubbed "Vietnamization" by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and hailed as the beginning of the end of America's war in that land. But the North Vietnamese leadership in Hanoi wasn't fooled for a minute. The communists believed Vietnamization was only intended to de-Americanize the war, not to end it.
Hanoi was right -- more right than anybody at the time could have imagined. In the five-plus years of war that followed, more than 20,000 American soldiers would still die; Nixon would actually widen the war by invasions of both Cambodia and Laos; and brutal American bombing campaigns would kill over a million more Indochinese. In fact, more Indochinese and Americans would be killed or wounded during the Vietnamization years than in the war before 1970.
While comparisons to Vietnam and terms from that era like "quagmire," "hearts and minds," and "body counts" swamped the media the moment the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, "Vietnamization" didn't make it into the mix until that November. Then, the White House, which initially shied off anything linked to Vietnam, launched a media campaign to roll out what they were calling "Iraqification," perhaps as an answer to critics who doubted the "mission" had actually been "accomplished" and feared that there was no "light at the end of the [Iraqi] tunnel." But the term was quickly dropped. Perhaps it resurrected too many baby-boomer memories of Vietnamese clinging to the skids of choppers fleeing the fruits of Vietnamization.
It seems, however, that there is no way of keeping failed Washington policies in their graves, once the dead of night strikes. I was amazed, when, in 2005, in Foreign Affairs magazine, Melvin Laird resurrected a claim that his "Vietnamization" policy had actually worked and plugged for "Iraqification" of the war there. Soon after, journalist Seymour Hersh, famed for his reportage on the Vietnam-era My Lai massacre (and the Iraq-era Abu Ghraib abuses), reported in the New Yorker that the Vietnamization policy of the Nixon era was indeed being reclothed and returned to us -- with similarly planned American drawdowns of ground troops and a ramping up of American air power -- and I wondered if we could be suffering a moment of mass post-traumatic stress syndrome.
When General George William Casey, Jr. -- whose father, a major general, died in Vietnam in July 1970 -- announced in June 2006 that the Pentagon might soon begin the first American troop withdrawals from Iraq, I couldn't help wondering where the Iraqi version of that sign might eventually go up. In the desert? On the Iranian or the Syrian border? (The "withdrawals" were, however, rescinded before even being put into effect in the face of an all-out civil war in Baghdad.)
However it feels to anyone else, it's distinctly been flashback city for me ever since. One of the great, failed, unspeakably cynical, blood-drenched policies of the Vietnam era, whose carnage I witnessed as a reporter in Cambodia and Vietnam, was being dusted off for our latest disaster of an imperial war. Some kind of brutal regression was upon us. It was the return of the repressed or reverse evolution. It was enough to drive a war-worn journalist to new heights of despair.
While brooding about Iraqification, I was reminded of what historian and Vietnam-era New York Times journalist A.J. Langguth said about Vietnamization. "By , well over a hundred thousand [South] Vietnamese soldiers were dead, crops destroyed, cities in ruins, and we're talking about Vietnamization as though the Vietnamese weren't already bearing the brunt of the war," he told historian Christian G. Appy for his oral history of the Vietnam War, Patriots. "It was one of those words that gave a reassuring ring in Washington, but it was really insulting."
A point well taken as Iraqification is heralded in the land.
The Sound of Vietnamization
One night back in 1971 on the Lao border, not far from that big, white sign, I was to witness Vietnamization in action in its starkest terms. Two photographers, another reporter, and I were camped out with South Vietnamese Army troops who were to lead the next morning's invasion of Laos. (As it happened, the Vietnam War lacked a speech-writerly slogan like President Bush's, "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down," but the policy was the same.) What I heard then was three sharp cracks, the sound -- we figured later -- of cluster bombs hitting the ground no more than twenty feet from us, mistakenly dropped by an American Navy bomber. A hurricane clatter of shrapnel fanned out toward us. It felt like sharing the same foxhole with a machine gun drawn dead on you. As the universe exploded in flames, our brains were blasted blank.
We thrashed for cover in what seemed like slow motion. Minutes later, with the plane long gone, the slopes around us were drenched in blood and strewn with the broken bodies, shredded or pockmarked with shrapnel, of hundreds of young Vietnamese soldiers. Helping drag the wounded to the medics, I left my tape recorder running. For me, the screams recorded on that tape have remained forever the sound of Vietnamization.
The Air Force called it "precision" bombing back then -- and still does. In guerrilla war, where fighters live among civilians, no bombing missions, no matter how carefully targeted, can avoid killing civilians. The Pentagon reports that, right now, on average on any given day, 45 American and British war planes are in the air over Iraq, plus Army, Marine and Special Forces helicopters. Most of the bombing is being done by American F-15s and F-16s from bases outside Iraq and F-14s and F/A-18s from carriers in the Persian Gulf. They mostly drop 500 pound bombs, though Hellfire-missile-armed Predator drones and other unmanned aircraft do their share of damage, and in Afghanistan both B-52s, those old Vietnam warhorses, and B-1s have been called in. In addition, as one would expect in a "Vietnamization" program, the number of air strikes has risen sharply in recent months. Last summer, air missions in Iraq averaged 25 a month; by last November, they had jumped to 120 a month and have remained at that level ever since.
