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Winning the Peace, Quietly

In Iraq, as once in Vietnam, a gap exists between battlefield realities and home-front perceptions.

September 07, 2003|Max Boot | Max Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and is author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."

NEW YORK — Having just returned from visiting our troops in Iraq, I couldn't help but see parallels with Vietnam. But not in the way you'd think.

Usually Vietnam is invoked to warn of a quagmire, of an impending U.S. defeat against a guerrilla foe. El Salvador, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan were all going to be the "next" Vietnam before winding up U.S. victories. Now it's Iraq's turn to be seen, unfairly, as the looming quagmire.

But the real parallel with Vietnam is the disparity between battlefield realities and home-front perceptions.

In the popular view, Vietnam became "unwinnable" after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Actually, that campaign was a major American victory that all but destroyed the Viet Cong as an effective fighting force. By 1970 more than 90% of South Vietnam's population was under Saigon's control. But by then it didn't matter: Congress, the media and the voters had tired of the war and forced a sharp decrease in American aid. The result was that Saigon fell in 1975 -- not to guerrillas but to North Vietnamese regulars driving T-54 tanks.

Now the media are portraying Iraq as a proto-Vietnam, a land where U.S. troops can't do anything right and where they can expect a prolonged and painful defeat. But as in Vietnam, U.S. troops in Iraq are slowly winning the war on the ground, even as they're losing the public relations battle back home.

That, at any rate, was the conclusion I reached after spending 10 days last month with the 1st Marine Division, based in south-central Iraq, and the 101st Airborne Division, based in northern Iraq. Speaking with everyone from privates to three-star generals, I was impressed by an overall sense of optimism and resolve in spite of well-publicized setbacks such as the horrific bombing of a mosque in Najaf. Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of the 1st Marine Division, put it succinctly: "We've got the bastards on the run."

The success that both divisions are having is based on a smart counterinsurgency strategy that combines carrots and sticks. Both are careful not to use indiscriminate firepower that would alienate civilians. Their raids are carefully focused so that they hit Baathist safe houses while minimizing inconvenience for and humiliation of the innocent.

I went with the Marines' Task Force Scorpion on one such raid, in a Sunni neighborhood south of Baghdad. As we drove, three remote- controlled bombs went off on the roadside. Luckily no one was injured; the blasts missed our vehicles. The Marines immediately got out and searched for the perpetrators. One suspect tested positive for explosive residue on his hands. He was plexi-cuffed and stuck in the back of an armored vehicle next to me. A corporal asked me to cover him with a 9-millimeter pistol. I was happy to comply. The next day, the task force caught four suspected Fedayeen who had explosive devices. Through such successes, Scorpion has managed to dramatically reduce terrorism in its area.

But the bulk of what U.S. forces are doing in Iraq isn't strictly military. Rather, it's what used to be known as winning "hearts and minds." Col. Joseph Anderson, commander of the 101st Airborne's 2nd Brigade, which garrisons Mosul, took me on a tour to see all the projects being undertaken by his "Screaming Eagles" in Iraq's third-largest city. They range from training police officers to providing medicine for the local hospital, to painting schools, to refurbishing an Olympic-size swimming pool, to building houses for refugees. The list is long -- and all of it is earning the goodwill of Iraqi citizens. This has had a payoff in increased tips about troublemakers.

While the news coverage focuses on terrorism, a drive through Mosul or through southern cities like Najaf and Karbala shows a high degree of normalcy returning. Shops are crammed with goods ranging from stereos to tomatoes. The streets are packed with pedestrians, the roads jammed with cars.

What was most encouraging was the attitude of civilians toward the U.S. military. Every drive through Iraq in a U.S. military vehicle becomes a referendum on the occupation. Do the people smile or frown as you pass? In the "Sunni Triangle" around Baghdad and Fallujah, U.S. Army patrols are often met with sullen stares. In south-central and northern Iraq, smiles and waves are almost universal. Little kids are especially enthusiastic, indicating that their parents have not poisoned their minds against the Americans.

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