TCS Daily

Jack Murtha and the Lessons of Vietnam

By Carroll Andrew Morse - December 9, 2005 12:00 AM

Three years ago, the Iraqi people suffered under one of the most brutal dictatorships on the planet. Within the past year, the Iraqi people have voted for an interim government, written a constitution, and approved that constitution in a popular referendum. On December 15, they will continue the process of creating democracy by choosing a permanent government in a free election. Congressman Jack Murtha, ranking member of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, is not impressed. On the November 20 broadcast of NBC's Meet the Press, Murtha characterized the events of the last two years in Iraq as "an illusionary process." Murtha is "absolutely convinced that we're making no progress at all." In his most recent press conference on December 7, Rep. Murtha stated that "I can only measure progress by what I see and the things that I can actually measure," yet chose to ignore the tangible, history-making events associated with Iraq's progress towards democracy.

Congressman Murtha wants to withdraw troops from Iraq as soon as possible after the December 15 election. Murtha's withdrawal resolution claims that "the American people have not been shown clear, measurable progress towards...a stable and improving economy in Iraq". The International Monetary Fund disagrees. An August IMF report on Iraqi progress projects that Iraq's 2007 per-capita gross domestic product will be nearly double its pre-war value. More importantly, the idea of per-capita in Saddam's Iraq was statistical fiction. Products and profits went to Saddam and his ruling clan. In a democratic Iraq, there will be a more equitable distribution of economic benefits. But to Jack Murtha, more resources more equally distributed to more Iraqis is no progress.

Congressman Murtha claims a certain authority to speak on the Iraq war because he is a Vietnam veteran. But his refusal to acknowledge Iraqi progress towards creation of a civil society out of the remains of a totalitarian police state shows that Rep. Murtha either forgot or never learned the most important lesson of Vietnam. As Naval War College faculty member Mackubin Thomas Owens has explained, the ultimate success of the North Vietnamese was based on their understanding that modern warfare consists of two distinct components, armed struggle and political struggle. American leaders in the early stages of Vietnam focused solely on armed struggle, believing that the political struggle could be resolved after North Vietnamese conventional military forces had been smashed. But America fell so far behind in the political struggle -- domestically, as well as abroad -- no amount of success in the armed struggle could compensate.

Rep. Murtha repeats America's key error of the Vietnam era when assessing the Iraqi front of the global war on terror; he focuses only on the armed struggle and ignores the political struggle. The only difference between Rep. Murtha and his Vietnam-era predecessors is that Murtha has replaced a quest for a decisive military victory with an offer of appeasement. The Murtha withdrawal plan is a call to end the armed struggle by giving the Iraqi insurgency what it wants. Rep. Murtha then expects the political struggle to somehow resolve itself in America's interest.

It is doubtful that violent insurgents -- already regularly targeting other Muslims and Arabs -- will lay down their arms after US forces withdraw from Iraq. Worse still, pacification following an American withdrawal has been made even less likely by Murtha's high-visibility refusal to acknowledge Iraqi progress towards constitutional democracy and a more equitable distribution of wealth. Iraqi insurgents will conclude that American leadership unwilling to talk about political progress in Iraq does not care about political progress in Iraq. The isolation of voters and poll workers and elected representatives and police recruits and municipal officials from visible support will energize the insurgents.

If Congressman Jack Murtha's silence on the hard-fought successes in Iraq's political struggle is an accident of sloppy communication, then Rep. Murtha should correct the mistake and end the impression that he and his party have disengaged from political struggle against terrorism -- an impression that can only boost enemy morale. If, on the other hand, Rep. Murtha and his party are not acknowledging Iraq's successes because they really are willing to sacrifice Iraqi democracy for a little short-term political advantage at home, then Rep. Murtha's "redeployment" plan should be dismissed as code for surrender.

The author is a TCS contributing writer.


Actual lessons of Vietnam
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There are lessons from Viet Nam War that apply to Iraq, but not Scowcroft's
The Viet Nam War does hold a number of lessons but my readings are at odds with Scowcroft’s. Has he ever been right about anything? Wasn’t he the one who convinced the elder Bush at the end of the first Gulf War to allow the Iraqi Army to withdraw from Kuwait with their armaments intact, which were then used to suppress the Iraqi population, primarily the Shia?

Having just completed Lewis Sorley’s book “A Better War” about the Viet Nam War, my fear is that the scariest phase of the war in Iraq lies ahead. The critically acclaimed book has had a profound change in my perception of that war. We, the U.S. and South Viet Nam, had the North stalemated - even after a precipitous withdrawal of American ground forces after General Abrams changed the strategy in 1968. The South Vietnamese were holding their own. The NVN were completely stymied. The local VC infrastructure was ground virtually to nonexistence. This was achieved with all the restrictions that were placed on our rules of engagement. It was quite a remarkable turn around. We then proceeded to (1) withdraw our air support that enabled the North to mass its forces on the borders (not to mention the loss of air transport) and then (2) squeeze our financial support down to the point where the South Vietnamese, at the end, were forced to ration bullets down to one per soldier per day. The result was predictable and fatal to our former allies.

We threw it all away and with it the lives and liberty of millions of Vietnamese. Were the Vietnamese really indifferent to the struggle for their own liberty and unwilling to fight? Conventional thought probably says so. Read the book. Fortunately it mercifully spares us the details, only touching on enough of the military realities to show how defeat was snatched from the jaws of success. Thank God that the French (yes, the French!) did not lose patience and pull out before Yorktown.

My fear is that if the Iraqi’s are successful in the coming months as I expect, the U.S. still has the potential, with Murtha and his bonehead buddies in Congress and the mainstream media, to kick the support out from under them and once again leave an ally twisting in the wind a couple of years hence. I am sick and tired of those who know less than nothing being expert that no progress being made. I’ve seen photos of too many purple fingers to know that’s not the case. Morse is on to something.

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