Rupert Cornwell: Don't mention the V-word

Washington haunted by ghost of conflict that dare not speak its name

The Independent, 31 March 2003

"It's a bit early for history to be written," Donald Rumsfeld declared the other day, dismissing in that testy, imperious manner of his the accusations that the Pentagon had badly miscalculated the resistance that American and British forces would encounter in Iraq and the size of the invading force that would be needed to overcome that resistance. But if the history of this war is not yet being written, history's shades from other wars are already abroad.

They are not yet mentioned very often. After all, an uneasy America is seeking to convince itself that the 2003 campaign in Iraq is going according to the plan conceived by the Secretary of Defence. But on the fringes of polite conversation, in those quiet moments when ordinary people wonder about the relentless optimism of those in charge here, the question gnaws at the corners of the mind. Could this be will this be another Vietnam? The answer, in some respects, is simple: of course not. The Vietnam war, from an American point of view, lasted nine or 10 years. The campaign to remove Saddam Hussein has barely been in progress nine or 10 days. Whether it lasts nine or 10 weeks (perfectly possible), or nine or 10 months (rather unlikely), it surely will not last nine or 10 years.

Unlike Vietnam, and for all today's second-guessing, the purely military outcome is certain. Saddam Hussein will be driven from power. But the fond belief in Washington and the one on which this war was largely sold that the advancing GIs would be welcomed as liberators, as they were in occupied France in 1944, has already been shown to be an illusion.

Never, surely, in a modern war has not victory but the manner of that victory been so important. Yet the pictures are not of garlands of flowers thrown by a grateful local citizenry upon the invaders' tanks. They are of shattered buildings and weeping civilians. They tell not of spontaneous uprisings in Basra and elsewhere against President Saddam's detested henchmen but of errant bombs or missiles killing scores of civilians in a Baghdad market. At that point, it scarcely matters who fired them.

And if the resistance continues, President Bush, Mr Rumsfeld and the rest will have to decide whether to cast aside all efforts to pursue their "gentleman's war", a war of aiming only at regime targets, and attack vital civilian infrastructure to hasten victory. America has never been a patient country. Already calls can be heard to "stop messing about" and to flatten the regime by flattening Baghdad, Basra, Nasiriyah and anywhere else where the Americans are getting bogged down. But that would be to exhume the dreadful mantra that sums up American good intentions gone wrong in Vietnam, that "to save this village, it must be destroyed".

President Saddam's tactics, too, are driving the course of the war in this direction. America's military power is such that no foe on Earth can engage it on its own terms, in conventional "symmetrical" warfare. As enemies from the suicide bomber who killed 250 US Marines in a Beirut barracks in 1983 to Osama bin Laden on 11 September 2001 have grasped, guerrilla raids, sneak attacks and terrorism are the only means of levelling the playing field. The taxi bomb that killed four US servicemen at Najaf on Saturday is unlikely to be the last such incident as the invaders draw closer to Baghdad.

Yes, these are vile means. They enable Mr Bush to rally public opinion by denouncing enemy atrocities. But they are as old as fighting itself, especially when a country is being invaded. Similar tactics were used by the Vietcong, and by the Russians in 1941 against the Germans. They were used by the mujahedin in Afghanistan when the Russians invaded their country in 1979. And almost always, whether from fear or vindictiveness, the other side starts to behave in the same way.

Already US and British troops are being forced to mount house-to-house searches, in the knowledge that the apparently welcoming and innocent civilian may be a suicide bomber in disguise. It would be extraordinary if, sooner or later, some panicky coalition commander, afraid he is walking into an ambush, does not tell his men to do "whatever it takes" to ensure their safety.

Just as in Vietnam, too, the wise men in Washington may have underestimated the power of nationalism, even in support of as murderous a regime as Saddam Hussein's. Americans are proud of their patriotism (as nationalism is known here). At times they seem unable to understand other peoples may be stirred by similar feelings when they see their own country's flag, irrespective of who is ruling them.

Instead, America's leaders are wont to assume that they know best. The Dick Cheneys, the Richard Perles and the others who believed (on the basis of what, it is not clear) that Saddam Hussein's Iraq would collapse like a card castle once serious military pressure was applied, and who insist that democracy will flourish in Baghdad once the "evildoer" is gone, might revisit the pages of Graham Greene's The Quiet American. That book describes the Vietnam of the mid-1950s, a decade before the real war, when Americans were arriving to help the French resist the advance of Communism and build "democracy". At one point, Fowler, the jaundiced, world-weary correspondent who is the hero of the book, remarks of the Vietnamese: "They want enough rice. They don't want to be shot at. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want." One suspects the same is true of ordinary Iraqis now, whatever their feelings for the regime.

And that is why the real Vietnam might start when the formal war has finished. The battlefield will not be Iraq, but the whole Arab world and beyond, even mainland America. Already, those who predicted that war would be acceptable to ordinary Arabs only if it was very swift and very bloodless seem to have been proved right. This time the "Arab street", so quiet during the campaign to destroy the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and track down Osama bin Laden, is showing serious signs of unrest. And, just as in the case of Vietnam and the turning of the "American street" against that war, the role of the media is crucial.

In Vietnam, American journalists were not "embedded", as they are today in Iraq. But they had the run of the battlefield, hitching rides in US Army helicopters to visit the front line. The reality that they saw on the ground and that they reported -- so different from the optimistic fare on offer at the daily "Five O'clock Follies" military briefings in Saigon -- was crucial in hardening American opinion against what the public saw as an unwinnable war.

Today, everything happens faster, including the coverage of war. The "embeds" with the American and British forces beam back their television pictures in real time; a campaign under way for barely 10 days feels as if it's been in progress for 10 weeks. But this time, there is one other vital difference. There are "embeds" on the other side al-Jazeera and other Arabic cable television stations operating out of Baghdad and portraying the same conflict in quite another fashion. These images, focusing on human suffering, have made a mockery of what was never a very impressive effort by Washington to use public diplomacy to convince the Arab world of the justness of this war. Across the Arab world, Saddam the villain is becoming Saddam the martyr.

Even now of course, optimists may be vindicated, and the current doubts may be merely the darkness before the dawn. Precision bombing of Republican Guard positions may be causing pulverising damage, and when US forces unleash their final ground offensive the end may indeed be relatively swift.

Certain at last in the knowledge that President Saddam is gone, the population may indeed rejoice at its liberation.

But no one is counting on it. "This is going to be a tough war, a tough slog yet," General Richard Myers, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the senior uniformed officer at the Pentagon, warned as he did the round of Sunday talk shows yesterday.

Once the war is over, the slog may get tougher still: continuing guerrilla operations inside Iraq against the US liberators-turned-occupiers, and increased terrorist attacks against American targets around the world, fuelled by an anti-Americanism that truly is a recruiting service for Bin Laden and his ilk. In that sense, this may be an unwinnable war -- just as that other failed war of which no American wants to be reminded, for hearts and minds in Vietnam.