Baghdad and Ghosts of Tet

Article excerpt


The decisive battle in the war to depose Saddam Hussein will soon begin. American and British troops are fighting their way toward Baghdad, slowed by harsh desert storms and unexpected fierce resistance from Iraqi guerrillas.

The toughest challenges of combat lay ahead in the streets and alleyways of Baghdad's urban sprawl, roughly the size of Los Angeles.

The stakes couldn't be higher. Anti-American demonstrations across the globe are growing to a level not seen since battles in the streets of Saigon brought the 1968 Tet Offensive into living rooms across the globe. From Egypt and Pakistan to Indonesia, senior clerics are calling for "holy war." Thousands of angry young men are volunteering to fight against America. It is possible Washington could win the battle for Iraq but yet suffer devastating setbacks in the war against terrorism.

On the eve of the Iraq invasion, the American public was given assurances of a quick victory. Network news anchors and their corps of retired generals and admirals, hyped a "shock and awe" aerial bombardment that would bring the war to a rapid conclusion. Unfortunately, overconfident war planners overlooked the human element of war. Early optimism about Iraqi soldiers raising white flags and surrendering to journalists has morphed into a grisly "reality TV" marathon of grim war-fighting. It is a theater where guerrillas don't "play by the rules," and where will power, sheer guts and guile can challenge the latest technology and laser-guided munitions. The ebb and flow of battle is increasingly unpredictable.

Any soldier who has ever fought house-to-house will verify urban warfare as one of the most treacherous battlefields. As a young soldier in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive period, I was wounded three times in combat in the Saigon area. Street fighting creates a combat zone where superior technology is negated by decentralized guerrilla tactics. It is where relatively small bands of tenacious fighters dug into hardened bunkers or moving from window to window within buildings in crowded neighborhoods can tie up entire companies of courageous soldiers at a very high cost of military and civilian lives.

The current situation unfortunately resembles the unanticipated Tet attack in Saigon by Viet Cong commandos disguised as civilians. During the weeks leading up to the Offensive, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and the highest level of Pentagon officials assured the American public that the war was almost over and the Viet Cong near defeat. The unexpected ferocity of the Offensive, although no territory was lost, cost the Johnson administration public trust and energized the international anti-war movement.

As the esteemed Vietnam-era historian Col. Harry Summers articulated in his classic text, "On Strategy," America lost in Vietnam even though we won every major battle because modern warfare, under the eye of international media, is a direct extension of politics. …