Saturday, December 03, 2005

Melvin Laird -- Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam

Today I am reading. Eleven pages printed out.
No scanning.
Paying attention, thinking, remembering, reflecting, agreeing and disagreeing.
Melvin Laird is a voice from the past speaking in the present. I didn't like what he stood for when he was Secretary of Defense, but that was a long time ago. We are both about thirty-five years older, neither of us is dead yet and I have the quaint idea that we both might have something constructive to say about current events. I have observed, working in a retirement community, that vanity can be one of the satisfactions of old age. The older I get, the more I relish the notion.

His essay is in Foreign Affairs.

Others who were not there may differ with this description. But they have been misinformed by more than 30 years of spin about the Vietnam War. The resulting legacy of that misinformation has left the United States timorous about war, deeply averse to intervening in even a just cause, and dubious of its ability to get out of a war once it is in one. All one need whisper is "another Vietnam," and palms begin to sweat. I have kept silent for those 30 years because I never believed that the old guard should meddle in the business of new administrations, especially during a time of war. But the renewed vilification of our role in Vietnam in light of the war in Iraq has prompted me to speak out.
I acknowledge and respect the raw emotions of those who fought in Vietnam, those who lost loved ones, and those who protested, and I also respect the sacrifice of those who died following orders of people such as myself, half a world away. Those raw emotions are once again being felt as our young men and women die in Iraq and Afghanistan. I cannot speak for the dead or the angry. [ed. That's a great sentence.]My voice is that of a policymaker, one who once decided which causes were worth fighting for, how long the fight should last, and when it was time to go home. The president, as our commander-in-chief, has the overall responsibility for making these life-or-death decisions, in consultation with Congress. The secretary of defense must be supportive of those decisions, or else he must leave.
Donald Rumsfeld has been my friend for more than 40 years. Gerald Ford and I went to Evanston to support him in his first congressional race, and I urged President Bush to appoint him secretary of defense. But his overconfident and self assured style on every issue, while initially endearing him to the media, did not play well with Congress during his first term. My friends in Congress tell me Rumsfeld has modified his style of late, wisely becoming more collegial. Several secretaries during my service on the Appropriations Committee, running all the way from the tenure of Charlie Wilson to that of Clark Clifford, made the mistake of thinking they must appear much smarter than the elected officials to whom they reported. It doesn't always work.

Okay, he's able to offer constructive criticism of Donald Rumsfield. He has my attention. His writing is clear. I'm off to the sofa. See you later.

There were a few interruptions but the essay is really quick and easy reading. No real surprises, and even after thirty-five years neither of us has changed a lot. Mr. Laird was Richard Nixon's Secretary of Defense and started his term with a pretty clear mandate to get America out of Vietnam. That, more than anything else, was the message Nixon's election over George McGovern.

Laird's objective was to get US forces out while at the same time applying pressure on the South Vietnamese to take make up for the difference, a goal easier said than done. His contention is that had the South been able to receive the same economic support as the North they would not have been overrun two years after the US withdrawal. He blames the Congress for not appropriating enough money to that end.

These points stuck out to me:

***[South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu] wanted more U.S. soldiers, as did almost everyone in the U.S. chain of command, from the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on down. For each round of troop withdrawals from Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs suggested a miserly number based on what they thought they still needed to win the war. I bumped those numbers up, always in counsel with General Creighton Abrams, then the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam. Even Nixon, who had promised to end the war, accepted each troop-withdrawal request from me grudgingly. It took four years to bring home half a million troops. He understood what the others did not: that the American people's patience for the war had worn thin.

Bush is not laboring under similar handicaps in his military. His commanders share his goal of letting Iraq take care of itself as soon as its fledgling democracy is ready. And for the moment, there is still patience at home for a commonsensical, phased drawdown. In fact, the voices expressing the most patience about a sensible withdrawal and the most support for the progress of Iraqi soldiers are coming from within the U.S. military. These people are also the most eager to see the mission succeed and the most willing to see it through to the end.

***In this business of trust, President Bush got off to a bad start. Nixon had the same problem. Both the Vietnam War and the Iraq war were launched based on intelligence failures and possibly outright deception. The issue was much more egregious in the case of Vietnam, where the intelligence lapses were born of our failure to understand what motivated Ho Chi Minh in the 1950s. Had we understood the depth of his nationalism, we might have been able to derail his communism early on.

The infamous pretext for leaping headlong into the Vietnam War was the Gulf of Tonkin incident. My old destroyer, the U.S.S. Maddox, was patrolling the Gulf of Tonkin 25 miles off the coast of North Vietnam on August 2, 1964, when it was attacked by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats. That solitary attack would have been written off as an aberration, but two days later the U.S.S. Maddox, joined then by the U.S.S. Turner Joy, reported that it was under attack again. From all I was able to determine when I read the dispatches five years later as secretary of defense, there was no second attack. There was confusion, hysteria, and miscommunication on a dark night. President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara either dissembled or misinterpreted the faulty intelligence, and McNamara hotfooted it over to Capitol Hill with a declaration that was short of war but that resulted in a war anyway.

