Historical analogies are seductive in
trying to make sense of a complex reality, but they are false friends if
they are used as a substitute for thinking. Recently there have been
some rather far fetched comparisons between the war in Iraq and the
Vietnam war. In particular some have compared the political impact of
the American reverse at Fallujah with the 1968 Tet offensive. One highly
influential friend of ours has gone as far as comparing Fallujah with
the battle of Dien Bien Phu!
Let us remind ourselves what actually
happened at Fallujah.
After 4 American mercenaries were brutally
killed by a crowd of armed Iraqis in Fallujah, television pictures
caused some outrage in the US where the 4 were somewhat dishonestly
described as "civilian contractors." The town of 284000 people was then
sealed of by a force of 20000 Marines for four weeks demanding that the
killers be handed over. This seems to have been a crude reaction by the
American government to appease public opinion back home, deploying a
large military force but with political objectives that could not be
achieved by military means.
Despite sporadic skirmishing there was
no attempted assault on the town. An estimated 12 US soldiers died
during the siege, and up to 850 Iraqis - probably most of the Iraqis
were non-combatants. The Americans seem to have deliberately bombed the
main hospital, reinforcing the impression that this was a punitive
operation following the model of the Israeli Defense Force.
At the beginning of May the US forces
handed over control to a former Iraqi soldier, Muhammed Latif, who had
been a Major General in Saddam's army. He was allowed to raise a force
of 1100 Iraqis in the town wearing Saddam era military uniforms who
would "keep order". This was clearly celebrated as a victory by the
insurgents, but was neither a catastrophic military nor political defeat
for the Americans, and seems to have been a pragmatic way of extricating
themselves from an ill conceived adventure, by shifting in Fallujah to
the model of occupation they already employ in Afghanistan - i.e.
sponsoring local warlords. A model that has been described by the Iraqi
academic Kemil Mahdi as an "extremist Zionist dream".
The mainstream US media did not report
the siege as a defeat, nor did they report the scale of civilian death.
There was slight increase in anti war sentiment (support for the war
fell to 47% in one poll). There were no significant demonstrations or
protests in solidarity with Fallujah anywhere in the Western world.
Let us be clear that the Americans
suffered less casualties at Fallujah than the British did at Warren
Point in 1979, when 17 paratroopers, and a Lieutenant colonel from the
Queen's Own Highlanders were killed by the IRA, on the same day that
they assassinated Earl Mountbatten.
Comparison with Dien Bien Phu is
The Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu had
its 50th anniversary this year, on 7th May. It was
a very large scale battle, where a 15709 strong French expeditionary
Force were overwhelmed by an estimated 100000 Viet Minh led by General
Giap after 57 days of very intense fighting. . (As an aside, there is
folklore that a significant number of former Waffen SS troops were
deployed at Dien Bien Phu in the legion etrangere).
French losses were crushing. At the end
of the battle the French had only 5863 able bodied soldiers, and of the
10863 taken prisoner by the Vietnamese, only 3290 ever returned home.
The French also lost 56 combat aircraft
The French estimates that up to 12000
Viet Minh were killed and up to 30000 wounded.
The overwhelming significance of the
battle was twofold. Firstly an entire French army had been destroyed in
the field and no longer existed as a fighting force. Secondly the
strategic aim of the French High Command, of establishing a military
redoubt that would deliberately draw the Viet Minh into a conventional
battle had catastrophically failed, so that the remaining French army
units were demoralised and no longer prepared to fight.
The day after their defeat, on 8th
May 1954, the French Republic asked for an armistice at the Geneva Peace
Conference and the French Empire in Indochina was over.
Comparison with the Tet Offensive of
1968 is only slightly less silly.
The first thing to say is that the Tet
offensive was also on a very large scale, preceded by a huge
diversionary battle where 25000 soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA)
attacked the US base at Khe Sanh for 77 days, again commanded by General
Giap. The Tet offensive itself was a coordinated series of uprisings
across South Vietnam by 70000 organised guerrillas from the National
Liberation Front (NLF), who captured the cities of Hue and Ben Tre, and
momentarily held parts of the US embassy in the capital, Saigon. The
Americans lost 14000 troops in 1968 and at the end of the Tet Offensive
General Westmorland requested 200000 reinforcements.
Actually the best political account of
the significance of the Tet offensive is from SWP member Jonathan Neale
in his excellent book "The
American War". Jonathan
summarises the outcome of Tet brilliantly in one sentence: "It
was a shattering defeat for both the Southern Guerrillas and the
American Ruling Class."
The paradox is that the American army
both won the battle of Khe Sanh decisively, and almost completely
destroyed the NLF, who lost an estimated 45000 troops, and were
effectively destroyed as an organisation.
To understand this it is useful to
consider the Vietnam War as a series of simultaneous conflicts,
following Ernest Mandel's account of the second world war. At one level
there was a proxy war between the USA and the USSR who are supplying
both the NVA and the NLF. At another level there was a national
liberation struggle, combining both guerrilla fighting in the south and
conventional military forces from independent North Vietnam. Thirdly,
there was a peasant war against landlordism and cronyism in South
Vietnam. Finally, it both required and justified a war on the home front
in the USA against "communism" and in favour of a militarised
authoritarian society. All of these struggles were connected and
The Tet offensive became a decisive
American victory against the guerrilla forces, and it destroyed
communist party organisation in the villages, demobilising the peasant
insurgency. Nevertheless, the scale of the Vietnamese assault, and the
fact that the American victory required hard fighting was a political
defeat for Washington, both showing their vulnerability, and also
cracking wide open the political consensus in support of the war at
Does it matter?
It is a grave mistake to underestimate the
resilience and resolve of the imperialist forces, not should it be
assumed that the generals are stupid. They study the lessons of Vietnam
at West Point and Sandhurst as well! War never goes according to plan
except in the fantasies of politicians, and the American General staff
always distanced themselves from the extreme optimism of Rumsfeld.
Military men are pragmatic and expect to deal with volatile changes of
plan and occasional set backs.
The Americans haven't lost the war yet,
and wishful thinking won't bring that day any nearer.