London, Iraq, and Vietnam

In February 1965, a unit of the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam launched an attack on a US base near the Central Highlands city of Pleiku.  Eight US military personnel were killed and ten aircraft were destroyed.  Seizing the moment, the US responded by escalating the war, beginning the “Rolling Thunder” bombing of North Vietnam and (a few months later) sending hundreds of thousands of ground troops to South Vietnam.

Contingency plans for such an escalation had been in the works for months.  As president Johnson’s National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy famously (and privately) observed at the time, “Pleikus are like streetcars.”   That is, one could make contingency plans on the assumption that an attack such as that on Pleiku would happen sooner or later.

Pleiku presented an opportunity to the US war managers.  As the Pentagon Papers show, the Johnson administration was confronted by rising dissent at home and the threat of peace negotiations between the North and the South Vietnamese governments.  At the same time, US efforts to train, equip, and otherwise bolster the fighting capabilities of the South Vietnamese military were going nowhere.  The handwriting was on the wall: the United States had to escalate the war or face the prospect of a settlement negotiated among the Vietnamese themselves.  The attack on Pleiku enabled a “solution” to this dilemma: hundreds of thousands of US troops were sent to Vietnam, and the war lasted another decade, killing millions.

Today the US faces an impasse in Iraq broadly similar to that faced by president Johnson in Vietnam in 1965.  All indications are that a great majority of the people of Iraq – and substantial parts of the “governing” political parties – want to find a negotiated settlement that includes the speedy withdrawal of the US occupation forces.  US efforts to create an Iraqi mercenary army have been unsuccessful and show no signs of improving.  US generals have cautioned against expecting much progress within the next two years.  Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s must recent shot from the hip warned that the insurgency may last up to “8, 10, 12 years.”  And a majority of Democrats in Congress – though not the Democratic Party leadership – is pressing for some kind of closure on president Bush’s open-ended US military commitment in Iraq.

Like president Johnson in Vietnam in early 1965, president Bush has painted himself into a corner in Iraq.  Both retreat and escalation were/are equally unappealing options.  In Iraq, retreat is unthinkable because of the geopolitical goals of the US political leadership, while escalation is stymied because of growing public opposition to what increasingly appears to be a failed enterprise.

Escalation in Iraq requires a great increase in manpower, and this can only be achieved by a military draft.  The main strategic dilemma in Iraq is the inability of US forces to control the towns and cities in the central region of Iraq.  There are simply not enough soldiers.  The obstacles to increasing the size of the US force in Iraq are well-known: foreign military contingents are dwindling and unlikely to increase; the Army Reserve and National Guard are tapped out and on the edge of revolt; and extended tours of duty by the regular Army and the Marines cannot be sustained indefinitely.  Additionally, the number of US troops no longer able to fight – when adding dead, wounded, and those evacuated for other reasons – has reached approximately 20,000.

The military establishment’s arguments against the draft are well known, but just as the Pentagon acquiesced in a war plan for invading Iraq that was very risky, so there is no reason to think that the Joint Chiefs would mount significant opposition to a draft if the alternative is quagmire and defeat.  Political opposition to the draft, in Congress and elsewhere, can also be expected; but the Republican majority has not broken ranks yet on an issue relating to the war, and the Democratic party leadership (including the Kerry campaign) has been calling for more soldiers for over a year.  The fact that 90% of the populace opposes an increase in the number of troops would not, in itself, deter the war party.  What happens to this scenario in the face of popular mobilization by antiwar and anti-draft forces, of course, would be the determining factor.

Except for its magnitude, Thursday’s tragic bombing in London was predictable, one in a series of attacks on countries participating in the US occupation of Iraq.  Presumably it is only a matter of time before a similar incident – an attack at home or on US installations abroad – will happen to us.   We need not manufacture conspiracy theories to suggest that many in the Bush administration would see such an attack as an opportunity, just as many high-level officials so responded to 9/11.   The next 48 hours – in London and Washington – will probably be enough time to learn what impact, if any, the London bombings will have on public support for continuing or escalating the war in Iraq.  In any case, military hawks in the White House and the Pentagon will be waiting for the next subway car if this doesn’t take them where they want to go.


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