View Full Version : Public's turn against war raises Vietnam specter

11-20-05, 05:12 AM
Public's turn against war raises Vietnam specter
Sat Nov 19,11:54 PM ET

The American public's souring mood over the war in Iraq is something US military leaders have seen before and learned to dread. In Vietnam, it foreshadowed a humiliating defeat.

Steadily mounting casualties, anti-war protests, crumbling public support and the open political warfare that erupted this week in Washington over Iraq have only heightened the sense of deja vu.

"This is following a political trajectory very similar to Vietnam," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Washington think tank.

"What happened in Vietnam was that as key legislators began to fall away from the president's agenda, military officers began to wonder whether they should be risking their lives for a waning cause," he said.

The growing break over Iraq was dramatized Thursday in Congress when Representative John Murtha (news, bio, voting record), a former Marine and respected Democratic lawmaker, set off a political firestorm by calling for an immediate withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

"The American public is way ahead of the members of Congress. The United States and coalition troops have done all they can in Iraq. But it's time for a change in direction," Murtha said.

US military leaders, influenced by the Vietnam experience, have long recognized that the US public support is its "center of gravity," which if tipped could spell disaster in a long war.

Retired general and former secretary of state Colin Powell, author of the "Powell Doctrine," favored the use of short, high-intensity wars with clearly defined goals in part because of the difficulty of keeping the public on board in a protracted conflict.

General Richard Myers, the former chariman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, worried that loss of public support in Iraq could lead to a precipitous withdrawal of forces.

"As a nation, our best weapons are patience and resolve or, in one word, our 'will'," he said before retiring in September. "We simply cannot afford to lose the will to finish the job at hand."

Since then, public support has continued to slide and this week the Senate signalled its concern by passing an ammendment that called for regular progress reports on Iraq.

"What you see here is that members of both parties are basically running out of patience, and in effect saying they don't care what the consequence of leaving will be," Thompson said.

"When a military officers sees that and understands what it means, it has to have a negative effect on their performance," he said.

There is no sign yet that the morale of the US military has suffered.

Although recruiting has grown more difficult, the army and marines report high re-enlistment rates even in combat units deployed in Iraq.

"When you're serving with a unit in combat overseas, your loyalty is totally focused on the guys you're serving with. What happens back home is really noise level stuff," said Charles Krohn, a retired army officer.

However, Krohn, who served two combat tours in Vietnam and as a civilian public affairs officer in Iraq, said some in the military are unhappy with the failure to plan for a counter-insurgency, or "phase four" in the military's planning jargon.

"You can't expect the senior leadeship to be openly critical, but I think they share many of the views of others that our failure to anticipate phase four and our slowness to recalibrate has cost us time and lives," he said.

US military officers publicly profess optimism over the course of events in Iraq, insisting they are making good progress in training Iraqi security forces to eventually replace them.

"My soldiers believe that we've made great strides in supporting democracy in Iraq, and all my soldiers want to see that job finished," Colonel James Brown, the commander of a combat brigade in Iraq, said Friday.

The military's optimism appears genuine.

A poll published this week by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 64 percent of opinion leaders in the military believe efforts to establish a stable democracy in Iraq will succeed; 32 percent thought it will fail.

In contrast, civilian opinion leaders thought the Iraq effort would be a failure in proportions that were the reverse of those for the military.

In media, academia, government, science and engineering, high percentages of those surveyed said they believed the Iraq project will fail.

The general public was more skeptical but 56 percent believe that the Iraq effort will succeed, and 37 percent that it will fail, the poll found.

Anthony James Joes, an expert on counter-insurgency warfare at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, vehemently objects to most comparisons of Iraq with Vietnam but sees a similarity in the way Congress began cutting back aid.

"If I had to give my best estimate I would say the Bush administration is going to end in a very bad way, and we will eventually abandon Iraq," he said.