David Ignatius's Nov. 4 op-ed column comparing the "clear and hold" strategy used in Vietnam and the similar policy apparently being applied in Iraq brought to mind events from the years when I was responsible for economic assistance to Vietnam.

It is true that the pacification of Vietnam's countryside went better under Gen. Creighton W. Abrams Jr. than it did under his predecessor, but the Viet Cong were almost wiped out during the Tet Offensive in January 1968 and never regained their strength. The degree of improvement in the pacification of the countryside was noticeable in the economic sphere. "Clear and hold" seemed to be working.

But even Gen. Abrams could not overcome the lack of commitment on the part of the South Vietnamese army. Abrams assigned South Vietnamese troops to attack the Ho Chi Minh Trail near the border with North Vietnam, supported by U.S. air cover but with no U.S. ground troops involved. I was in Hue, near the attack site, and received reports of the battle as it took place. The South Vietnamese troops could not face up to the determination of the North Vietnamese army and fled, leaving their heavy equipment behind.

At a reception a few days later, Gen. Abrams as much as said that the South didn't have much hope, given the lack of commitment by its troops. To the best of my recollection, the South's troops were not tested again before the completion of the U.S. pullout, and when the war was in its final stages, the North Vietnamese army overran the South with ease.

In retrospect it is obvious that the North was committed to its objective: the unification of the country. Its troops were willing to fight and die in that cause, while the South had no similar commitment.

One advantage for the government in Iraq is that there is no place, such as North Vietnam, for a standing army to be trained and equipped. But the parallel in the two cases is the need for a determined fighting force that believes it is fighting for reasons worth dying for. It is not yet clear whether this exists in Iraq.



The writer was assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, in charge of the Vietnam Bureau from 1970 to 1974.