Vietnam and Iraq: A Twice-Told Tale; Again, We Did Know Better

Vietnam has always been the crazy aunt in the attic. Anyone who brought it up was to be attacked as foolish, uninformed and, if necessary, a "cut and run" defeatist.
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"Robert McNamara (secretary of defense) reflecting on the decisions of the spring and early summer of 1965 (decisions that sent us into war in Vietnam) recalled that "we were sinking into quicksand." It was, however, a quicksand of his and the president's making -- a quicksand of lies."
Page 243, Dereliction of Duty, by H.R. McMaster, Harper Collins

In August last year, I was asked to speak to a freshman class at UCLA about our war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The talk, based on a book I had written titled Wounded: Vietnam to Iraq, was to describe the national and personal costs of both wars, but specifically the astonishing numbers of severely wounded soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who would have simply died in the jungles of Vietnam. Some 400 students, all science majors, pre-med or pre-law, the freshman elite of UCLA, filed into Schoenberg Hall for what had been listed as a mandatory 10 o'clock lecture.

The students didn't even begin to listen. I might as well have been talking about the First World War or the Battle of the Bulge. They sat there -- listening to iPods, reading the newspaper, talking on cell phones, text messaging someone or simply leaning back in their seats and looking at the clock on the wall, finishing their midmorning lattes -- as I explained about the 17- and 18-year-old medics in Vietnam carrying M&Ms to give to soldiers too severely wounded even for morphine, whispering that the candies were for the pain while they waited for the choppers. They were equally uninterested that U.S. casualties evacuated from Iraq and the war in Afghanistan required amputations in numbers not seen since the Civil War, and that after three years of war there was no answer to increasing numbers of devastating and irreversible brain injuries resulting from the shock waves of exploding roadside bombs.

Ten minutes into the talk, even those who had feigned interest had given up, sinking the whole of the auditorium into a stupor of self-absorbed indifference. Yet the week I gave my talk, the numbers of U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan had passed 2,500 and the number of wounded had pushed past some 40,000.

I mentioned that early in the war the administration had used the relatively small number of deaths not only as an example of our troops' success, but also as an indication of the lack of risk they faced. But the death toll in this war was never the true indication of the severity of the fighting, nor of the risks involved. Unlike Vietnam, where the number of casualties to deaths was 2.4-to-1, in this war the ratio is 16-to-1. Because of better body armor and improvements in battlefield medicine, soldiers survive today who would have been dead in Vietnam. It is not the graveyard that is legacy of this war, but the neurosurgical unit and the orthopedic ward.

It was more then amnesia that had sent these 400 students into their reveries. It was a complete lack of communal or personal interest in those our government had sent, in their name, to run the most dangerous roads in the world. No one cared.

I would have liked to remind the students that National Guard and Reserve Units make up 40 percent of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. At any one time, there are more than 15,000 National Guard troops on the ground in Iraq who are over 55 years of age. The 40 percent of those doing the fighting and being killed and wounded are these students' neighbors. You'd think they'd be concerned or at least interested.

I had thought that it might have been useful to present the Pentagon's own statistics indicating that as many as a third of all troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan suffer traumatic brain injuries from the enormous blast waves generated by roadside bombs. Government data have put the numbers of those who do or will suffer from PTSD at over 20 percent of those deployed. Yet this administration has cut back on research for traumatic brain injuries, citing lack of funds, while routinely refusing to increase appropriations to the VA system to increase the numbers of treatment facilities while improving PTSD diagnosis.

For those of us who were part of Vietnam, the confusion, the growing exhaustion of the troops, the suffering, shifting about of priorities and objectives, the pronouncements of success that ignored the reality on the ground, the increasing numbers of casualties had begun to merge the jungles of Vietnam with the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan.

While still trying to continue with my talk, I remembered something that David Halberstam had said to his own group of university students: "The one success of Vietnam was that when we left it did not affect our country. It will not be the same with Iraq."

It was then that I stopped reading from my text and decided to scare these kids with the realities of being the right age in a nation that had sent virtually all of its volunteer army as well as the majority of its reserve troops into a war that, despite the pronouncements of "mission accomplished" and "the insurgency is in its last throes," was clearly not going well and getting worse.

