Iraq and Vietnam

As the confrontation over Iraq escalates between President Bush and Congress, the current wave of violence in Baghdad includes one distinctive event: A terrorist bomb in a cafeteria within the national parliament building killed a member of the legislature, and wounded many others.

Ominously, insurgents have now breached one of the most “secure” locations in the country. They not only killed and injured people, but punctured the Pentagon posture that the enormous Baghdad bunker known as the “Green Zone” is in fact secure.

As the American military ordeal in the Persian Gulf has dragged on, far longer than the Bush White House initially anticipated, parallels increasingly are drawn with our experience in Vietnam. This is understandable, though the two wars remain very distinctive. For example, there is no persuasive evidence that the armed insurrection in Iraq has yet achieved the very broad support for the revolutionary National Liberation Front (NLF) in South Vietnam.

The NLF military arm, the Viet Cong, demonstrated highly disciplined unity that contrasts with the factionalized fighting in Iraq. There is also so far no counterpart to the heavily armed conventional forces of North Vietnam. Iran is not in a similar role, though that regime may ultimately benefit most from the situation.

However, NLF tactics and strategy are germane to serious analysis of Iraq. That organization was exceptionally impressive in gathering and exploiting inside information regarding activities and intentions of the South Vietnamese — and of the Americans.

A U.S. Army Green Beret major, who spent a year in Vietnam during the first half of the 1960s, went on to serve as an instructor in the ROTC unit at UCLA. He described to attentive students and others the very eerie experience of hearing a letter from his wife read over Radio Hanoi. When he received the same missive in the mail some time thereafter, the envelope was sealed and apparently pristine, with no evidence at all of tampering.

Henry Kissinger was involved in Vietnam policy as a consultant to the Pentagon during Lyndon Johnson’s administration, before he became national security adviser to President Richard Nixon. He told a Harvard audience in advance of assuming the White House post that he had become convinced the revolutionaries in Vietnam were not anxious for the Americans to leave. Among other considerations, the black market had become so pervasive that a large percentage of the materiel shipped for South Vietnamese and U.S. forces was diverted instead to revolutionary hands.

American society emphasizes a very practical empirical approach to life, and officials applied this perspective to the Vietnam conflict. Under Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, body counts and weapons captured became the measure of progress, reinforced by false assumptions about urban areas being “secure.” In the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Viet Cong struck every major city and town in South Vietnam, destroying U.S. claims about security.

Likewise, tremendous emphasis was placed on locating and destroying COSVN (Central Office South Vietnam), the alleged headquarters of the NLF. When massive B-52 bombing raids resulted in major secondary explosions, analysts were immediately pressured by the high command to confirm that COSVN at last had been hit.

COSVN was a vital enemy organ, but never a fixed physical location. Rather, a group of highly intelligent, fanatically dedicated people were constantly on the move, replaced by others when killed or captured.

Americans also characteristically value imagination and innovation, often driven by commerce. In evaluating our nation’s leaders, regarding this war and other matters, you should apply this test.


(Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He can be reached at acyr(at)