Iraq: Stop the war in Iraq – Vietnam revisited

"People say to me, you (the Iraqis) are not the Vietnamese. You have no jungles and swamps to hide in. I reply, ‘Let our cities be our swamps and our buildings our jungles’." (Tariq Aziz, Iraqi deputy prime minister.)

Stop the war in Iraq. Revisiting Vietnam.

Revisiting Vietnam

The lessons of the Vietnam war are important in themselves. This 30-year war – 10,000 days in length – was the longest such conflict in the twentieth century. US imperialism deployed almost three million troops, 57,000 US soldiers had died by April 1975, at least two million Vietnamese workers and peasants perished, and unspeakable physical, economic and environmental horrors were visited on the Vietnamese people, the legacy of which is still with them today. However, Vietnam now correctly assumes a topical importance given the dramatic switch of US imperialism from ‘containment’ of regimes and movements it fears to Bush’s new ‘pre-emptive’ strike doctrine against ‘rogue states’, symbolised by the invasion of Iraq.

There are no exact parallels between Vietnam and the present war in Iraq. But there are enough uncanny similarities – airily dismissed by assorted ‘experts’ before the war – which now give Tariq Aziz’s comments some weight. It has now emerged that following their defeat in 1991 the Iraqis, anticipating an invasion by the US at some point, studied Vietnam and other conflicts like Somalia in preparation. They clearly concluded that an attempt at open set-piece confrontations with superior US-led forces, as happened to some extent in 1991, would lead to a swift victory for the US. Rumsfeld and Franks, with their expectation of quick victory, clearly thought that the Iraqi forces would oblige. Instead they have sought to learn from the guerrilla methods of the Vietnamese and others. There are big differences between Vietnam and Iraq: Vietnam was largely rural, Iraq is mainly urbanised, city ‘oases’ in a country of mainly desert. But as the war has shown already, Tariq Aziz is right; cities and buildings can become "swamps and jungles", a trap for an occupying force if urban guerrillas operate with the support of the population. The question is, can the Iraqis repeat the success of the Vietnamese in humbling the US? A brief comparison with the Vietnam war can serve to illuminate this issue.

Roots of the conflict

The Vietnam war began, in reality, in 1945 after Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh (the Vietnam League of Independence) had won overwhelming support throughout the country. During the second world war the Japanese had occupied the French colony of Vietnam. The power vacuum that resulted from the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was filled by the Vietminh. Largely unarmed they marched into the cities of the north, with huge crowds greeting the defeat of the Japanese. On 2 September 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence in front of half a million people in Hanoi. Soon afterwards, however, French rule was restored, supported by the British and USA, and the Vietminh was forced back into the rural areas. An eight-year guerrilla war ensued which only ended when the French surrendered, after a 45 day siege, at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The Vietminh had won the war but did not inherit the spoils. The US used the breathing space of the Geneva peace accords (which temporarily partitioned Vietnam into North and South) to build up a puppet regime in the south around Ngo Dinh-Diem. The Diem regime would not have lasted a week without the US prop, having no real basis amongst the population and resting ultimately on the landlords and their relatives in the army. In this situation of increased state oppression, the assassination of ‘communists’ and a growing alienation of the peasantry, comprising 85% of the population, the South Vietnamese ‘communists’ left behind after the partition clamoured for the northern leadership to recommence the struggle in the south. At the beginning Ho Chi Minh resisted, partly because of war weariness in the North from the struggle against the French, as well as pressure from the world ‘communist’ movement (in reality, the bureaucratic leadership of the Soviet Union).

According to Clark Clifford, who would later become US Secretary for Defense, on the eve of Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, outgoing president Eisenhower made clear the importance of maintaining a US presence in South-East Asia: "He had in mind that if we let South Vietnam fall, the next domino, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and on down into the sub-continent, would go". The ‘democratic imperialists’ of the Bush regime – Wolfowitz and Perle in particular – now put forward the ‘domino theory’ in reverse: establish bourgeois democracy in Iraq – through bombs and bayonets – and it will spread like ‘wildfire’ to the whole of the Middle East. The only fire which has been spread by US-led action so far in Iraq, however, is a massively heightened opposition to the US and its allies. Stable bourgeois democracy is a pipe dream for the poverty-stricken Middle East.

