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Why the Lessons of Vietnam Do Matter
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HANOI – Just as it took a few years for the Americans to lose the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese, it took them only a few weeks to lose the hearts and minds of the majority of Iraqis – which ultimately means losing the war, whatever the strategic final result. Topographic denials – this is the Mesopotamian desert, not the Indochinese jungle – don’t work, nor do denials saying that the Iraqis are not as politicized as the Vietnamese were by communism. These totally miss the point: as happened in Vietnam, what is happening now in Iraq has everything to do with patriotism and nationalism.

Former Iraqi vice premier Tariq Aziz used to say, before the US invasion, “Let our cities be our swamps and our buildings our jungles.” Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, aka “Comical Ali”, the unforgettable former minister of information, used to say Iraq would be “another Indochina”. The guerrilla war strategy against what was considered an inevitable US invasion has been perfected in Iraq for years. And the master strategist was neither an Assyrian nor a Mesopotamian general, but the legendary Vo Nguyen Giap, the Vietnamese general who coordinated the victories against French colonialism and US meddling.

Iraqi strategists – from army officials to Ba’ath Party officials – have always been thorough students of the Vietnam War, or American War, as it is referred to in Vietnam. In addition, the Iraqi urban population is very well educated and analyzes events with a deep historical sense – as well as the Vietnamese. Iraqis are not gullible to the point of believing the occupying power’s boast of “nation building”- as they have not seen any tangible results since the “fall” of Baghdad on April 9. Since the beginning – the first huge popular demonstration departing from Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad on April 18 – the “liberation” of the Iraqi people by America has been viewed inside many sections of Iraq as a national liberation war, a “popular war” in the Giap sense against an imperialist aggressor.

It’s all there in Vo Nguyen Giap – Selected Writings, a collection spanning the years 1969-91 and published by Gioi Editions in Hanoi: the strategy and tactics of a war of national liberation and how a “popular war against the American aggression” was organized. The Ba’ath Party and the Republican Guards may have not implemented what they learned – as the top army commanders, after a campaign of preventive intimidation, were finally bought out by Pentagon cash and safe refuge (see The Baghdad deal, April 25). But basically the same strategy is now being implemented by the array of groups that constitute the Iraqi national resistance.

The objective is always to harass, bog down and demoralize a hugely superior army. Veterans of the American War in Hanoi – who usually congregate every day around Hoam Kien Lake to talk about the past and the present – stress that it was all about national consciousness, patriotism and local traditions: according to Giap, “patriotism associated with the democratic spirit and love of socialism”. In Iraq, the impetus is the same – with “love of Islam” substituting for “love of socialism”. Iraqi patriotism and anti-imperialist sentiment is as strong as it was in Vietnam.

Giap wrote that “conditions should be created to attack the enemy by all means appropriated”, and urban revolutionary forces should be coordinated with the countryside: today this means attacks both in Baghdad and in the Sunni belt (already spreading towards the Shi’ite south). The next step of the Iraqi resistance would be, applying Giap, “to combine armed forces with political forces, armed insurrection with revolutionary war”. This means a concerted strategy of the Sunni belt alongside Shi’ite groups, many of which have already switched from a “wait-and-see” attitude toward barely disguised hostility with the US proconsular regime.

Giap is adamant: “The strategy of popular war is of a protracted war.” The Iraqi resistance is following it to the hilt. The point is not that Saddam loyalists may be behind the attacks against the Americans: they are just one part of the equation. Giap wrote that the Americans and the puppet South Vietnamese government were supported by “a brutal repression and coercion machine, applying against our compatriots a fascist policy of barbarity”. This is exactly how the resistance – and increasingly the whole Iraqi population – sees scared and even demoralized American soldiers shooting to kill innocent women, children and even the odd foreign cameraman. Against the “repression machine”, Giap recommends “guerrilla and self-defense militias” in strategic zones – exactly the way that the Iraqi resistance has been acting.

Iraq now is already like Vietnam after the 1968 Tet Offensive. The Americans could have left Vietnam any time – but this would have meant to lose face, in an Asian sense, and to admit defeat: ultimately, this is what happened when that last helicopter abandoned the US Embassy in Saigon in April 1975. Even if they had any intention of doing it, which they don’t, the White House and the Pentagon – although they have declared victory – simply cannot leave Iraq. They know that as soon as the US leaves, a democratically elected, Shi’ite-dominated, anti-American Iraqi government will come into power – as an anti-American communist government took over Vietnam. If the US remains in Iraq for “years” – as the Pentagon would have it – there’s only one question: how many body bags does it take for the US public to demand a withdrawal?


The Iraqi resistance’s attacks are being conducted by small, mostly well-trained groups who generally manage to escape without losses. They follow classic Giap thought: to demoralize American soldiers and at the same time increase the already unbearable distress suffered by the population, thus nourishing resentment against the occupying power. Asia Times Online has learned of many former high-ranking army officials – now unemployed – who have been called to join the resistance: they answer that sooner or later they will “if the Americans continue to humiliate us”. Others are financing small guerrilla groups to the tune of thousands of dollars. The reward for someone launching a rocket against an US fighting vehicle is about US$350 – enough for many to buy what is now the rage in Baghdad’s at least partly free market: a color TV with satellite dish.