Occasionally, American military commanders remark that civilian casualties, sanitized with the euphemism "collateral damage," are regrettable; but, in areas where local residents are believed to support the guerrillas, civilian casualties may actually be the goal rather than so many mistakes. In Vietnam, the Pentagon created "free fire zones" in the countryside where any living thing was fair game. The theory was simple, if bloody-minded: If the guerrillas swam in the sea of the peasants, as Chinese Communist leader Mao Ze Dong had so famously argued, then, as American counterinsurgency experts were fond of explaining, it was necessary to "drain the sea."
With last week's announcement that more American troops were being rushed to Baghdad to put a brake on the fast-developing civil war in the capital, we may be seeing a new twist on the old theme of Vietnamization -- Americans may up the use of air power in al-Anbar Province and elsewhere in the heartland of the Sunni insurgency as a substitute for troops "drawn-down" to Baghdad. As I saw in Indochina, however, air operations rarely succeed anywhere as a substitute for crack ground troops. They can kill enormous numbers of people without significantly tipping the military balance.
Here's how one helicopter pilot described the effectiveness of air ops during Lam Son 719 (the official name for the invasion of Laos): "Before the first insertion of ARVN [South Vietnamese] troops on one firebase, we laid in B-52 raids, tac air, and napalm for five hours. Then we waited a half hour and went in. Our first three helicopters were shot down. There were still a million guys out there."
Flunking Counterinsurgency 101
In his recent book Fiasco and accompanying articles in the Washington Post, reporter Thomas Ricks argues that neither the American military, nor the Bush administration learned even the most elementary counterinsurgency lessons from Vietnam. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Ricks reports, has refused even to admit that his troops were fighting a guerrilla war in Iraq, just as the Pentagon insisted in Vietnam that the North Vietnamese were the real enemy, discounting the guerrillas in the South.
The use of high profile, aggressive tactics like round-ups, constant patrolling, indiscriminate firepower, and the abuse of prisoners has alienated civilians in Iraq just as such tactics did in South Vietnam. When American soldiers in Iraq complain -- just as they did in Vietnam -- that the enemy "melts" away or that they're "hiding" among civilians, it's because, on some very basic level, they and their commanders just don't get how a guerrilla war actually works.
One American general I interviewed in Vietnam was incredulous when I told him that I attended a Vietnamese wedding in the largest, most "secure" provincial capital in the Mekong Delta, only to discover that about half the guests were National Liberation Front (NLF) officials -- that is, southern guerrillas.
He was no less shocked to hear about a day I spent in 1971 in a "secure" Delta village watching most of the residents line up placidly to vote for the only candidate on the ballot, American-backed President Nguyen Van Thieu. The next morning, back in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, I found an NLF flag in my hotel mailbox wrapped in a message from those same villagers. The point they were making was a simple one about the hidden complexities of that war. The NLF, they explained, had decided to urge the villagers to vote for Thieu so that the area would continue to look "secure" and village support for the NLF would remain under the radar screen.
Recently, the Pentagon claimed that it was changing course in its counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq, each zig and zag like this one seemingly intent on replicating the worst of that long-gone era. In an eerie echo of Vietnamization, the old, failed military policy of "clear and hold" -- the idea of clearing designated limited areas of guerrillas and supportive civilians, securing those areas, and then, in "ink blot" fashion, spreading out from there -- is being resuscitated. It is meant to replace the modern equivalent of General William Westmoreland's discredited big-unit "search and destroy" operations. In Iraq, however, in a deft, cynical PR twist, the phrase has been recoined as "clear, hold, and rebuild." (No matter that Iraqi "reconstruction," long ago bankrupted by corruption, cronyism, and pure administration incompetence, has already wound down without a "mission accomplished" banner in sight.)
Standing Up or Standing Down?
Well, forget "rebuild." Key to whatever new strategy does exist is the Bush administration's stumbling, fumbling, already bloody Iraqification policy aimed at "standing up" a national army. Our media dutifully passes on the administration's impressive stats on new troops and police trained. Critics insist those troops are ill-equipped and badly trained.
I remember identical glowing reports on American-trained troops in South Vietnam in the early 1970s. Unfortunately, deeper questions about the effectiveness of proxy armies are almost never explored. How do you really get them to do your bidding? How do you even make them believe that what they are doing is for them and not for you?
In South Vietnam, there was a draft for the army and, by 1970, when President Nixon was praising our efforts to create an effective indigenous force (as is George Bush today), the desertion rate was 50%. In Iraq, there's no military draft, but there is an economic one in which the desperate and jobless sign up because they can find no other way to get a half-decent paycheck or support their families. Many of them, like the South Vietnamese grunts I spent time with, are loyal to the idea of survival, not to a corrupt, divided, and ineffective government. Any number of these Iraqi young men are, in fact, already pledging allegiance to powerful Shiite militias, even while serving in the government's police or army.