In Vietnam the US faced an unstoppable mass movement of the Vietnamese workers and peasants for national independence but also for economic and social freedom from the shackles of landlordism and capitalism, and the yoke of foreign imperialism. The leaders of the Vietminh – later referred to as the ‘Viet Cong’ – such as Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap enjoyed mass popular support. On the other hand, in Iraq, US imperialism confronts the unpopular dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, which before the war had a narrow base within the country. Resistance to US imperialism is not primarily in defence of this rotten regime but against foreign oppressors whose purpose is to grab the resources of the Iraqi people, oil, for the benefit of US and world capitalism. There is, however, some similarity in the effect that both Vietnam and Iraq have had on world opinion.

The limits of US military power

The Vietnam war had an explosive effect on the US. It led to a mass anti-war movement – the lessons of which are being drawn on today – as well as affecting the strategy and tactics of the different forces involved in armed conflict, especially in the neo-colonial world. This war revealed the ruthless barbarity of capitalism and imperialism, the lengths to which it is prepared to go to defend its class interests. US imperialism dropped eight million tons of explosives on South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, three times the weight of bombs dropped by all sides in the second world war. This is equal to an explosive force of 640 atom bombs like those dropped on Hiroshima. The number of dead in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia probably came to more than three million, most killed from the air. The National Liberation Front (NFL) – the Viet Cong – had up to 300,000 guerrillas in the field and, at its height, faced 500,000 US soldiers. Despite this overwhelming power, however, the US was not able to achieve victory.

The same fate, in the long term, awaits the US now. The slogan painted on the walls of Basra, ‘Liberators go home’, echoes the sentiments of the Vietnamese towards their French and American ‘liberators’. There is opposition, hostility, even hatred of Saddam, but the overwhelming view is that the Anglo-US forces have come to Iraq not to free the people but to grab its oil and reinforce the strategic position of US imperialism as the world’s policeman. Even as they seek to win ‘hearts and minds’ with the supply of ‘humanitarian’ aid they are attacked as new colonialists.

One of the slogans of the American Marines in Vietnam was ‘get ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow’. This led directly to the wholesale massacre of innocent Vietnamese. In Iraq it takes the form of moving from the carefully ‘calibrated’ policy of bombing symbols of Saddam’s regime and military installations at the outset of the war, to the beginnings of indiscriminate bombing of the civilian population. As in Vietnam, the Anglo-US forces will reap a whirlwind of bitter opposition and hatred.

The conflict between US generals and politicians was also a theme in Vietnam, as it is over Iraq today. The military brass believed that the massive deployment of forces would crush the Vietnamese. Some of the politicians then, particularly the Democrats – unlike the ignorant gang which presently dominates the White House – on the basis of events dimly understood that there were severe political and social limits on even the strongest power. After Vietnam, the US generals peddled the myth that they were ‘stopped by politicians from finishing the job’. However, afterwards, more far-sighted sections of the military drew the conclusion that ‘never again’ would they be drawn into a ‘counter-insurgency’ situation like Vietnam. In the consciousness of the US population the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ was established, opposition to the large-scale shedding of American blood in foreign wars. On the eve of the Iraqi conflict, Saddam stated that US society ‘could not absorb 10,000 casualties’. Bush, however, attempted to buck the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ in the post-September 11 situation. It remains to be seen if he has succeeded. Significant casualties, with thousands of body bags returning to the US, could lead to a swing against the war. This is what the Iraqi regime is basing itself upon.

