The last time the United States lulled itself into thinking that a military surge was working was January 1968, just before the Tet lunar New Year ushered in the Year of the Monkey. Gen. William Westmoreland, commanding America's half million troops in Vietnam, assured President Johnson that 65 percent of the South Vietnamese population was living in secure areas, with "victory in sight."
America was shocked when it got the news that early on the morning of Jan. 31, 1968, a hole had been blown in the wall of the United States Embassy in Saigon. The compound was occupied by Communist forces, while other targets throughout Saigon and a hundred other cities in South Vietnam were under attack.
The last of the communist offensive was repulsed by Feb. 23. That allowed the U.S. military to claim victory, but the Tet Offensive was a major blow. Only when the cable traffic was released after the war did we learn that U.S. commanders had contemplated using nuclear weapons to counter the attacks. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called it "a near thing," while advising Johnson that this "major, powerful nationwide assault has by no means run its course."
This was indeed the case when the Communists launched another mini-Tet offensive three months later, shelling Saigon with 122 mm Russian rockets and driving American casualties back toward their February level of 500 a week.
In March 1968, after squeaking out a narrow victory in the New Hampshire presidential primary over anti-war challenger Eugene McCarthy, Lyndon Johnson quit the race and partially halted the bombing of North Vietnam. In May, the Paris peace talks began, inaugurating the torturous process that would end, seven years later, with America's disorderly retreat from Vietnam.
Claims that victory is at hand in the Iraq war are as fatuous and unsubstantiated as Westmoreland's belief in 1968 that he was seeing "the light at the end of the tunnel." In spite of the optimistic talk coming from Baghdad that "civilian deaths have decreased by 62 percent," the metrics measuring progress in Iraq are no more believable than they were 40 years ago in Vietnam. In fact, America's military adventure in Iraq is even less sustainable than it was in Vietnam.
In 1968, the United States had a military draft and a surplus of 18-year-olds, and it had yet to commit any of its Reserve or National Guard units to the war. Today, the United States has 160,000 troops in Iraq, many of them reservist and national guard forces (not counting Blackwater and other hired guns). Regardless of the situation on the ground, these troops will soon be coming to the end of their 15-month tours of duty. There is no draft and no possibility of instituting one, and there are not enough fresh units to replace those in the field. The military is finding it hard to keep up enlistments, even with lowered standards, and junior officers are refusing to re-up.
U.S. military commanders are aware that maintaining, never mind increasing, U.S. forces in Iraq is a logistical impossibility. And so are the Iraqis. Iraqi forces opposed to the U.S. occupation have not been eliminated, but are merely lying low. The media focus on al-Qaida is misleading, since it is a minor component in this war compared to the various Sunni and Shiite militias, who for their own reasons have temporarily suspended attacks on U.S. forces and each other's civilians.
Borrowing a page from the playbook of Lawrence of Arabia, the United States has put the Shiite militias and Sunni tribes on the U.S. payroll. Infusions of cold cash, in a conflict already costing more than $2 billion a week, have created a welfare warfare state, with many of Iraq's insurgent forces being fed, trained and equipped by the United States. But incorporating one-time insurgents into U.S.-backed paramilitary groups guarantees neither their future loyalty nor the future stability of Iraq. Leaders of the Shiite and Sunni militias know full well that the number of U.S. boots on the ground will be going down later this year, which is when the real battle for control of neighborhoods, cities, regions, and oil will begin in earnest.
On Jan. 5, the U.S. military command in Baghdad revealed that an Iraqi soldier had opened fire on the Americans in his joint patrol, on the day after Christmas, killing two soldiers and wounding three others. We can expect more incidents like this as American forces begin to dwindle next summer. In the meantime, the calm prevailing over Tet in Iraq has the same eerie unreality that it had 40 years ago in Vietnam.
Welcome to the Year of the Rat.
Thomas Bass teaches at the University at Albany. His book on Vietnam, "The Spy Who Loved Us," will be published later this year. Maurice Isserman teaches at Hamilton College. He is co-author of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s."
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