John Keegan is the pre-eminent military historian of our times. He was prompted today to write an op-ed for the Daily Telegraph by President Bush’s statement in a recent interview agreeing with the notion that what is going on today in Iraq is comparable to the Tet Offensive. Tet was launched by the combined forces of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong in early 1968. It ended a year and a half later as a ruinous military failure, but a massive propaganda success. The fact that the enemy in Vietnam could launch an assault in South Vietnamese territory on 40 towns and cities made American leadership’s promises of “a light at the end of the tunnel” appear to be foolish pipe dreams and/or base lies.
Bush’s fiercest foes like the Tet comparison because that offensive caused Lyndon Johnson to drop out of the race for re-election. Keegan is unhappy that Bush bought into the Tet analogy:
His admission can do nothing but harm, certainly to him and to his administration, but also to the US forces in general and to the servicemen in Iraq in particular.
A large part of the reason for that is the lack of comparability between Iraq and Vietnam. Anyone familiar with both situations will be struck by the dissimilarities, particularly of scale and in the nature of the enemy.
By January 1968, total American casualties in Vietnam — killed, wounded and missing — had reached 80,000 and climbing. Eventually deaths in combat and from other causes would exceed 50,000, of which 36,000 were killed in action. Casualties in Iraq are nowhere near those figures. In a bad week in Vietnam, the US could suffer 2,000 casualties. Since 2003, American forces in Iraq have never suffered as many as 500 casualties a month. The number of casualties inflicted in Iraq are not established, but are under 50,000. In any year of the Vietnam war, the communist party of North Vietnam sent 200,000 young men to the battlefields in the south, most of whom did not return. Vietnam was one of the largest and costliest wars in history. The insurgency in Iraq resembles one of the colonial disturbances of imperial history.
There is a good reason for the difference. The Vietnamese communists had organised and operated a countryside politico-military organisation with branches in almost every village. The North Vietnamese People’s Army resembled that of an organised Western state. It conscripted recruits throughout the country, trained, organised and equipped them.
The Iraqi insurgency, by contrast, is an informal undertaking by a coalition of religious and ex-Ba’athist groups. It has no high command or bureaucracy resembling the disciplined Marxist structures of North Vietnam. It has some support from like-minded groups in neighbouring countries, but nothing to compare with the North Vietnamese international network, which was supported by China and the Soviet Union and imported arms and munitions from both those countries on a large scale.
North Vietnam was, moreover, a sovereign state, supported explicitly by all other communist countries and by many sympathetic regimes in the Third World. The Iraqi insurgency has sympathisers, but they enjoy no organised system of support and are actively opposed by many of their neighbours and Muslim co-religionists.
The whole thing’s worth reading, as are the highly disputatious comments that follow. Some think Keegan missed the point of Bush’s comment — that in fact Bush was agreeing with Keegan that Tet was a failure of the battlefield, but a success in turning the American media against the war. (That is not how Bush’s “admission” was played on the news broadcasts I heard.) Others think the comparison with Vietnam is, in fact, quite apt:
Mr. Keegan has missed one very crucial similarity between Iraq & Vietnam: Mr. Bush avoided fighting personally in both wars. And yet he urges us to “stay the course”, “get the job done”, and accuses others of “cut-and-run.” What a fine example he sets.
Although Mr. Keegan may very well deserve his reputation as an astute military historian, he is just that – an historian, and not in the war. 50,000 dead and 2,000 dead may seem different to a historian, but it is no difference at all to the families of the dead. I daresay anyone who uses cold numbers to justify this war, has not lost a loved one in this war.
If America or Britain were occupied and thousands of our citizens killed due to “collateral damage”, it would be quite understandable if many of us were willing to fight to the death to expel the occupiers from our home – no matter how many years it took. Many people around the world would likely do the same – including people in Iraq and Vietnam, and even Mr. Bush or Mr. Keegan. Maybe.
But of course, that is not how we see Iraq. In this “War on Terror”, as we sit comfortably in our living rooms surfing the Internet half a world away, it is WE who feel terrorized.
For myself, I’m amazed that Keegan — whose books are great; vivid and thought-provoking — sees what’s going on in Iraq as comparable to a “colonial disturbance.” It is far more significant than that.
The Islamist war against the West and the West’s response is going to be essentially about perception and persuasion for the foreseeable future; but there’s no question Iraq is where that war is happening now — where our soldiers are dying, and where the enemy is going for broke. Keegan is right that the force we face there is not organized or equipped like a real army — but if anything, that’s why the situation is so dire for us. We can’t afford to lose to such a ragged force, but we don’t know how to overcome them and pacify the land we’ve conquered. This underequipped, disorganized and divided enemy is calling the tune. How did we ever let ourselves get into such a posture?