In the 1990s US generals concluded that if they were to be drawn into action, which they perceived as short term military measures, it could only be on the basis of ‘overwhelming force’, as in the first Gulf war. However, Rumsfeld tore up this script and projected that a ‘leaner’ military force could do the job and subsequently occupy the country. This has led to setbacks: extended supply lines, shortages of ammunition, not enough troops – without the extra 100,000 now mobilised – to take Baghdad. The same policy of pouring men and resources into Vietnam is now being repeated in Iraq.

The full panoply of US military power was deployed to break the resistance of the Vietnamese. Seventy per cent of the North’s villages were destroyed, Hanoi was destroyed, and there was also the colossal use of what we now call chemical warfare. The actual amount used by the US in Vietnam dwarves the alleged threat of chemical and bacteriological weapons in the hands of Saddam. Twenty million tons of the defoliant Agent Orange was used. The food chain remains poisoned right up to today and birth defects have become endemic. Overall, a colossal $150bn expenditure and a total of 2.8 million troops were used, but this did not prevent the defeat of the strongest military power the world had ever seen.

This would not have been possible on the basis of a military struggle alone. A comparison between the war in Vietnam and the present war bears this out. The unpopular Saddam regime is ultimately no match for the even greater firepower accumulated today by the US. If, however, the US had faced a movement for social and national liberation, as was the case in Vietnam, then it is doubtful if the US ruling class would have even acquiesced to Bush’s war plans for Iraq. The arrogant assumption of Rumsfeld and co was that the Saddam regime would need just one blow and the war would be over in ‘three or four days’. It was not clear before the war, even for us, as to what would be stronger amongst the masses: opposition to Saddam or Iraqi national indignation at a US-led war of colonial reconquest. Events have shown that at the moment the latter is predominant, hence the dumbfounded reaction of the generals and Rumsfeld to the Iraqi peoples’ hostility to US and British forces. Robespierre, at the time of the French Revolution, made the comment, "Nobody likes a ‘foreign liberator’."

The Vietnamese resisted foreign oppressors too but their struggle was also invested with a social character, for the land, against the landlords and capitalists who were propped up by foreign bayonets. The NLF were not conscious Marxists, basing themselves on the working class as the main agency of socialist change. They were Stalinists, presiding over a largely peasant based nationalist movement. We pointed out that if they were to succeed the kind of regime they would construct would be like the Soviet Union or China, a planned economy but with power vested in the hands of a bureaucratic elite rather than the working class. This would undoubtedly be progressive but it would not be ‘socialist’ in the Marxist sense. In Iraq, however, the social element present in Vietnam, is absent. The resistance has been considerable, and could prolong the war beyond the worst nightmare scenario of the US and Britain. However, an aroused Iraqi people, mobilised on social as well as military lines, for a democratic and socialist Iraq, would have been more than a match over the long term, even for the US. World public opinion, particularly in the Middle East, would have been even more inflamed and active solidarity would be forthcoming from the world working class. The war would still be dragged out, but with all the consequences that this would mean for US imperialism, both in its own backyard but particularly worldwide. If the war had been confined to Vietnam alone then it is unlikely that the NLF would have won in the time scale that they did.

Yet even at an early stage of the Vietnam war, Militant (now the Socialist Party) was unequivocal about the fate awaiting the US: "Despite the squandering of billions of dollars and the lives of American soldiers, US imperialism is doomed to defeat in Vietnam" (February 1966). In the same edition of the Militant we pointed out that "national opinion polls show that 70% of the American population are opposed to a prolongation of the war".

In 1966 US President Lyndon Johnson had moved from an intransigent position of never negotiating with the ‘rebels’ to conceding some kind of participation in any negotiations. If the Iraqi war was to drag on – with a rising ‘body count’ of killed British and American soldiers – then voices could also be raised in Britain, the US and elsewhere for ‘negotiations’ and also for the withdrawal of troops. Even at this early stage, two weeks into the war, Robin Cook, ex-foreign minister who resigned from the government over the war, has demanded the withdrawal of British troops.