***His west Texas cowboy approach -- shoot first and answer questions later, or do the job first and let the results speak for themselves -- is not working. With his propensity to wrap up a package and present it as a fait accompli, Bush declared, "Mission accomplished!" at the end of the major combat phase of the Iraq war. That was a well-earned high-five for the military, but it soon became obvious that the mission had only just begun.

***Those who call the new Iraqi government Washington's "puppet" don't know what a real puppet government is. The Iraqis are as eager to be on their own as we are to have them succeed. In Vietnam, an American, Ambassador Philip Habib, wrote the constitution in 1967. Elections were choreographed by the United States to empower corrupt, selfish men who were no more than dictators in the garb of statesmen.

***The president must articulate a simple message and mission. Just as the spread of communism was very real in the 1960s, so the spread of radical fundamentalist Islam is very real today. It was a creeping fear until September 11, 2001, when it showed itself capable of threatening us. Iraq was a logical place to fight back, with its secular government and modern infrastructure and a populace that was ready to overthrow its dictator. Our troops are not fighting there only to preserve the right of Iraqis to vote. They are fighting to preserve modern culture, Western democracy, the global economy, and all else that is threatened by the spread of barbarism in the name of religion. That is the message and the mission. It is not politically correct, nor is it comforting. But it is the truth, and sometimes the truth needs good marketing.

Condoleezza Rice is one person in the administration who understands and has consistently and clearly stated this message. When she was national security adviser, the media seemed determined to sideline her repeated theme, perhaps because she was perceived as a mere water bearer for the president. As secretary of state, she is in a better position to speak independently. The administration should do its best to keep the microphone in her hands.

***Vietnam, however, should be a cautionary tale when fighting guerrilla style, whether it be in the streets or in the jungle. Back then, frightened and untrained U.S. troops were ill equipped to govern their baser instincts and fears. Countless innocent civilians were killed in the indiscriminate hunt for Vietcong among the South Vietnamese peasantry. Some of the worst historical memories of the Vietnam War stem from those atrocities. Our volunteer troops in Iraq are better trained and supervised, yet the potential remains for a slaughter of innocents. Reports have already surfaced of skittish American soldiers shooting Iraqi civilians in acts that can only be attributed to poor training and discipline.

To stop abuses and mistakes by the rank and file, whether in the prisons or on the streets, heads must roll at much higher levels than they have thus far. I well remember the unexpected public support for Lieutenant William Calley, accused in the massacre of civilians in the village of My Lai. The massacre did not occur on my watch, but Calley's trial did, and Americans flooded the White House with letters of protest when it appeared that Calley would be the scapegoat while his superiors walked free. The best way to keep foot soldiers honest is to make sure their commanders know that they themselves will be held responsible for any breach of honor.

For me, the alleged prison scandals reported to have occurred in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and at Guantánamo Bay have been a disturbing reminder of the mistreatment of our own POWs by North Vietnam. The conditions in our current prison camps are nowhere near as horrific as they were at the "Hanoi Hilton," but that is no reason to pat ourselves on the back. The minute we begin to deport prisoners to other nations where they can legally be tortured, when we hold people without charges or trial, when we move prisoners around to avoid the prying inspections of the Red Cross, when prisoners die inexplicably on our watch, we are on a slippery slope toward the inhumanity that we deplore. In Vietnam, I made sure we always took the high ground with regard to the treatment of enemy prisoners. I opened our prison camps wide to international inspectors, so that we could demand the same from Hanoi. In Iraq, there are no American POWs being held in camps by the insurgents. There are only murder victims whose decapitated bodies are left for us to find. But that does not give us license to be brutal in return.

***In all, 2.8 million Americans served in and around Vietnam during the war, yet less than ten percent of them were in-line infantry units, the men we think of as our Vietnam veterans. Men were drafted and given a few weeks of training before being attached to a unit of strangers. With few exceptions, our all-volunteer military in Iraq is motivated, well trained, well equipped, and in cohesive units. This is not to say that any of these troops want to be there. They don't. Yet they are far more motivated to fight this war than were the average conscripts in Vietnam.

They are also part of a much smarter military, thanks in large part to the lessons of Vietnam. In 1986, the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, with input from some veterans of my team at the Pentagon, cleaned up many of the command problems that hindered us in Vietnam and for a decade thereafter. The old system encouraged the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be anything but joint. They protected their fiefdoms and withheld cooperation from one another. The Goldwater-Nichols act centralized authority in the chair of the Joint Chiefs as the primary adviser to the president and the secretary of defense. The separate services are now responsible for training their people for war, but the area commanders who run the wars control all the assets. Today's soldiers, sailors, and air personnel can also be more secure knowing that the people who make life-or-death decisions represent a better balance between military expertise and the will of the people as expressed through their elected officials.

He makes a good case for the all-volunteer army. I was fortunate to have been assigned to Korea instead of Vietnam. My tour of duty was a cakewalk compared with those who went to Vietnam. I'm sure that had I been put into combat my views would not have remained as luxuriously idealistic as they have.

And he sure likes Condoleeza Rice. Doesn't everybody?

No comments: