Vietnam connections

Robert McFarlane served as National Security Adviser to President Reagan. NB: Roberts critique of the media is accurate in broad stroke, especially considering the vast majority of American’s get their “news” via TV. But there are some outstanding journalists reporting accurately on Iraq — such as John Burns and Michael Gordon [NY Times]. Unfortunately, the competent reportage is effectively invisible in the flood of “today’s bombing” context-free coverage.

Here are McFarlane’s Vietnam parallels [$]:

Thirty-nine years ago, half way through my second tour in Vietnam, the Tet Offensive was launched by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, who were soundly defeated on the battlefield. Two measures of that battle — both relevant to the situation in Iraq today — stand out for me. The first relates to an important lesson U.S. forces had learned after three years of conflict: the vital role of “winning hearts and minds” of the local population. The second concerns the power of the press to affect our ability to sustain violent warfare.

Concerning the first of these, by early 1968 Marines had conceived a plan for building mutual trust and respect among villagers in Northern I Corps built around the deployment of platoon-sized units that lived and worked each day with local Vietnamese peasants with no greater mission than to “make life better.”

Each of these Combined Action Platoons (or CAPs as they were called) included a medic qualified to carry out “well checks” — including inoculations and treatment of minor maladies — as well as assistance with securing hospital care if needed for the families in each village. An engineer was also often sent along to organize repairs of fragile dwellings, drill wells, help organize perimeter fortifications, and to undertake a hundred other utilitarian tasks.

The results from launching the CAP program were enormous and measurable. Probably the most significant return from the good will earned by these enlisted Marines was the increasing yield in tactical intelligence. Specifically, throughout the week-long Tet offensive in early 1968 not one village in which a CAP was deployed fell to the enemy.

Yet the press — notwithstanding the defeat of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong on the battlefield and the complete failure of the enemy to provoke an uprising and rallying of southerners to their cause — portrayed U.S. forces as having been surprised, bloodied and having suffered a resounding defeat. That misrepresentation had a powerful effect in Washington and in our body politic. Support for the war, already declining, unraveled at an accelerating pace.

Though there are valid criticisms to be made of how our military leadership conducted the war for the first three years — blunders that were worsened by disingenuous or misleading briefings at headquarters in Saigon — there is no doubt that the military finally adopted effective counterinsurgency tactics and was turning the tide on the battlefield. By then however, the early mistakes and distortions of reality by both U.S. politicians and military commanders had so undermined their credibility with the press — a press that was only too willing to go with the flow of liberal sentiment here at home — as to make it all but impossible for the administration to secure funding for the war. Sound familiar?

There was another important and dispiriting loss in the segue from Vietnam to Iraq. Despite the obvious success of the counterinsurgency tactics adopted late in the war, when it was over that nascent doctrine was expunged from our field manuals and the leadership of our military re-oriented our focus toward grand-scale land warfare in Europe. As a result, there were precious few in the senior or enlisted ranks of the U.S. military capable of leading or carrying out a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq.

Today, four years into the war in Iraq, we’ve come full circle to the point reached 40 years ago — unfortunately in both respects. On the one hand we’ve found military leaders — men such as Army Gen. David Petraeus and Marine Lt. Gen. Jim Mattis — with a solid grasp of what is needed to turn the military tide, and who are managing that task with early evidence of success. More money is going into winning hearts and minds. More resources are being devoted to quality of life fixes that are visible to Iraqis. Shuttered factories are being opened in a major new program launched by Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England and headed by his subordinate Paul Brinkley. A major agricultural program is about to be launched in Anbar province, again under Pentagon leadership.

The truly good news is that the results are being felt. Sheiks and tribal leaders watching the changes being made in Anbar are coming our way, and offering various kinds of support to help root out al Qaeda and deal with the insurgents. Yet news of these successes is very hard to find in our mainstream media. It’s February ’68 redux — with far greater consequences I fear.

I don’t mean to imply that all is well in Iraq; the political situation remains a shambles. It is imperative that we rally the leadership of each of the leading factions in Iraq and make two things clear. First, we intend to stand with them for as long as it takes if they demonstrate a sober willingness to reconcile their differences over time through formation of a functional coalition government devoted to a fair distribution of political and economic power within the country. Second, our ability to sustain support for them at home is tied to their performance. Although this prescription for winning the war is easy to describe it is hard to accomplish, especially the fostering of political reconciliation. Yet it must be done. The good news is that there are experienced veterans who possess the requisite skills for the job.

The question remains, however: Should the Iraqis succeed in this crucial endeavor, how will it be reported? For the press this is yet another moment of truth. Will it continue to publish a distorted picture of this war as it did in Vietnam, and share responsibility for the same result?