Losing ‘hearts and minds’

It is now dawning on some of the strategists of capital the colossal price that could be paid for the complete subjugation of Iraq and the ultimate overthrow of Saddam. Short of a complete implosion of the Saddam regime – this seems unlikely but is not completely excluded – then the method of careful bombing to avoid ‘civilian’ targets will be abandoned to be replaced by the encircling of the cities. But as the noted Chinese general Sun Tzu writing 2,500 years ago in his ‘Art of War’ pointed out: "The worst policy is to besiege cities". The Israelis in 1982 pounded Beirut but were incapable of occupying it. The proposal to occupy Baghdad, following on from Basra, presents massive, perhaps insurmountable problems, even for US imperialism. It will undoubtedly ‘win’ in an outright military struggle but the ‘hearts and minds’ who are not with them at the present time will be further alienated.

Conventional military wisdom holds that the attacker in an open struggle usually needs a superiority of three to one to succeed. This doctrine – modified by Powell and the US generals on the basis of previous wars to ‘overwhelming military force’ – was not heeded in the attack on Iraq. But when it comes to a struggle in the streets of cities, particularly of Baghdad, military ‘superiority’ needs to be ten or even twelve to one. One military strategist, Christopher Bellamy, of The Independent, has pointed out that this alone would mean the deployment of 100,000 troops to take Baghdad. But if Saddam has 100,000 or 200,000 armed fighters in Baghdad – not to be excluded in a city with a population of five to seven million – then the number of US and British forces deployed could be five or even ten times this. To conquer Iraq on the bones of the Iraqi people is one thing, to hold the country in its bloody aftermath is an entirely different issue. The history of Vietnam underlines this.

The US ruling class was to pay a big price for the fruitless attempt to roll back the Vietnamese revolution. The policies of ‘guns and butter’ proved to be impossible even for US capitalism then and this will also be the case now. At the same time, the draft of the youth into the army largely involved the working class and the ethnic minorities. Those from a rich background, as well as the educated middle class, avoided serving in Vietnam (the last two US presidents, Clinton and George W Bush, both avoided the draft). The historian Arthur Schlesinger wrote that this "meant that the war in Vietnam was fought in the main by the sons of poor whites and blacks, whose parents did not have much influence in the community. The sons of the influential people were all protected because they were in college". There were big revolts amongst US troops in Vietnam. The plight of the US troops and the unwinnability of this unjust war were to register in a powerful fashion in the minds of the American people. It was the revolt ‘at home’ and amongst the US troops in Vietnam which was to prove decisive in compelling US imperialism to withdraw. But this was not before the war was remorselessly prosecuted, not least in the criminal bombing of North Vietnam.

The ‘outside support’ of North Vietnam and Russia was seen by the US as ‘unacceptable’ – like Rumsfeld’s denunciation of the largely non-existent military support of Syria and the Arab world for Iraq today. Some commentators argue that the lack of an ‘outside supply base’ will prevent Iraq from becoming a ‘new Vietnam’ if the US takes Baghdad. They ignore the enhanced support which Iraq now enjoys from the whole Arab world and beyond. A repetition of the Palestinian conflict – with the Arab world and others supplying material assistance to the guerrillas – is not ruled out.

As the war progressed in 1967 the Vietnamese guerrillas enormously increased their forces and support from the North for them only came with the huge doubling of US troops in Vietnam. A brutal war of attrition was conducted under Johnson, the aim of which was to pacify the population of South Vietnam and compel the North Vietnamese population, under the weight of bombs, to exert pressure on their leaders to desist. This was carried out ruthlessly by top US General Westmoreland. To justify their war to Congress the military brass decided on a ‘kill count’. It was this obscene method of conducting the war which led to the massacres of South Vietnamese workers and peasants, typified by the murders at My Lai in 1968.

