Learning lesson of Vietnam all over again

WASHINGTON—After a rousing July 4th holiday weekend, complete with flag-waving, fireworks, assorted burned meat products and a wealth of patriotic speeches, it is time to come back to the harsh realities of this earth and our role in it in the fifth year of this new century and new millennium.

Anyone who writes critically of the conduct of the war in Iraq is asked, over and over, why we focus on the bad news and never write the good news about that country, its people and our soldiers who are caught in the middle of a very bloody birth of some version of representative government.

That would be because there is a dearth of good news in Iraq. There are indeed occasional bright spots, like the January election, but soon enough they are pushed to the background by the steady tide of bad news.

The truth is that every time we sit down to analyze what is going on in Iraq the results are seriously depressing.

Every day American soldiers are killed and wounded trying to install peace in a country where peace has been a scarce commodity for as long as it has existed. Every day even more Iraqis are killed and horribly wounded by the car-bombers, assassins and terrorists who take over towns and regions where there is little or no security because there aren't enough good guys, American or Iraqi, to go around.

We are two and a half years into this war in Iraq. When it first began, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his neo-conservative civilian deputies and advisers were rightly confident in a fast, conventional military victory over Saddam Hussein and his army. But they gave no advance thought to the insurgency that they got in lieu of the liberator's welcome they'd anticipated.

Secretary Rumsfeld and his people expected a fast victory, a brief occupation and a draw-down of American forces beginning three months after the fall of Baghdad. They said it would be cheap, paid for out of Iraq's oil earnings.

The American taxpayers instead have paid a hefty price for this journey into pre-emptive warfare—well in excess of $200 billion to date and increasing at the rate of $5 billion a month—for this cheap war.

At least Rumsfeld now knows how deep a swamp Iraq has become and recently acknowledged that this struggle, and the American military combat role, could drag on for many years.

That's more than can be said of his bosses, President Bush and Vice President Cheney, whose recent remarks on Iraq and the war range from the president's continued mantra "stay the course" to the veep's absurd characterization of the daily din of terrorist bombings as the last gasps of a defeated enemy.

On this one, we are better off believing Rumsfeld's analysis of where we are and where we are going and that it could take many years: Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Still it begs the question whether the secretary of defense really believes that the next president or two or the American people will continue to provide blank checks for someone else's mistake.

If so, he might study these words of a very wily old Communist revolutionary, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, as he contemplated the future course of his Vietnamese guerrilla army's war against the French:

"The enemy will pass slowly from the offensive to the defensive. The blitzkreig will transform itself into a war of long duration. Thus the enemy will be caught in a dilemma: He has to drag out the war in order to win it and does not possess, on the other hand, the psychological and political means to fight a long drawn-out war ..."

So it was for the French—and then we Americans—in Vietnam. Must we learn that lesson all over again? The citizens of modern democracies have no taste for long, drawn-out conflicts.

Former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Colin Powell, authors of the Weinberger and Powell doctrines, understood that and prescribed for it: Go into a war only when your goals and exit strategy are clear; take all the troops you think you might need, and then some extra just in case; and get out as soon as you have achieved what you set out to do.

Sounds a lot better than a long, drawn-out war in the desert.



Joseph L. Galloway is the senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young