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Iraq-Vietnam comparison inevitable

by Scott Taylor - 8 June 2005

It has been two years now since the first signs became evident that the US occupation of Iraq would become a bloody fiasco.

On 26 May 2003 the White House announced that the interim military Governor of Iraq Jay Garner was to be replaced with Ambassador Paul Bremer.

At this juncture, the frenzy of widespread post-invasion looting had petered out to a state of violent anarchy, and three weeks earlier, President George Bush had declared "mission accomplished" aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

Nevertheless, as the random civil disobedience dissipated, it soon became clear that a nucleus of armed resistance was forming among certain angry elements of the Iraqi population.

In predominantly Sunni urban centres such as Falluja the fighters were successful in forcing the American patrols off the streets.

Only weeks after they had toppled Saddam, the US troops who were told they would be hailed as liberators, were being gunned down in brutal ambushes which left civilian bystanders cheering and dancing.

Although US State Department officials repeatedly stated that Garner had not been fired his replacement by Bremer was an acknowledgment that America's post-war plans had already gone astray.

Military commanders admitted that US troops were experiencing an increase in hostile engagements, but the Pentagon dismissed these as "acts of desperation by Saddam loyalists".

Any suggestion that the situation was slipping towards a guerrilla war was vehemently denied.

However, a month later, the Iraqi fighters launched a series of coordinated attacks, which left eight American soldiers dead on 1 July 2003.

The following day, a visibly perturbed President Bush had challenged the rebels to "Bring it on!" Apparently Bush's comments struck a receptive chord among the insurgents and "bring it on" they certainly did.

By 28 August 2003, the post-war death toll of American soldiers had climbed to 139 one more than had been killed during the actual combat operations.

Given the mounting scale and scope of the conflict, US generals were by now using the term "quagmire" to describe the worsening situation.

The fighters, however, the rebels were still referred to as Saddam loyalists, and any suggested parallel with Vietnam was dismissed with the prediction that resistance would collapse once the elusive ex-Iraqi dictator had been captured.

Fast forward to December 2003, when American soldiers proudly pulled a dishevelled, bewildered Saddam from his primitive dirt "hidey-hole".

Contrary to US expectations, the televised appearance of the former president in humiliating captivity did nothing to diminish the guerrilla attacks against occupation forces.

By early 2004, once it became clear that America was involved in a protracted guerrilla war, the comparison of Iraq to the US experience in Vietnam could no longer be logically denied.

Of course there are fundamental differences. In terms of terrain, the triple canopy jungles of the Mekong delta are certainly not the barren expanses of the Syrian desert, and unlike the Vietcong guerrillas, the Iraqi insurgents are not supported by the regular formations and heavy weaponry fielded by the North Vietnamese Army.

And, although there were factious ethnic divisions involved in the South East Asia of conflict, they cannot be compared to the deep-rooted fear and distrust between Iraq's polyglot religious and ethnic minorities.

It must also be noted that when America first became involved in the Vietnam war it was to prop up the existing South Vietnamese government and to bolster its already formed military units.

Nevertheless, throughout that decade-long conflict, despite the wholesale provision of training, modern weapons and equipment, the US attempt to make the South Vietnamese Army a viable combat force proved to be a singular failure.

When pitted against their fellow countrymen, the South Vietnamese units tended to lack resolve.

Contrast the Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers who often displayed a suicidal courage which prompted many a US general to ask: "Why can't our gooks fight like their gooks?"

Despite the failure of its policy in Vietnam, the Pentagon has seized upon the "Iraqification" of Iraqi security forces as the solution to battling the insurgency in Iraq.

It is hoped that by December of this year the Iraqi police force and army will be sufficiently trained and equipped so as to enable the US military to begin withdrawing the majority of their occupation forces.

However, the Iraqi Security Forces have yet to display any consistency in combat against insurgents and their loyalty has often been called into question.

Unlike the South Vietnamese soldiers who would quietly desert their trenches, there have been a number of occasions when Iraqi police have turned against their American military counterparts in the middle of a firefight.

The open collusion between many of the police units and the insurgents is widely known to US soldiers on the ground, and for that reason the security forces are not equipped with night vision goggles, armoured vehicles or heavy weaponry.

Nevertheless, the Pentagon continues to pin its hopes on a Vietnam-style "peace with honour" pullout based on its ability to build an Iraqi army by Christmas.

Already one can hear exasperated US generals wondering aloud: "Why can't our hajis fight like their hajis?"

- Scott Taylor, 8 June 2005

Former Canadian soldier Scott Taylor is the editor of Esprit de Corps military magazine and a veteran war correspondent. He has visited Iraq 20 times since August 2000 and is the author of Spinning on the Axis of Evil: America's War against Iraq and Among the Others: Encounters with the Forgotten Turkmen of Iraq. Last September he was held hostage for five days in northern Iraq by Ansar al-Islam Mujahadin.

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revised 18 November 2005