Max Boot: We Are Repeating One of the Big Mistakes of Vietnam

Roundup: Historians' Take

Max Boot, writing in the NYT (Nov. 16, 2003):

This month's setbacks in Iraq — the downing of American helicopters, the suicide bombing of an Italian headquarters — have made President Bush's mantra of "progress" ring increasingly hollow. It's true that 80 percent of Iraq remains peaceful and stable, but we seem to be losing in the other 20 percent, mostly among Sunni Muslims who benefited from Saddam Hussein's rule. The escalating violence lends credence to critics who see parallels with Vietnam.

In truth, there is no comparison: In Vietnam, we faced more than 1 million enemy combatants backed to the hilt by North Vietnam and its superpower patrons, China and Russia. In Iraq we confront a few thousand Baathists and jihadis with, at most, limited support from Iran and Syria. But even if this isn't "another Vietnam," we can still learn important lessons from that earlier war about how to deal with the insurgency.

The biggest error the armed forces made in Vietnam was trying to fight a guerrilla foe the same way they had fought the Wehrmacht. The military staged big-unit sweeps with fancy code names like Cedar Falls and Junction City, and dropped more bombs than during World War II. Neither had much effect on the enemy, who would hide in the jungles and then emerge to ambush American soldiers. Seeing that his strategy wasn't working, Gen. William Westmoreland, the American commander, responded by asking for more and more troops, until we had 500,000 soldiers in Vietnam. And still it was not enough.

President Bush seems so intent on avoiding this mistake that the Defense Department has unveiled plans to cut the total number of troops in Iraq next year from 132,000 to 105,000. It is hard to see what, in the current dismal strategic picture, convinces the Pentagon that this makes sense. Such a slow-motion withdrawal will only embolden our enemies in Iraq and discourage our friends....

What proved most effective in Vietnam were not large conventional operations but targeted counterinsurgency programs. Four — known as CAP, Cords, Kit Carson Scouts and Phoenix — were particularly effective.

CAP stood for Combined Action Platoon. Under it, a Marine rifle squad would live and fight alongside a South Vietnamese militia platoon to secure a village from the Vietcong. The combination of the Marines' military skills and the militias' local knowledge proved highly effective. No village protected under CAP was ever retaken by the Vietcong.

Cords, or Civil Operations and Rural Development Support, was the civilian side of the counterinsurgency, run by two C.I.A. legends: Robert Komer and William Colby. It oversaw aid programs designed to win hearts and minds of South Vietnamese villagers, and its effectiveness lay in closely coordinating its efforts with the military.

The Kit Carson Scouts were former Communists who were enlisted to help United States forces. They primarily served as scouts and interpreters, but they also fought. Most proved fiercely loyal. They had to be: they knew that capture by their former Vietcong comrades meant death.

Phoenix was a joint C.I.A.-South Vietnam effort to identify and eradicate Vietcong cadres in villages. Critics later charged the program with carrying out assassinations, and even William Colby acknowledged there were "excesses." Nevertheless, far more cadres were captured (33,000) or induced to defect under Phoenix (22,000) than were killed (26,000).

There is little doubt that if the United States had placed more emphasis on such programs, instead of the army's conventional strategy, it would have fared better in Vietnam.

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