The failure of this policy became evident with each passing day. The attempt to corral the Vietnamese rural population into ‘safe havens’ meant that at least a third of the population was uprooted from their ruined ancestral villages. This was quite apart from the wandering army of refugees. Of course, these ‘sacrifices’ were acceptable to US commanders as the price for defeating the ‘enemy’. The problem was, however, that no matter how great their superiority in weapons and personnel, traditional methods of guerrilla warfare – of hit and run – supported, as it was, by the mass of the population, nullified this. Even the claim today that the Iraqi guerrillas ‘hide behind civilians’ is an echo of Vietnam. A veteran from the 5th Marine Regiment has written in the New York Times: "We routinely faced enemy soldiers dressed in civilian clothes and even as women". Others commented that the guerrillas "had no territory to defend, no fixed base; Charlie (slang for the Viet Cong) could float – he was nicknamed ‘ghost’ – and at night would strike at the fire bases where the grunts on guard would mutter, ‘The ghosts are out there – the ghosts are coming’."

The prospects of dispelling this terrible apparition for the US troops became more and more remote as time went on. The more that resources and troops were poured in, the more the US and its allies appeared to be losing. Defence secretary Robert McNamara, an enthusiastic advocate of ‘hi-tech’ warfare, experienced growing doubts in the invincibility of US technology, ending up utterly demoralised. Clark Clifford, not a ‘career politician’ but a tough corporation lawyer, was drafted in by Johnson after the disaster of the 1968 Tet Offensive (named after the Vietnamese new year) to stiffen US resolve.

In his first meeting with Pentagon chiefs, however, when Clifford asked how long they expected it would take to win the war, no firm answers were forthcoming. When he asked: "Now, if we send 200,000 more men will that be the end, or must we send more?" the answer was: "Well we really don’t know… we are actually prevailing… it all depends on how you look at it". Much to his chagrin he could not get "solid answers". When he questioned one US general who had deployed 100,000 troops in a sweep of one zone, asking "How did it go?", the reply was "badly". When questioned further, "what was the trouble?", the general simply said, "dammit, they (the guerrillas) won’t come out and fight"! The remark reminded Clifford of a British general in America’s own war of independence from Britain: "The American troops would not come out and fight", he commented. "We (Americans) hid behind brick fences, rocks and trees and knocked off those redcoats. And this was the same kind of problem". Thus Bush and Blair reincarnate today the spirit of George III! The conclusion that Clifford drew was that even if US forces were ‘doubled or trebled’ they would not prevail because the "other side was not fighting that kind of war".

This did not mean that, from the guerrillas’ side, the struggle was seamless, without mistakes or setbacks. The temptation of a sizeable guerrilla force to go over to set-piece battles is implicit in a conflict of this character. Conventional battles replacing largely guerrilla methods can be decisive at a certain time, as was the case in Nicaragua. Moreover, the Vietminh, as we have already seen, had successfully conducted a set-piece battle at Dien Bien Phu, which smashed the French army and led to their evacuation from the country. Why not repeat this strategy in the South at a certain stage? This time, however, it was confronting the strongest military power on the globe, which despite its weakness – the lack of a social base – would not easily acquiesce militarily to a guerrilla force still largely armed with primitive weapons in comparison to the US. Some of the conventional battles in the first stages of the Iraqi conflict show that some sections of the Iraqi army may be repeating the mistakes of the NLF in 1968 in particular.

The Tet Offensive

By mid-1967 the US force level in Vietnam had risen to 431,000 and the US general staff had received sanction for the troop ceiling to be raised to 543,000. This was the year when the first large-scale anti-Vietnam war demonstrations were organised in the US. Also, US troops in the field became more and more dissatisfied with what they confronted. Here was a force whose average age was 19, compared to 26 in world war two (in Iraq, the average age is 21!). It was, moreover, drawn from the most oppressed strata of US society, who bore the main burden of the war at home as well. Although the US forces are now composed of ‘professionals’ rather than conscripts, this remains the same today.

