The Mess We Left Behind

By John A. Graham
Sunday, January 14, 2007

I was a civilian adviser in Vietnam, sent there by the State Department in early 1971 just as U.S. combat troops were starting to go home. I wasn't there to fight, but I soon learned that "noncombatant" didn't mean much in Hué, the provincial capital 50 miles south of the demilitarized zone where I was posted. A week into my stay, a sniper's bullet whistled past my ear on the main highway. Joe Jackson, the burly major who was driving the Jeep, yelled at me to hold on and duck as he zigzagged to spoil the sniper's aim.

In 1971, the U.S. government did not issue weapons to civilian advisers in Vietnam, even to those of us in dangerous outposts. The reason was not principle, but public relations -- and here begin the lessons for America's war in Iraq.

Sometime in 1969, the White House, faced with unrelenting facts on the ground and under siege from the public, had quietly decided that the United States couldn't win in Vietnam. President Richard M. Nixon and national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger didn't put it that way, of course. The United States was a superpower and could not lose a war to a third-rate nation whose soldiers lived on rice and hid in holes in the ground. So the White House conceived an elaborate strategy to mask the U.S. defeat: Slowly withdraw combat troops over several years, while the remaining Americans would focus on training the South Vietnamese to fight on their own. We gave the South Vietnamese a series of performance ultimatums -- call them benchmarks -- that, if unmet, would trigger full U.S. withdrawal and shift blame to the South Vietnamese for the debacle that would follow. This "Vietnamization" strategy cost at least 10,000 more U.S. lives and countless more Vietnamese ones, plus billions of dollars. And it was rigged from the start.

All but Washington's wildest dreamers knew that the South Vietnamese could not meet our ultimatums -- especially our demand that they create a popular national state strong enough to control the rivalries that had long ripped the country apart. And more years of U.S. training could not possibly make a difference because the core missing element was not South Vietnamese combat or leadership skills -- it was belief in a nation worth fighting for.

To make the drama of Vietnamization work, the pullout had to be gradual and easily explained to the American public. The U.S. training force left behind had to be large enough to provide signs of our commitment on the 6 o'clock news. Pictures of unarmed advisers like me shaking hands with happy peasants would support the fallacy that Vietnamization was working.

The White House hoped that this strategy would keep the house of cards upright for at least a couple of years, providing what Kissinger infamously called a "decent interval" that could hide the U.S. defeat by declaring that the fate of South Vietnam was now the responsibility of the South Vietnamese. If they didn't want freedom badly enough to win, well, we had done our best.

By June 1971, the 101st Airborne Division, stationed just outside Hué, had all but stood down from active fighting. It had provided the security that allowed my training/advisory teams and me to continue building schools and roads and training local officials. Even as that protection ebbed, my teams were still expected to go into a countryside that was becoming more dangerous by the day. As the U.S. adviser to Hué, I was an easy target anytime the Viet Cong might have wanted to take me out. I kept a case of grenades under my bed, slept with an M-16 propped against the bedstead and had a dubious army of four Vietnamese house guards who I hoped would at least fire a warning shot before running away.

On April 27, 1972, North Vietnamese forces swept south across the demilitarized zone, scattering the South Vietnamese army defenders in Quang Tri and pushing south toward Hué. By early May, the battle line arced 15 miles north and 10 miles west of the city. To the east was the South China Sea and to the south, the road to Danang -- Hué's last ground link to the outside world.

More than 200,000 refugees poured into Hué. Hungry people fought for scraps of garbage and looted homes and shops. Among the refugees were hundreds of deserters from the South Vietnamese divisions shattered in Quang Tri, still wearing uniforms and carrying M-16s. A mob of drunken soldiers torched the main market at Dong Ba. The city's firemen had long since fled, and black smoke hung in a pall over streets now jammed with terrified people and echoing with gunshots and shattering glass. There was nothing we could do but watch the shouting, shoving mass of people stream past us toward the Danang road.

No one knew it at the time, but the battle raging just north and west of Hué that night -- May 2, 1972 -- was the turning point in the war. If the city fell, the road to Danang would be open to the North Vietnamese army. My three American colleagues in Hué and I did not believe we would be pulled out in time if the city fell. We knew that any choppers sent to save us would be mobbed by Vietnamese desperate to escape. We're alive because U.S. carrier jets caught the advancing North Vietnamese at daybreak just short of the city walls and all but obliterated them.

For all this, there never really was a decent interval in Vietnam. The pictures on the evening news showed not happy peasants but terror and carnage as Vietnam collapsed.

The pictures from Iraq are no different. The overall strategy seems no different, either. What President Bush wants to do is Vietnamization in all but name. Its purpose is not to win an unwinnable war, but to provide political cover for a defeat, and eventually to blame the loss on the Iraqis.

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