Now the US finds itself fighting those same militias as well as the insurgents. American troops have battled the Mahdi Army on more than one occasion, have demanded the disbanding of Shiite militias and death squads to no avail, and are now being drawn into a Sunni/Shiite civil war, which is now killing an estimated 100 Iraqi civilians a day.
As George Orwell wrote in his famed essay, Shooting an Elephant, about his days as a British colonial policeman in the Burma of the 1920s, pesky locals always seem to manage to muck up the best laid plans of foreign occupiers, no matter how good those plans may look on paper or sound on the lips of high officials.
Two weeks into Lam Son 719, we international journalists mounted our daily assault on U.S. and South Vietnamese military flacks at the Saigon press briefing known then as the "five o'clock follies."
"Why haven't the so-called crack South Vietnamese troops from the First Division advanced even a meter in Laos in the last week?" my notes quote one exasperated reporter as asking. "Why did General Abrams [commander of American forces in South Vietnam] fly north yesterday?" shouted another. "General Lam [South Vietnamese commander of I Corps] will advance his troops when he desires to," the South Vietnamese military briefer answered stiffly. "General Abrams is reviewing the situation," his American counterpart added wearily.
It took only a few days for Vietnamese reporters to nail down the painfully obvious story. Lam Son 719 was an American construct -- we all knew that from the get-go. It was to be a major test of Vietnamization, wherein South Vietnamese troops were to, in today's parlance, decisively "stand up." But President Nguyen Van Thieu didn't like it much, his generals even less. When the invasion almost immediately turned into a rout, Thieu feared his generals might try to overthrow him.
Lt. General Hoang Xuan Lam commanded the only South Vietnamese troops tough enough to rescue the operation, but he was also the only general Thieu could depend on to block a coup in Saigon. He didn't want Lam's troops bogged down in Laos; he wanted them poised to rescue the "palace."
American planning, the shock-and-awe air ops of that moment, and pressure from the Pentagon simply couldn't prevail in the face of local politics on either side of the armed struggle. Former South Vietnamese Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, ever frustrated by how little "our" South Vietnamese followed his orders, once complained that when he told Prime Minister Nguyen Cao Ky something and Ky nodded yes, all it meant was that he understood what the Ambassador had just said, not that he would lift a finger to do it.
Those Pesky Proxies
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki hasn't exactly been rolling over for the White House recently either. He has demanded that American soldiers be subject to Iraqi courts, that Israeli attacks in Lebanon be stopped, and that the Bush administration send even more aid. In fact, so many of the Bush administration's manipulations in Iraq, including the financing of favorite candidates in elections and strong-arm pressure on the Iraqis to form a government more or less to our liking, have, for an old Vietnam hand, a painfully Yogi Berra-ish déjà vu all over again feel to them.
The Bush administration finds itself trapped in a contradiction even the United Nations has experienced: that democracy introduced by occupying forces is almost certain to prove undemocratic. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker was fond of telling reporters that the United States was "neutral" in South Vietnamese elections. But the American embassy worked tirelessly to manipulate Vietnamese politics: trying to hand-pick electoral candidates, approving the disqualification of "neutralist" ones, sanctioning a presidential race with only one candidate ("one man, one vote, and the man is Thieu," I headlined that one), okaying the jailing of Thieu's most serious opponents because they advocated negotiating with the communists, and making sure the South Vietnamese police were fully equipped to "neutralize" any other opponents -- especially from the South Vietnamese anti-war student movement. Eventually, with Vietnamization in ruins, the Nixon administration would pressure Thieu -- with absolutely no success -- to accept a "coalition government" so America could finally exit Vietnam with all due speed.
By 1970, a majority of Americans thought the Vietnam war was a mistake, almost exactly the same percentage now feels the same about Iraq. Back then, the White House clung for dear life to Vietnamization while Congress dithered. Now, the same holds true. Even the language -- "Cut and Run," "Stay the Course" -- remains largely the same, as the repetitive bankruptcy of the enterprise deadens even our linguistic life. As then, so now, the complications on the ground in Iraq seem insurmountable from the point of view of an administration and a Congress intent on maintaining what in the Vietnam era was called "credibility" and now has no name at all. George Orwell would have grasped what our politicians are going through: "...my whole life, every white man's life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at..." is how he summed up his Burmese days.
Every now and then, as yet another grim Vietnam déjà vu rockets by me, I think back to Senator George Aiken, the flinty moderate Republican from Vermont (the John Murtha of that time), who, tiring in 1966 of endless hand-wringing from his colleagues about how to get out of Vietnam, told the assembled solons one day that it wasn't hard. All we had to do was declare victory, Aiken said, and fly the troops home. That would have been real "Vietnamization."
Judith Coburn covered the war in Indochina from 1970-73 for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Village Voice, and Pacifica Radio. She is working on a memoir about Vietnam and the 1960s.
© 2006 Tom Engelhardt