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In Iraq, Echoes of Another Offensive

By Charles A. Krohn
Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page A19

Jan. 30 will mark Iraq's first elections on the road to democracy, provided all goes according to plan and administration expectations. It will also mark the 37th anniversary of the turning point in another American war: the Tet offensive of 1968. That was when Americans lost confidence in official pronouncements that the war in Vietnam was winnable.

It must be coincidence that the election date was set for this anniversary. Yet those of us who have vivid recollections of what it was like in and around Hue that year have reason to keep our fingers crossed, hoping that there is indeed no parallel between the two dates.

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In January 1968 I was serving with the 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry, ordered by the commander of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division to relieve the Marines surrounded in Hue. It was a valiant but futile effort, and the battalion casualty rate was more than 60 percent.

I wonder: Are the insurgents in Iraq students of history? Have they studied Ho Chi Minh's playbook? Are they familiar with Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap's dream of cutting the country in two? Do they recall what happened on Jan. 30 -- the storming of our embassy and the attacks on virtually every provincial capital? Do they know it took 28 days to eject Giap's soldiers from Hue, the ancient -- and highly symbolic -- imperial capital? Are they aware that protracted war goes against the grain of the American experience? Do they understand that the president's encouraging words are effective, but only up to a point, given battlefield reversals and disappointment?

I support the war in Iraq because I believe its people deserve more breaks in life than they had under Saddam Hussein. I also hope a democratic Iraq will influence regional politics. And, yes, I define democracy in very loose and liberal terms at the moment. I know that we failed to find weapons of mass destruction, and perhaps there was some manipulation of details in the buildup to the war. It doesn't matter now.

Regardless of whether weapons of mass destruction were found, the war we started off with in March 2003 doesn't exist anymore. We defeated Hussein. This war is more serious, because it pits us against a fundamentalist Islamic insurgency that will keep growing if we fail. Insurgents will learn that murder works -- that they are strong and the West is weak. Not all fundamentalists are murderers, but enough are to create a threat that's hardly trivial.

I'm aware that nearly half of polled Americans think that going to war in Iraq was a mistake. The fact that early reports of strategic success failed to materialize was a political depressant, especially among conservatives like me who thought Rumsfeld was the ultimate realist. When he denied for so long that there was an insurgency, he fractured his reputation permanently in some circles, discrediting himself and the president. The public at first accepted his explanation that there were only "dead-enders" making mischief and that they'd soon run out of steam. But after a few months people saw that the facts were otherwise, especially as casualties grew and the ranks of the insurgents swelled. This trend continues.

Our apparent inability to control the insurgency is troubling. In South Vietnam there was a government we could work with -- one that understood how to combat insurgency better than we outsiders did. That such a government might coalesce only after the elections makes the success of the elections critically important. If they fail, the options are few and stark.

The suspicion lingers that someone is whispering in the ears of the insurgent leadership that the American public will remember Tet '68 soon enough if there is sufficient violence as the elections approach, and if there are more suicide attacks than U.S. forces can readily suppress. They will assure each other that invalidating the elections is the tipping point and that the odds are in their favor.

The gnawing question -- the one we cannot wish away -- is: Whose side is history on?

The writer, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, is a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Michigan and author of "The Lost Battalion: Controversy and Casualties in the Battle of Hue."

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