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Recommended Books on the Iraq War

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Blind in Baghdad
by Richard Cohen
Washington Post
April 13, 2004

Here are the reasons Iraq is not Vietnam: It is a desert, not a jungle. The enemy is not protected and supplied by major powers such as the Soviet Union or China, not to mention a formidable front-line state such as North Vietnam. The Iraqis are not, like the Vietnamese, a single culture fighting a long-term war of liberation from colonial masters. They are fragmented by religion and language, and they have been independent ever since the British left lo these many years ago. In almost every way but one, Iraq is not Vietnam. Here's the one: We don't know what the hell we're doing.

This is the most important finding you can take from the debacle of the past two weeks. The sudden uprising of the Shiite militia loyal to Moqtada Sadr took U.S. forces by surprise. For now, it does not matter that this uprising is containable or that Sadr may well be little more than a thug. What matters is that he was able to organize an insurrection right under our noses and put up a more than credible fight. Calling him a thug, as we are wont to do, does not change matters.

This remarkable fact, to use the current argot, is sooooooo Vietnam. Once again, we are feeling our way in the dark. We have 130,000 troops in Iraq. We have 77,000 Iraqi police officers on our side, supposedly with their ears to the ground. We have the supposed loyalty of all those Iraqis who tell pollsters that they are grateful for what Americans have done for their country and how much they want the United States to stay. Still, somehow, not a one of them blew the whistle when Sadr was issuing orders and patting his fighters on the back as they were heading out the door.

Paul Bremer, the American proconsul in Iraq, is by all accounts an admirable and incredibly industrious man, "tasked," in Condi-speak, to do the impossible. But on the Sunday talk shows, he seemed right out of central casting, some actor playing the clueless American, down to his striped tie and button-down shirt. When asked who he was going to turn power over to on June 30, he replied, "That's a good question," but supplied no answer. He simply does not know. He does know, though, that the "majority view" among Iraqis is hardly anti-American. The polls tell him so. This is Vietnam all over again.

In the first place, minorities make revolutions, not majorities. Most people simply do as they are told. Second, polls -- even in Iowa, for crying out loud -- are notoriously unreliable. Last, Bremer and the rest of us are simply going to have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we will never know what is happening in Iraq. It's a different culture.

These were the hard truths of Vietnam. This is how the base barber, the smiling guy who kidded with GIs as he cut their hair, could be Viet Cong. This is how the trusted legman for some American news outlet could be an enemy intelligence officer, now available for interviews in Ho Chi Minh City cafes. This inability to read the culture, to discern friend from foe, is what produced such frustration and the occasional war atrocity. Even with our eyes open, we were blind as a bat.

It is the same in Iraq. We went to war for the wrong reasons, and with too few troops and too few allies. Just about every expectation turned out to be misplaced. The occupation has not been financed by oil revenue, as we were assured. The Iraqi army and police are not, as promised, up to the task of maintaining order. Americans were often greeted as liberators, but also as conquerors. The United States did not commit enough troops to intimidate looters and the civilian leaders we backed turned out to have larger followings in Georgetown than in Baghdad. Victory remains possible, but first we'll have to figure out what victory is.

The list of mistakes, many of them the consequences of titanic cockiness and utter contempt for dissenters (remember how fast Gen. Eric Shinseki was shunned after he said the occupation would require several hundred thousand troops?), is long and painful. They range from the consequential to what seemed almost trivial (shutting down Sadr's newspaper) and responding to both Shiite and Sunni provocations at the same time. We could have made better decisions, but believe me, even those might not necessarily have made a difference.

The lesson of Vietnam is that once you make the initial mistake, little you do afterward is right.


2004 The Washington Post Company

Posted: April 18, 2004


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