The hope for a new era devoid of armed conflict has been destroyed by one man - Saddam Hussein. Again, world war seems possible. And, again, America has been drafted as a world policeman. As in Vietnam, U.S. troops have been sent to protect the principle of self-determination of a nation and to defend our strategic interests.
In some ways, the problems faced by American forces in the Persian Gulf today are profoundly different from those faced by U.S. troops in Vietnam when I was commander. But in several ways they are similar, and those similarities may offer some insight into the current conflict.The stakes in the Persian Gulf - strategic oil reserves and the building of a new world order jointly supported by both the United States and the Soviet Union - are far greater than they were in Vietnam. This alone translates into greater public support than the Vietnam War enjoyed, even at the beginning of that conflict. (Of course, support for the Vietnam conflict waned as the war dragged on.)
No strategic commodity was involved in Vietnam. Our aims were to contain the spread of communism in Vietnam, to prevent its expansion into ASEAN-treaty countries and to keep open Indian Ocean sea lanes.
While the large military buildup of American troops in the gulf has taken place at a very rapid pace, the Vietnam buildup was slow and measured because it was the policy of then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara to try to bring the conflict to an end with the minimum of cost. Therefore, it was like pulling teeth to get troops and reinforcements.
The unanimity of the United Nations Security Council against Saddam, which has translated into troops on the battlefield from some 16 nations, makes this conflict profoundly different from Vietnam. In effect, the United States fought the Vietnam War alone. We were essentially hanging out there by ourselves, with some assistance from South Korea, Thailand, Australia, the Philippines and New Zealand.
There were no world sanctions against North Vietnam. On the contrary, cargo ships flying the Union Jack of Great Britain went in and out of Haiphong Harbor during the whole course of the war.
In Vietnam, the United States carried the full economic burden of the war; there was no sharing of the costs with our Cold War allies.
Since World War II, U.S. troops have fought in Southeast Asia, Central America and in the Caribbean. The climate, the desert terrain and the mores of Saudi Arabia and the gulf pose a new challenge not only for combat troops, but also for logistic and administrative personnel. It has been duly commented that, for the first time, American troops are being deployed without the classic staples of beer or pin-up pictures.
As the U.S. commitment continues, these circumstances will present our senior commanders with some difficult decisions. American soldiers cannot be expected to sustain their morale and peak effectiveness for long, indefinite tours of duty in a disagreeable environment. My experience in Vietnam suggests a couple of methods that must be contemplated: timely replacement of both individuals and units.
Replacement by unit has great merit, but is complicated and expensive. Replacement of individual soldiers is less costly, but detrimental to unit effectiveness and individual morale. The best combination of these two methods would seem to be to replace units of combat soldiers that have been trained as a team; and to relieve individual administrative and logistical support personnel after they have served a number of months.
Service in the war zone should be longer for non-combatant troops than for the front-line soldier.
Another issue that has arisen already in Saudi Arabia is the matter of what nation has strategic and tactical command of troops. In other words, who gives the orders on the battlefield?
Such an important matter can and should be solved quietly and informally, according to national sensitivities. Indeed, generals are more congenial and practical than civilian officials in working with one another.
This was certainly my experience in Vietnam. In that conflict, we never announced that I had de facto command of the Vietnamese. We never published any diagrams showing the chain of command, because that could have caused a loss of face for our "brothers in arms."
But they knew who was in command. And when instructions were issued, they followed them because it was in their interest to do so.
Another issue concerns the role of the media in reporting on war. With the sacking of our Air Force commander, Gen. Michael J. Dugan, this issue has already become a factor in the Iraq crisis.
Classified information related to battlefield actions must be protected and not selfishly exploited by the media. It is up to the local commander to point out to reporters the sensitive nature of classified information. If the media obtain such information, they are committing a disservice to the public interest if they release it.
On several occasions in Vietnam, a particular network or newspaper would ignore its responsibilities in this regard in pursuit of a "scoop."
As with the North Vietnamese under the command of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, we are facing in Iraq under Saddam an enemy who can suffer massive casualties that are just not acceptable in our society.
As Saddam told U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie, "Yours is not a society which can accept 10,000 dead in one battle." On the other hand, in the Shiite Muslim religion, getting killed in battle makes one a martyr. The unbelievable carnage of the Iran-Iraq war is testament enough that Saddam is not exaggerating his point.
While this creates a psychological imbalance in terms of motivation, technological superiority is our compensation. Our weapons are more accurate and we are better able to concentrate our firepower. And we
come to the battlefield in the Middle East with the asset of intelligence from a new source - satellites.
In Vietnam, the enemy took advantage of the night for most of their attacks. Now, our military units, thanks to technology, can control the night as never before. This is true for our infantry as well as our air crews. In the Middle East, we have modern, versatile armored vehicles with great mobility and firepower, which was not the case in Vietnam.
In any given battle, this should provide the United States with a decisive advantage, despite the fact that the Iraqis have more weapons on the battlefield than the United States (including some of the latest Soviet technology), more troops and a greater political capacity to suffer massive casualties. But, as in Vietnam, the issue is not how to win battles with military superiority (we never lost a battle of consequence in Vietnam). The issue is winning the war through sustained political will.
No one can accurately forecast the trend of war or its length. Therefore, it is prudent to prepare for the worst case - a long, violent struggle. As in all wars, the aftermath is as important as the war itself, and our actions should consider that fact.
The aggression to which the world has responded is a one-man show put on by Saddam a ruthless, clever and unpredictable dictator. He is a gambler, but also a realist.
If it becomes clear to him that he is personally cornered, that his own life is at stake, we must provide a vent for his furious desperation by allowing him to flee into exile into any country that might accept him in the spirit of peace.
Despite some calls for personal retribution against Saddam, the advice I might give to the present policymakers is the same offered by the first known military philosopher, Sun Tzu:
"When an enemy is surrounded, leave him an escape route. If surrounded, he will fight like a captured tiger. If there is an escape route, he will quietly withdraw to live another day."
1990, New Perspectives Quarterly