The vulnerability of the US was graphically shown in early 1968 in the battle of Khe Sanh, with the North Vietnamese using tanks for the first time (supplied by Russia), to overrun the perimeters of the Marines’ base. The hand-to-hand combat between US troops and the Vietnamese was carried throughout the US on TV. As one commentator put it: "The Six O’Clock News has become the living room war". Vietnam was the first war in which television played a key role. They have now gone to great lengths in Iraq to prevent a repetition of the media coverage in Vietnam but not always with complete success.

Khe Sanh was besieged for ten days before the Tet Offensive and its agony was played out alongside the catastrophe which the Tet Offensive was to become for the US military efforts. A massive attack on 100 towns, cities and military bases in South Vietnam by guerrilla and North Vietnamese forces took place during Tet. The guerrillas even penetrated into the compound of the US embassy in Saigon, occupied the northern city of Hué for a month, and fought bitter battles in many other towns. The reaction of the US, initially one of shock, was to respond with ferocious and indiscriminate military counter-measures. One town, Ben Tre was totally levelled, provoking the comment of one American officer: ‘We had to destroy it to save it’.

The Tet Offensive was a miscalculation and military defeat for the guerrillas and the North Vietnamese. Their expectation of an urban uprising of the working class had not materialised because the NLF was a peasant-based nationalist movement which would not be able to attract the active support of the working class. It was an ill-conceived plan, given the military might of the US and the concentration of its forces at that time. But at the same time the Tet Offensive was a massive psychological blow against US imperialism from which it never recovered. In fact, the Tet Offensive marked the beginning of the end of the Vietnam war. The Vietnamese government now has compared the resistance of the Iraqis to the Anglo-US forces after just one week of fighting to what they achieved at the time of the Tet Offensive.

The agony in Vietnam was to be played out for a further seven years. Johnson gave up and eked out his life in semi-demoralisation. Nixon came to power in 1968 as the ‘peacemonger’ candidate, declaring for ‘peace with honour’ against the Democratic Party candidate Hubert Humphrey, who stood, in effect, for a continuation of the war. However, Nixon and Kissinger’s secret war – the extension into Laos and Cambodia in particular – provoked a huge revolt in the US itself, which forced the bourgeois to adopt a different position. They saw that their state – the executive committee of the ruling class in the form of the Nixon presidency – was out of control and was still prosecuting the war, while professing it stood for peace. This threatened the position of the US ruling class. Hence the exposé of the Watergate conspiracy.

Now, the White House is occupied by the Bush gang, who have initiated a military adventure in Iraq. The conflict will not unfold initially with the same agonised, drawn-out time scale as in Vietnam. But then the world background is different – not least with a massive increase in communications, the internet, and TV stations like Al Jazeera, which up to now has broken the monopoly of slanted Western propaganda. Today, six months, particularly in such a world-centred conflict as this, is the equivalent of six years in the past.

History never repeats itself in exactly the same way. The real bill for this war – in US casualties and costs – will probably be presented during a prolonged US occupation of Iraq. Will the US people tolerate the suicide attacks, the drip feed of a mounting death toll, a spiralling of terrorist incidents, the growing hostility of Iraqis, the Arabs and the world? The answer is no.

The extreme volatility the war has introduced is reflected in the mood swings of opinion polls. Predictably, in the US and Britain support for ‘our boys’ has increased but this does not indicate, at least in Britain, a deep-seated chauvinistic or patriotic wave as for instance there was to some extent in the Falklands conflict. Spread very thin, it could turn just as dramatically in the opposite direction on the basis of mounting casualties for US and British forces. Even if Bush wins in Iraq, this will merely echo the many ‘wins’ registered at different stages in Vietnam, and they will be just as hollow. Iraq is not Vietnam but there are many lessons from the Vietnam conflict which have been learnt and will be further probed as this war continues. If not yet the graveyard of the US and British governments, this war and its aftermath will severely dent the confidence of the British and US ruling class. Conversely, it will inspire and harden the determination of the world anti-war movement leading to the defeat of these creatures who threaten to drag humanity into the abyss of ‘endless war’.

This article will be printed in the April edition of Socialism Today, journal of the Socialist Party in England and Wales

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April 2003