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By Henry Scott Stokes

New war,same story

Iraq in 2005 looks a lotlike Vietnam in 1968

Henry Scott Stokes is the former Tokyo bureau chief of The New York Times

Do you believe that you understand events in Iraq? By any chance? I ask the question, mind you, without having any great insights to offer. I just couldn’t help feeling in the last few weeks that the war has passed through some kind of crux—as it did in Vietnam in the spring and summer of l968. In very many ways the two wars are totally different. But they have enough in common to make people who experienced it at the time remember Vietnam.

As felt here in Tokyo, there were distinct phases over the roughly 12 years of the Vietnam War, from l964 to l975. There was, as seen from here, a first fantastic surge of commitment by the US military, when huge forces were rushed into the field and the US presence shot up from something like 50,000 to half a million men. This happened very quickly (in l965/66), and there was scarcely any time to think about it.

I was sent to Saigon by the Financial Times in the hot summer of l965, and I was absolutely convinced from the word go, at one glance, that the Vietnam War would be a disaster. How so? It was many things. But for me they were all summed up by the person of a young American man—not a soldier, but a military-related supply officer of some kind—who shared a room with me at the Caravelle Hotel in the heart of downtown Saigon.

This guy, maybe 23 years old, rushed off to Honolulu, I believe it was, to get married. He came back into Saigon drained of energy, slumped in his bed and lay there for hours as if poleaxed—knocked out by the heat and the excitement. I saw his sleeping form, and suddenly I was struck by his vulnerability. He had huge, thick broad arms that stuck out of the sheets. He had big, brawny shoulders.

This fellow’s just one big target, I thought. He’s an easy target for mosquitoes or for enemy riflemen or for a VC guerilla with a knife. He’s just too big. He won’t fit in this landscape—the manicured world of rice paddies in Southeast Asia. These were hardly grounds for some swift, broad generalizations, but I reached my conclusion right there. This American was too nice, too kind, too open-hearted—he told me his life ambitions, very naturally and easily—but above all he was too big.

He would need, he and his buddies, so much support to survive in this alien country, where they spoke languages that were unknown to him—French, Vietnamese. There would be a gigantic logistical tail—of which this young guy was part—just to keep one soldier fighting in the field. There would be mess tents, there would be canned foodstuffs, there would be frozen T-bone steaks. Each man in action might need eight or nine buddies to make him go.

Now here’s my point. When you reach a crux in a war such as this, when tens of thousands of big lads are thrust into combat in a totally foreign land, far from home, it involves an awful lot of people—mostly not fighting, but ferrying others, or gathering info at depots. If suddenly there’s a kind of freeze and the mammoth logistical tail is struggling and not quite in sync with the guys in front doing the shooting, then an awful lot of people are going to know, many of them free to chat and free to comment among themselves.

The media—plain reporters, columnists back in the US, and photographers in front—pick up the discombobulation in two seconds. That is how we are. Trained to use our antennae. Out they go, these feelers, and back comes the conclusion, however thinly based on fact, and yet usually right, as gut instincts go.

Jon Siegel

The sense I’m getting now—reading The New York Times, where I used to work; and following the BBC, where I made my first broadcasts; and dipping into The Economist—is that something has gotten unstitched in Iraq. This war is not going well at all when we hear these continual complaints about equipment—the lack of body armor, for instance. Nobody had body armor in Vietnam. I think back to my sleeping roommate in his bed at the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon. Since his time—since the ’60s—the needs of the US fighting man have gone up to the point where the guys are loaded up like armed Christmas trees.

Many fail to see that this matters. This war, a right-wing Japanese friend of mine was saying the other day, risks being lost not in the field but in the US—as during the Vietnam years, when US public opinion turned against the war. With respect, I disagree. I think that what happens in the field is what matters.

Any soldier would know that.

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