I told this newest generation of 17- and 18-year-olds that our army, stretched too thin, was wearing down, and that to keep troops in Iraq -- or for that matter to send more troops anywhere in the world -- we would need a draft. That caught their attention.

What I was talking about was this administration's decision to make Iraq part of its war on terrorism, but what I was thinking about was Vietnam. It was not because of nostalgia or political partisanship (after all, it was liberal Democrats who got us into the war in Southeast Asia and neocon Republicans who sent us into the hornet's nest of Iraq) that I thought about and mentioned Vietnam, but because it was the same kind of dangerous spin that had given us Vietnam and dragged us into Iraq ... and because the only way to have gotten it right 40 years ago and to get it right now is to admit who got it wrong and why, what mistakes were made and then, if possible, set it right. It was not unpatriotic to try to tell truth in Vietnam and it is not unpatriotic to tell the truth now.

Scared by the possibility that they might actually become part of the war, the students did begin to listen. Some dozen of these freshman, concerned and finally troubled by the facts, stayed on after the talk to ask questions. One young man asked why there weren't books or articles linking Vietnam to Iraq and why that issue had not been brought up on the Sunday talk shows or on CNN.

That one was easy to answer. It was politics -- hard-nosed, bitter, take-no-prisoner politics. Losing wars have political consequences. And those consequences can be catastrophic when those who lose the war had been warned.

Everyone makes mistakes. You can hide if a blunder is the result of doing your best and simply having guessed wrong. You can explain away the missing weapons of mass destruction by blaming the CIA or the international intelligence community, and dismiss a growing insurrection by pointing to the support of nearby nations. But there is no place to hide if you were told that things were sure to go badly and then, ignoring the warnings, you still go out and drag the country over that same cliff.

At the very beginning of the Iraq war, Gen. Eric Shinseki, the chief of the Army, a Vietnam veteran and commander of our troops occupying Kosovo, told Congress the U.S. would need at least 400,000 troops on the ground in Iraq to hold the peace. He was ridiculed by the assistant secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, and basically dismissed from command by Donald Rumsfeld as not the kind of the "out of the box"-thinking officer we wanted to run our show.

Gen. Fred Weyand, chief of staff of the Army, wrote in a now famous 1973 analysis of the Vietnam War that "(t)he American way of war is particularly violent, deadly and dreadful. We believe in using 'things' -- artillery, bombs, massive firepower -- in order to conserve our soldiers' lives. The enemy, on the other hand, makes up for his lack of 'things' by expending men instead of machines, and he suffers enormous casualties. ..." General Weyand went on to explain: "As military professionals we must speak out, we must counsel our political leaders and alert the American public that there is no such thing as a 'splendid little war.' There is no such thing as a war fought on the cheap. War is death and destruction. The army must make the price of involvement clear before we get involved."

Bernard Fall, a war correspondent who covered the defeat of the French in Indochina, wrote in 1965, at the beginning of our war in Southeast Asia, "... American airstrikes and naval engagements against North Vietnamese fixed installations and warships have already taken place ... in actual military effectiveness, the worth of such operations is nil. ... Primitiveness carries its own kind of invulnerability when matched against sophisticated weapons."

No one listened then, and, inexplicably, no one listened now.

The signature weapon in Vietnam was to be the helicopter and vertical envelopment, along with the massive firepower of U.S. artillery, fighter bombers and B-52 raids. It didn't work. Ultimately, we gave up -- our military superiority neutralized by the realities on the ground -- and, taking our 58,000 dead and some 350,000 wounded, simply went home.

There was a conversation recorded during the Paris Peace Talks in 1974 between an American colonel and a North Vietnamese officer. In many ways it summed up our 10 years in Vietnam and undermined the contention that it was a lack of political will and public support that led to our spectacular failure in Southeast Asia.

"You know," said the American colonel, " you never defeated us on the battlefield."

The North Vietnamese officer pondered this remark a moment.

"That may be so," he replied, "but it is also irrelevant."

Perhaps more to the point today, there was a joke making the rounds of the Pentagon in the early '70s when any hope of a military success in Vietnam had vanished for everyone except the administration.

