Jewish World Review August 26, 2003 / 28 Menachem-Av, 5763

Jack Kelly

Jack Kelly
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Two lessons of Vietnam the Bush administration and its critics ought to pay more attention to | Most who prattle on about the "lessons of Vietnam" haven't a clue as to what they were. But there are two lessons of Vietnam to which both the Bush administration and its critics ought to pay more attention than they have. The most successful innovation in the counterguerrilla campaign in Vietnam was the Combined Action Platoons (CAP), the brainchild of Marine LtCol. William Corson.

The CAPs were formed by adding a squad of Marines to a platoon of South Vietnamese militia guarding a particular village. The presence of the Marines stiffened the spines of the Ruff Puffs, who left by themselves were far more likely to run in terror from the Viet Cong than to fight them.

The CAPs proved successful in resisting VC infiltration and in winning the "hearts and minds" of Vietnamese peasants. "Vietnamese people in some of the CAP hamlets still, 25 plus years after the fact, hold annual memorial services for the young men who died to keep them and their children free," Corson said.

But the CAP program never grew beyond a portion of the Marine area of operations, because Army Gen. William Westmoreland, the dimwit dunce commanding U.S. forces in Vietnam, was wedded to a "search and destroy" policy which turned rural Vietnamese into refugees, corpses, or Viet Cong. "In effect, Westmoreland had declared war against peasant society in Vietnam," wrote Michael Petersen in his book on Combined Action Platoons. "In my opinion, that is the day the United States irretreviably lost the war."

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The one macro success in that war was President Nixon's policy of "Vietnamization." In March of 1969, there were 549,500 U.S. troops in Vietnam. By May of 1972, that number had been reduced to 69,000. Nixon's policy of gradually turning over responsibility for defending South Vietnam to the South Vietnamese achieved the strategic stalemate that had been the goal of U.S. policy all along. In January of 1973 a peace treaty, reaffirming the prewar boundaries between North and South Vietnam, was signed.

South Vietnam fell in 1975 when North Vietnam sent 100,000 troops across the border, and Congress failed to provide the air support promised in the peace treaty to the outnumbered and outgunned South Vietnamese. But Congress' perfidy three years later doesn't change the fact that "Vietnamization" achieved a satisfactory result.

The low level conflict in Iraq doesn't need to be internationalized. It needs to be "Iraqized."

The Westmorelands in Congress and the news media, panicked because a UN mission which refused American protection got bombed, want to send more troops to Iraq. But more conventional troops would serve principally as targets.

Col. Douglas MacGregor, a decorated veteran of the first Gulf War, scoffs at the notion more troops are needed in Iraq now.

"It is useful to keep in mind that many of those arguing for more soldiers now in Iraq argued just a few months ago for hundreds of thousands of troops to defeat an enemy that ultimately was defeated by far, far fewer combat troops than most observers thought possible," he said. "The postwar condition is similar."

Guerrilla wars are won not by having large numbers of troops, but by having the right kind of troops, and a strategy designed to win popular support. MacGregor noted that Sir Gerald Templer, the commander of British forces that defeated a communist insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s, actually sent troops home.

"The answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people," MacGregor quoted Templer.

British military historian John Keegan said the best place to get additional troops is to recruit among the 300,000 Iraqi soldiers who were demobilized when Saddam Hussein's regime fell. Most were Shi'ia Muslim draftees who had little love for Saddam.

The CAP program provides a model. Initially, companies of Free Iraqi soldiers could be added to American battalions. Gradually, the Iraqi portion of the force should increase, the American portion decrease, until a democratic Iraq is capable of defending herself by herself. That should be an easier task in Iraq than it was in Vietnam.

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JWR contributor Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. Comment by clicking here.

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