Apparently, the “Iraq is like Vietnam–in a good way” meme is in full force. Max Boot joins the party today:

In the popular view, Vietnam became “unwinnable” after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Actually, that campaign was a major American victory that all but destroyed the Viet Cong as an effective fighting force. By 1970 more than 90% of South Vietnam’s population was under Saigon’s control. But by then it didn’t matter: Congress, the media and the voters had tired of the war and forced a sharp decrease in American aid. The result was that Saigon fell in 1975 — not to guerrillas but to North Vietnamese regulars driving T-54 tanks.

Now the media are portraying Iraq as a proto-Vietnam, a land where U.S. troops can’t do anything right and where they can expect a prolonged and painful defeat. But as in Vietnam, U.S. troops in Iraq are slowly winning the war on the ground, even as they’re losing the public relations battle back home.

My goodness. I certainly hope this one is going better than that one. It is true that American forces never lost a campaign in Vietnam. It is also irrelevant. Our objectives in that conflict were unwinnable with military means. The old saw that the military’s hands were tied is likewise irrelevant; to have allowed the military everything that was tactically desirable would have been strategically counterproductive. Death and destruction are the means of war; they’re not the end.

In Iraq, military force was magnificently applied in achieving the objective of toppling Saddam’s regime. Now, military troops are the lead actors in a mission that is primarily diplomatic and civil, with force used as an ancillary tool.

That, at any rate, was the conclusion I reached after spending 10 days last month with the 1st Marine Division, based in south-central Iraq, and the 101st Airborne Division, based in northern Iraq. Speaking with everyone from privates to three-star generals, I was impressed by an overall sense of optimism and resolve in spite of well-publicized setbacks such as the horrific bombing of a mosque in Najaf. Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, put it succinctly: “We’ve got the bastards on the run.”

The success that both divisions are having is based on a smart counterinsurgency strategy that combines carrots and sticks. Both are careful not to use indiscriminate firepower that would alienate civilians. Their raids are carefully focused so that they hit Baathist safe houses while minimizing inconvenience for and humiliation of the innocent.


But the bulk of what U.S. forces are doing in Iraq isn’t strictly military. Rather, it’s what used to be known as winning “hearts and minds.” Col. Joseph Anderson, commander of the 101st Airborne’s 2nd Brigade, which garrisons Mosul, took me on a tour to see all the projects being undertaken by his “Screaming Eagles” in Iraq’s third-largest city. They range from training police officers to providing medicine for the local hospital, to painting schools, to refurbishing an Olympic-size swimming pool, to building houses for refugees. The list is long — and all of it is earning the goodwill of Iraqi citizens. This has had a payoff in increased tips about troublemakers.

While the news coverage focuses on terrorism, a drive through Mosul or through southern cities like Najaf and Karbala shows a high degree of normalcy returning. Shops are crammed with goods ranging from stereos to tomatoes. The streets are packed with pedestrians, the roads jammed with cars.

We never got to this stage in Vietnam. If Boot’s experience is representative, it’s certainly underreported. The remainder of his piece is actually quite interesting, notably his discussion of problems with the civilian administration.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.