There were many versions, though they all went something like this: The administration asked IBM for use of its largest super-computer. The Pentagon loaded all the data on the war: tonnage of bombs dropped, numbers of villages pacified, number of Vietcong and North Vietnamese killed or captured, tons of rice confiscated, areas of the country under U.S. and South Vietnamese governmental control, divisions of South Vietnamese troops trained and ready to fight, insurgent cells infiltrated, numbers of hospitals built and school rooms painted.

After all the data had been input, the administration asked the important question. "When will we win?" The computer spun its disks and raced through its microprocessors and, after 10 minutes, printed out the answer: "You won in 1968."

The point -- and a not too subtle one -- is that armies can only do two things: They break things and kill people. Some would argue that should be all they do. They cannot impose democracy and they certainly cannot nation-build.

There was one issue, though, one fact, one unspun number that might have made a difference in Vietnam, and maybe even in Iraq and certainly in Afghanistan. It was a number ignored 40 years ago and dismissed today.

In the late 1950s, with U.S. concern growing about Southeast Asia and a potential communist takeover, President Eisenhower sent General Ridgeway, former commander of our troops in Korea, to assess military needs in case we became involved in saving South Vietnam for democracy. Six weeks of traveling through Vietnam convinced Ridgeway that to win a war we would need at least a million troops who would have to stay in-country for at least 10 and most likely 20 years.

The largest number of troops we ever had in Vietnam, and that was only for one year, was 500,000. We went to war then and have gone to war now with hundreds of thousands of troops fewer than a clear-eyed view of the realities required.

Those who gave us Vietnam knew the number of troops that would be needed and simply ignored the recommendations. Like this administration, they did not need to be bothered by reality.

It has all been written about. Joe Galloway and Gen. Hal Moore's We were Soldiers Once and Young; David Halberstam's The Best and The Brightest; Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie; my 365 Days, Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July, Col. Harry Sumner's On Strategy.

It is all there, everything that went wrong. The need for more troops on the ground, the inability to close the border to enemy supplies and reinforcements, the lack of any real exit strategy, the fact that the enemy always had the initiative in deciding when and where to fight and when to withdraw, the decade-long effort to train a South Vietnamese Army that would last less than a year after we left. It all sounds eerily familiar, because it is.

In a real way, Iraq has become a twice-told tale. What is almost inexplicable is that those who concocted this war, never having served in Vietnam, simply overruled those who had, and, with an arrogance and hubris that best resembles that of the flawed characters in a Shakespearean play, went out and replayed those same mistakes.

Vietnam has always been the crazy aunt in the attic. This administration has tried mightily to distance itself from that connection. And anyone who brought it up -- politician, reporter, columnist, TV anchor, citizen -- was to be attacked as foolish, uninformed and, if necessary, a "cut and run" defeatist.

There were to be no photographs of American caskets coming home. The president declined to attend military funerals. The planes flying in the wounded were to land at Andrews Air Force Base at night. Medals for bravery and valor were not to be encouraged. Four years into Vietnam, more than a hundred Medals of Honor had been awarded. In this war there has been two Medals of Honor. Yet, Vice Admiral Donald Arthur, co-chairman of the Department of Defense Mental Health Task Force, got it right this year when he said, "Not since Vietnam have we seen this level of combat."

Each month we lose on average a battalion of soldiers, half of those killed or severely wounded. There is an astonishing amount of courage, bravery and commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan that has gone unrecognized and unappreciated as a way of keeping the real facts of this war out of the public consciousness. If you give a medal for bravery you have to tell why.

History shows that when wars are badly begun, the errors and problems accumulate. It takes extraordinary leadership -- Lincoln during our civil war -- to overcome a bad beginning. For those who still refuse to connect the two wars, it is here, unarguably, that Vietnam and Iraq are exactly alike.

There is, of course, that one great difference between the two. It can be summed up in a comment by a neurosurgeon at the Combat Support Hospital in Balad. It was hardly ever heard in the surgical and evac hospitals in Nam, were deaths rather then wounds were a fact of life. "We can save you. But you might not be what you were." It is being said more and more as the troops of this war continue to make the fight in Baghdad, Mosel, Falluja and Ramadi ... .

Ronald J. Glasser, a physician in Minneapolis, is author of the acclaimed Vietnam book "365 Days," which draws on his experiences as an Army hospital physician in the late 1960s. His most recent book is "Wounded: Vietnam to Iraq." His e-mail address is

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