'Iraqification' vs. 'Vietnamization'
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
It's been a deadly weekend for U.S. troops in Iraq. At least 24 soldiers and Marines have died over the past two days, including 12 soldiers killed yesterday in the crash of a Black Hawk helicopter. Those deaths and the killing of seven other U.S. troops in separate attacks made Saturday the third deadliest day for the U.S. in the Iraq war.
This week, the Senator Foreign Relations Committee will take up a resolution opposing President Bush's plan to send 21,000 additional troops to stem the violence in Iraq. A key element of the president's strategy is to place more of the burden for securing Baghdad in the hands of Iraqi forces. In his speech earlier this month, the president explained that some of the additional U.S. troops will be assigned to work with the Iraqis.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Our troops will have a well-defined mission, to help Iraqis clear and secure neighborhoods, to help them protect the local population, and to help ensure the Iraqi forces left behind are capable of providing the security that Baghdad needs.
YDSTIE: To some analysts, the president's plan echoed another one from the past. In the latter years of the Vietnam War, the U.S. tried to get the South Vietnamese to take on more responsibility for defending their country. That strategy, called Vietnamization, failed, and the South failed to the communists in 1975.
Can the U.S. avoid a similar failure in Iraq? Joining us to examine the potential parallels between these wars is Robert Brigham. He's a professor of history at Vassar College and author of the book "Is Iraq Another Vietnam?"
Welcome to the program, Professor.
Professor ROBERT BRIGHAM (Vassar College): Thank you for having me.
YDSTIE: Describe for us in more detail what Vietnamization was, what motivated it, and what parallels it has to what's happening in Iraq today.
Prof. BRIGHAM: Well, Richard Nixon, the president, is often credited with the Vietnamization program in Vietnam, but it actually began under Lyndon Johnson. And this was a very simple formula, turning more and more of the offensive military operations to the armed forces of South Vietnam, beginning also coinciding with negotiations in Paris to try to reach a political settlement to the war. And so over time, Nixon turned that into his policy that also included a phased U.S. troop withdrawal. And so of course more and more of the burden did fall on the South Vietnamese army.
But that phrase Vietnamization has always been kind of a loaded term. It implies, in fact, that the South Vietnamese hadn't been fighting and dying all along. And there wasn't a year of the army's existence that it didn't have more casualties than the Americans, actually.
YDSTIE: What parallels does this Vietnamization have to what's happening in Iraq today, do you think?
Prof. BRIGHAM: Throughout the Vietnam War, one of the problems was that it didn't seem that the Saigon government was up to the task politically. Very few people who worked with the South Vietnamese forces doubted their patriotism or doubted their ability to launch successful military engagements with the communists. But there were always questions about the political structures that supported that army, and I think that's where the strong parallel is today - one of the strong parallels.
Another, of course, is that over the course of Vietnam War, the United States took over more and more offensive military operations as the war dragged on, unwilling to concede anything on the battlefield. And it seems in Iraq, the United States armed forces have carried a large share of that burden. And so now to say that you want the National Iraqi Army to step up is very similar in a way to what went on in Vietnam.
YDSTIE: In what way do you think drawing parallels between what's happening in Iraq now and Vietnamization are not valid?
Prof. BRIGHAM: I think there's some real differences between what was required of both armies. In Vietnam, the South Vietnamese armed forces were going to have more offensive military operations against the North Vietnamese, communists, regular infantry soldiers, and the soldiers of the National Liberation Front.
But in Iraq, the National Iraqi Army, which has some Sunni brigades but not many, is predominately a Shiite and Kurd army, has to look in several different directions. It has to look at the Sunni insurgents who are, you know, some 20 different groups. It has to look at some of the militias armed by the Shiites. It has to look at some outsiders who no doubt have infiltrated the borders. So it has in many ways a three front war with several different kinds of enemies.
So I think in many ways, the requirements on the Iraqi National Army are much greater than they were in the Vietnam War.
YDSTIE: Which of these parallels between Vietnam and Iraq provide policy makers with the most important lessons that can now be applied, where we are now in the war in Iraq, and you know, help us get into the future in a more successful way?
Professor BRIGHAM: One thing that the Bush administration may want to consider as it revisits - and I think it will have to revisit the Baker Iraqi Study Group Report - is that something has to change dramatically. We need to change the geometry of negotiations, for example.
When Richard Nixon didn't like the war he had in front of him, he changed the geometry. He went above Hanoi's head. He tried to isolate the North Vietnamese by going to the Chinese and the Soviets. The realization that he came to is something that the Bush administration will have to come to. It will have to see this more as just a civil war inside Iraq.
It will have to see it in regional terms, but not in regional terms where we use a kind of mechanical understanding of history and we look at Iran and Syria and others as kind of adversaries immediately, but rather change the geometry of negotiations so that there maybe a way to bring some of these nation-states into the solution. And that's an important lesson from Vietnam. I think that some people in Washington are talking about that now. And I do think that sooner or later, the United States will have to engage this conflict in a little different way.
YDSTIE: Robert Brigham is a professor of history at Vassar College and author of the book "Is Iraq Another Vietnam?"
Thank you very much for joining us.
Prof. BRIGHAM: Thank you for having me.
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