Iraq is Not Vietnam, But...

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It's hard for Americans to shake the collective memory of Vietnam when they're sending young men and women to kill and die in distant lands. And it's not only the quagmire-phobic antiwar types that can't avoid the Vietnam references: To raise their morale before entering Iraq in March, U.S. Marines in Kuwait were visited by R. Lee Ermey, the Vietnam vet who has become a USMC legend for his portrayal of a hard-as-nails gunnery sergeant in Stanley Kubrick's 'Nam flick "Full Metal Jacket." Ermey obliged by reciting some of his more memorable motivational lines from the movie, which as at least one embedded British reporter discovered, remains a key reference for today's Marines in the field. But there are others. Just last weekend, U.S. troops psyched themselves up for a sweep in search of Saddam loyalists by blasting Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries through loudspeakers in a bizarre homage to Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."

But the main reason for the sudden surge in Vietnam analogies may be that U.S. troops, having deposed Saddam, find themselves facing a growing guerrilla insurgency. Soldiers are dying every other day in sniper shootings, grenade attacks and ambushes in Baghdad and cities to the north and west. And despite some initial reluctance to acknowledge the scale, U.S. officials are now admitting they're facing an organized campaign.

The forces attacking U.S. troops appear to be well trained and equipped, and they're able to find cover in a civilian population in Baghdad and to the north of the city that harbors considerable resentment toward the occupying forces. They're also hoping to take advantage of the fact that most of the U.S. troops in Iraq are trained to kill the enemy and win battles rather than for the delicate balance of combat, policing and civic affairs work involved in an occupation mission — witness last week's photographs of U.S. troops trying to control an angry crowd at bayonet-point. (After two Iraqis were killed in that confrontation, U.S. troops began training with non-lethal antiriot gear. Unfortunately, however, the U.S. is facing an uphill battle for Iraqi public opinion, particularly in light of the propensity of much of the local population to believe the worst rumors about the American forces. They may be untrue, but tales of rape and pillage are doing the rounds and helping alienate Iraqis from the U.S. authorities.

The insurgents also appear to be constantly evolving their tactics to respond to new U.S. moves against them. On the one hand, they're more inclined to avoid concentrating their forces and making them an easier target, but on the other hand they're expanding the range of their own attacks. Sabotage attacks on oil pipelines reveal an acute awareness of Iraq's points of vulnerability, while Wednesday's firefights that killed six and wounded eight British troops mark an even more worrisome development. While attacks on U.S. forces had been mostly confined to the Sunni Baathist heartland, the Britons were attacked in the overwhelmingly Shiite region around Basra. It could be that such attacks were mounted by the same largely Sunni groups that are harassing U.S. forces in Baghdad and to the north — after all, Saddam's (mostly Sunni) Fedayeen were active as far south as Basra in the early days of the war. But if they were carried out by Shiite militants, that could signal the beginning of a second front and a substantial escalation in the guerrilla campaign — until now, Shiite groups opposed to the U.S. presence had nonetheless condemned armed actions against the occupation as "premature."

British casualties are likely to turn up the heat on Prime Minister Tony Blair, facing accusations in his own parliament that he misled the nation into war by deliberately exaggerating the WMD threat posed by Iraq. They may also reinforce the resistance of British military chiefs to sending more troops, as requested by Washington, into what British officers believe may be a quagmire.

By attacking non-U.S. coalition forces, the insurgents may also be trying to discourage others from entering Iraq. India, for example, has been sharply divided on whether to send troops: While some in the government are keen to ingratiate New Delhi with the U.S. by going in, others warn that it's a no-win commitment that will imperil India's standing in the Arab world.

While Iraq is a very different situation from the one that confronted the U.S. military in Vietnam — the enemy has no regional or international backers to support and sustain its insurgency; the terrain and technological capability of the U.S. precludes any concentration of forces; as long as the rebellion remains confined to Sunnis its maximum political support base is no bigger than 15 percent of the population — it's the idea of U.S. troops confronting an enemy indistinguishable from an often hostile civilian population that gets alarm bells ringing. A report in London's Evening Standard last week contained disturbing accounts, from interviews with U.S. troops, of incidents in which civilians have been killed. The hostility of the civilian population in towns such as Fallujah is plainly sapping the morale of U.S. troops who had expected to be home in time for July 4 cookouts. Some are speaking out more and more bluntly to reporters in anger at the changing nature of their mission: Rifleman Matthew O'Dell told the New York Times, "You call Donald Rumsfeld and tell him . . . (we) are ready to go home. Tell him to come spend a night in our building." The idea of in-country R&R facilities certainly has an echo of Vietnam; so does the recent USO show in Baghdad featuring Kid Rock and a Playboy bunny (the rapper extolled the virtues of presidential marijuana).

But the most worrisome comparison for the Bush administration may be in the duration. Vietnam, after all, saw U.S. troops tied down on a distant battlefield for ten years. Although he did his best before the war to downplay suggestions by uniformed officers that an Iraq occupation mission would be long and costly, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz now appears ready to acknowledge that U.S. troops could be there for the next ten years, and will probably require the construction of permanent bases — and also that together with the Afghanistan mission, the Iraq security mission will likely cost around $54 billion a year.

Early indications are that much of that burden will be born by the U.S. taxpayer. For example, although a dozen countries are expected to contribute small numbers of troops to a 20,000-strong peacekeeping force led by Poland, most are expecting the U.S. to pay their way. Occupation is certainly a costly business: Just this week, a further $300 million was added to the annual budget with the announcement that U.S. authorities would resume paying salaries to Saddam's now disbanded professional army. But that may be a sound investment, since if a quarter of a million trained soldiers have no stake in the post-Saddam order, there are plenty of renegade Baathists with wads of cash to buy their services in support of an armed rebellion.

The Vietnam comparisons may exist mostly in our heads — both the soldiers obsessed with imagery from "Full Metal Jacket" and "Apocalypse Now," and a media corps looking for simple analogies to describe complex problems. But what they do reveal is a growing anxiety over the long-term nature of the Iraq occupation. Nor is there much comfort in the observation by those coalition-of-the-willing Spanish, who are finally sending 1,100 troops to join the fray in Iraq, that the situation there is not at all like Vietnam. No, says the daily El-Mundo, it's more like the Palestinian intifada.