par John Keegan, The Daily Telegraph
George W. Bush has for the first time conceded a similarity between events in Iraq and those in Vietnam 40 years ago. Asked in a television interview on Wednesday if he now saw a similarity between the recent escalation of U.S. losses in Iraq and those suffered in the Tet offensive of 1968, he admitted there were grounds for comparison. The President's admission will probably trigger a feeding frenzy in the American media, which has been seeking to equate Iraq with Vietnam ever since the insurgency started to inflict significant casualties.
It has to be said, however, that the President's admission will come as a surprise to those with long historical memories. Indeed, it is a surprise that the President allowed himself to be drawn in. I recently had the opportunity to discuss Iraq with the President in the Oval Office at an intimate meeting with a small group of historians.
Mr Bush then -- early September -- did not want to discuss Iraq, but larger issues of the culture clash between radical Islam and the Christian West. Indeed, he has been ill-advised to rise to the bait. Many of those who took sides over Vietnam are still alive and active, still animated by the passions that transfixed the American people in the 1960s. His admission can do nothing but harm, certainly to him and to his administration, but also to U.S. forces in genera.
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.
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 U.S. 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 organized and operated a countryside politico-military organization with branches in almost every village. The North Vietnamese People's Army resembled that of a Western state. It conscripted recruits throughout the country, trained 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.
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 sympathizers, but they enjoy no organized system of support.
The recent upsurge of violence in Iraq in no way resembles the Tet offensive. At Tet, the Vietnamese new year, the North Vietnamese People's Army simultaneously attacked 40 cities and towns in South Vietnam, using 84,000 troops. Of those, the communists lost 45,000 killed. No such losses have been recorded in Iraq at any place or any time. The Tet offensive proved to be a military disaster for the Vietnamese communists. It left them scarcely able to keep up their long-running, low-level war.
Indeed, insofar as Tet was a defeat for the United States and for the South Vietnamese government, it was because the American media decided to represent it as such. It has become a cliche to say that Vietnam was a media war, but so it was. Much of the world media were hostile to American involvement from the start, particularly in France, which had fought and lost its own Vietnam war in 1946-54.
It was, however, the American rather than the foreign media who decided on the verdict. The American media had begun by supporting the war. As it dragged on, however, without any end in sight and with the promised military victory constantly postponed, American newspapers and -- critically -- the evening television programs began to treat war news as a bad story.
The media were extremely influential, particularly at such places as university campuses and the firesides of American families whose sons had been conscripted for service. When casualties of 150 a week began to be reported, the war began to be increasingly unpopular. President Johnson, who was temperamentally oversensitive to criticism, believed that one particular broadcast by Walter Cronkite in February, 1968, just after Tet, lost him Middle America. "If I've lost Cronkite," he said to his staff, "I have lost the war."
President Bush must now expect that America's television anchormen will be looking for a similar opportunity to damage him. The Vietnam war was not lost on the battlefield, but in the American media's treatment of news from the front line.