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Commentary: Quagmire in the making

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Senior Writer   |   July 1, 2003 at 7:32 PM
WASHINGTON, July 1 (UPI) -- Has the U.S. got itself into a quagmire in Iraq? Are there parallels between the current conflict and the Vietnam morass a generation ago? Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld says categorically: No. He should not be so sure.

Granted, we live in a goofy era marked by a tendency to draw hair-brained analogies. A demented German government minister and a befuddled Protestant cleric in the U.S. compared George W. Bush with Hitler. The surgical air raids on Kabul and Baghdad have been likened to the allied carpet-bombing in Europe in World War II.

Liberal Christians love putting evangelicals on the same evil level with Muslim terrorists, calling both "fundamentalists." When rival African tribesmen clobber each other you can rest assured that some pundit evokes the specter of Auschwitz. Such are the ways of this anti-historical society.

History never fully repeats itself because you cannot again assemble the same set of circumstances that caused any given situation. But elements of historical events do occur again. And this is what must be considered here.

As one who covered the Vietnam War for five years and then the peace movement in the U.S., I realize that there are major differences between that conflict and the diffuse kind of guerilla war that is now evidently evolving in Iraq.

For one thing, the enemy the United States and its allies faced in Vietnam was extraordinarily well organized and directed from outside the country. Behind local Vietcong guerilla units lay the tightly structured Lao Dong (Communist) party of North Vietnam, which was linked to the world's other superpower -- the Soviet Union.

Nothing comparable exists in Iraq.

Furthermore, America's involvement in the Far East suffered immensely from a lack of political willpower in Washington. I agree with those Vietnam-era diplomats, historians, strategists and intelligence officers who now say that this war could have been won with more commitment on the home front.

Indeed, among those of us covering combat operations during that conflict's defining event - the 1968 Tet Offensive - there are many who believe that at that point the U.S. had actually won the war militarily. Some 40,000 Vietcong died in this offensive, which thus destroyed their infrastructure.

At the same time, however, Tet was the beginning of America's political defeat in Vietnam - because of the way the U.S. public judged the conflict's progress. It based its views on horrible images piped into people's living rooms every night - and on inappropriate punditry, culminating in this brash pronouncement by Walter Cronkite before millions of CBS viewers:

"It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could." In other words: contrary to military evidence, Cronkite declared the war as lost - and much of the public followed his assessment.

Here, then, do I see an important parallel between then and now. What matters is not what really occurs in the field; what matters is how the television audience reacts to snippets of information coming over the airwaves.

Every morning, Americans are being treated to the latest casualty reports: two or three GIs killed by sniper or rocket fire north of Baghdad; demonstrations of Iraqi citizens dissatisfied with the progress of their country's reconstruction; reports of a mounting frustration among soldiers and Marines, especially reservists who would rather be at home with their families and in their civilian jobs than sweltering in 100-degree temperatures, disgusted with corrupt and ineffectual Iraqi counterparts.

All this gives those of us haunted by powerful memories of the Vietnam era a sense of "déjà entendu" - we have heard it all before. We hear first reports of slurs against the Iraqis. This is particularly troubling considering that similar expressions of disdain for the South Vietnamese - the "gook" and "dink" epithets -- did not come until relatively late in that conflict, when the morale of the U.S. forces was already gone.

For all their generosity, Americans tend to have two shortcomings working against them in this war as in Vietnam. First, they desire something no "real imperialists," such as the British and the French of another era, found essential: they want to be loved.

They can't understand why Iraqis, freshly liberated from a despot, should now whirl around in anti-American gyrations. Almost 40 years ago, in 1966, Americans were baffled by television images of the throngs of Buddhist monks in Saigon's streets, some burning themselves to death.

Of course what the public did not see then were the sallow "jungle coloring" of these monks' faces, contrasting with their gleaming white scalps. Today we know what many of us suspected at the time - many of these "monks," especially the younger ones, were in reality Communist guerillas who had just had their heads shaved and been infiltrated into the Buddhists' ranks. In truth they were not clerics but enemy troopers.

The Americans' second weakness in conflicts like these is their impatience. Sir Robert Thompson, the British counter-insurgency expert, advised the United States to take its time fighting the Vietcong, just as it had taken Britain decades to defeat Communist guerillas in Malaya. His suggestion to take an unspectacular, low-scale and low-casualty approach was not listened to. America was in a hurry.

Today, I fear, America's enemies in Iraq are once again counting on her growing sense of exasperation. Every news report about U.S. casualties works in their favor; little by little this will whittle down the public's resolve to support this war effort, however long it will take. And we can be certain that in time politicians - and media people -- will find this a promising bandwagon to jump on.

Of course if the electronic media decided to end their superfluous daily body count and their sop stories about the discomfort of men and women serving in hot Baghdad, they would do their great country a great favor. But to expect that much would be unrealistic.

And so, yes, Iraq is becoming a "ground that shakes and yields" under the feet of its occupiers - which is Webster's definition of a quagmire.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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