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Vietnam Is No Longer Part of Iraq Equation

September 22, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — One word at the center of debate over the first American war against Iraq has been conspicuously absent in the political jostling over a possible rematch: Vietnam.

When Congress authorized the 1991 Persian Gulf War, many critics--and even some supporters--warned that the face-off with Iraq could become another Vietnam "quagmire," with massive U.S. casualties.

Now, even most of those dubious of invading Iraq on diplomatic grounds are optimistic about the military outlook. As Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a leading skeptic, wrote recently, "There is ... no question about our capacity to win militarily, and perhaps to win easily."

So prevalent is the assumption that the United States could depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at relatively low cost that when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard B. Myers testified before Congress last week, they faced only a few questions about what the war might entail--and satisfied legislators with answers couched in the broadest generalities.

Such is the fruit of a string of U.S. military interventions--from the Gulf War through Afghanistan--that have brought success with extraordinarily low levels of U.S. casualties.

During the debate about the Persian Gulf War "there was still the Vietnam hangover," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "There was a fear we might be enmeshed in another quagmire. That concern has now been eradicated."

Indeed, the soaring confidence in the military has carried the country into what might be called the post-post-Vietnam era.

In 1991, still in the long shadow of this country's painful loss in Southeast Asia, Congress wrestled with two questions: Should the United States go to war against Iraq, and could it do so at an acceptable cost. Today, with virtually all sides assuming the answer to the second question is yes, the nation is left debating only whether it should intervene.

In this conflict and beyond, many analysts say, the elimination of the fear of failure or unacceptable levels of casualties means the United States is more likely to use force. But it also could lead to shock, and perhaps even rapid disillusionment, among the public if a second Iraq war produces a surprisingly high level of American deaths--a possibility some analysts don't rule out, especially if a cornered Hussein uses chemical or biological weapons.

"Fundamentally, the country is not prepared," said former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), who chaired the House International Relations Committee. Many people "have this extraordinary confidence in the American military extending to the point where they think wars can be won with minimal casualties, or none at all."

That's mainly because the predictions of heavy costs during the Persian Gulf War turned out to be so wrong.

The congressional debate that ended with authorizing the use of force to evict Hussein's troops from Kuwait rang with warnings of high death tolls and comparisons to the Vietnam War. The predictions were loudest from Senate liberals most resistant to the war. "We suffered roughly 200 casualties a week in Vietnam," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said. "Yet we may well be looking at 3,000 casualties a week in the Gulf."

But the warnings weren't confined to the left. Hawkish voices such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor for President Carter, warned of "thousands of deaths among American servicemen."

Even more fundamentally, those ominous predictions reflected worries within the military itself, said former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who voted against authorizing the Gulf War. Military leaders--including Colin L. Powell, the current secretary of State who then was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--"were saying we could take a lot of casualties," Kerrey noted.

Indeed, before the war, the Pentagon ordered 16,000 body bags. Ultimately, 148 Americans died in combat.

That set the mold for America's wars of the 1990s, in which the military's reliance on air power and precision weaponry reduced U.S. casualties to almost unimaginable levels. Just one U.S. soldier died in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and none in the air war on Yugoslavia that forced Serbia out of Kosovo. So far, 44 Americans have died in Afghanistan, only a dozen of those from enemy fire, according to Pentagon figures compiled by the Center for Defense Information.

The debate over Iraq today makes clear that in the political world, this model of low-casualty victory has replaced Vietnam as the expectation for what happens when Americans take up arms.

"There's been a real sea change in thinking about American military capability," said Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for a New American Century, a hawkish Washington think tank.

That's apparent across the political spectrum. It may be no surprise that conservatives such as Kenneth Adelman, director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the Reagan administration, predict that a war to depose Hussein would be a "cakewalk."

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