In Vietnam, the resistance was organized by the Party. In Iraq, it is organized by the tribes. Tribal chiefs – practically all of them loyal to Saddam – are about to reach the deadline of the “grace period” that they conceded to the Americans. The resistance can count either on former Ba’ath Party and army officials, as well as on unemployed youngsters following the appeal of Sunni clerics, their own tribal chiefs and, more broadly, Arab patriotism.

The resistance can potentially count on almost 600,000 individuals who have been demobilized by the American proconsular regime. With more than 20 years of war, virtually all the male population in Iraq has been militarized. More than 7 million weapons were distributed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Millions of rockets and mortars were abandoned when the regime collapsed. Organized armed struggle in Iraq – in the Giap sense – may still be in its infancy, but the results are increasingly devastating. The “popular war” is getting bolder: surface-to-air missiles launched against military transport planes; sabotage of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline. US Central Command admits there may be as many as 25 attacks a day.

These Sunni Iraqi mujahideen – the counterparts of the Sunni Afghan mujahideen now fighting the anti-American jihad in Afghanistan – can count on the active complicity of the local population, just like in Vietnam. It’s all becoming a “popular war” in the sense that people in any given neighborhood will know who organized an attack, but obviously they won’t tell the invaders about it. But what about Saddam’s tapes inciting a jihad against the Americans? Saddam is no Ho Chi Minh – a legitimate leader of a national-liberation struggle. There is not a lot of Saddam nostalgia in Iraq. And former army officials are not nostalgic either – or over-optimistic, for that matter, about the success of the guerrillas. They know that the Iraqi people once again will be the greatest victims – as the Americans are obsessed with their own, not the Iraqi people’s, security. But these former officials are ready to join the resistance anyway.

In 1995, on the 20th anniversary of the end of the American War, former US defense secretary Robert McNamara met the legendary Giap in Hanoi. The old warrior told him that the US had entered a war without knowing anything about Vietnam’s complex history, culture and fighting spirit against a wave of foreign invasions. McNamara was forced to agree. The US emerged from Vietnam with nothing but humiliation. In Iraq, corporate Bushites at least expect to get away with the oil. And this is basically what young American soldiers are dying for: Executive Order No 13303, signed by George W Bush in late May.

This states with respect to “all Iraqi petroleum and petroleum products, and interests therein”, that “any attachment, judgment, decree, lien, execution, garnishment, or other judicial process is prohibited, and shall be deemed null and void”. In other words, according to Jim Vallette of the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, “Bush has in effect unilaterally declared Iraqi oil to be the unassailable province of US oil corporations.”

The Iraqi resistance is very much aware of Executive Order 13303 – and that’s why it sabotaged, and will continue to sabotage, the crucial Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline. The more Iraqis have to wait for oil money to come flowing back and help the reconstruction of the country, the more the US-appointed interim government loses its already shaky credibility. The Iraqi population reads only one thing in all this: it has to buy motor fuel at inflated prices in the black market, and it has to come back to its living quarters and put up with only three hours of electricity a day.

Giap also wrote that the resistance in Vietnam should “smash the Machiavellian design of US imperialism of making Vietnamese fight Vietnamese, of nourishing war by war”. The Americans are making the same mistake in Iraq. The US went into Vietnam, among other factors, to stress its symbolic credibility and to show off its military technology: in Iraq, the theatrical demonstration was certainly powerful, but the symbolic credibility risks being reduced to ashes. In Vietnam, the US wanted to make a demonstration of how to smash revolutionary nationalist regimes in the still dismissively denominated Third World. It failed miserably. In Iraq, the US wanted to show off how to “correct” former client regimes who went astray. It is also failing miserably – as the conditions become ripe for a popular war ultimately leading to still another revolutionary nationalist regime.

Pentagon No 2 Paul Wolfowitz’s idea of a political and economic order in Iraq is similar to what the US wanted in South Vietnam – and similar to what the US forcing all over the Third World in the 1950s and 1960s. In Vietnam, the US may have had the power, and the control of a puppet government (South Vietnam’s). But it absolutely failed to create a viable political, economic and ideological system capable of counteracting the Vietnamese revolution. This means that America’s non-military defeat was even more crucial than its own military impasse.

The same may be happening in Iraq. Wolfowitz and company are definitely not interested in democracy, because they know that in any free and fair democratic elections Iraq would switch towards a Shi’ite-dominated, probably Sharia-ruled, and certainly anti-American government. In Iraq – just as in Vietnam – the US has de facto installed a military system. This military system will be controlling – or euphemistically “overseeing” – the political structure, and more crucially, as Asia Times Online has already demonstrated (US and the changing face of Iraq, August 13), the new US-subsidized economic order. By all means, Iraq in Wolfowitz’s project is supposed to become a US colony.


In Vietnam the US was not capable of translating its awesome firepower into any sort of political appeal. Fine dialecticians, Hanoi veterans today tell us that by bombing Vietnam indiscriminately, the US provoked an almost unbearable economic and psychological trauma: the US could never win hearts and minds this way. And then they switch to Iraq, stressing that the Pentagon still has not learned a crucial lesson: it simply cannot barge into a complex society without causing tremendous social corrosions that ultimately lead to the collapse of any puppet regime.

The Iraqi resistance should be underestimated by Washington at its own peril. It is learning fast, on the ground, the lessons of Vietnam – where the communists, in a protracted war, won against the ultimate war machine, Giap would say, because of three factors: decentralization, mass mobilization and mobile military tactics. Giap has articulated a set of political, organizational and technical maneuvers to counterbalance the awesome US war machine that can be applied by resistance forces everywhere in the world, and especially in Iraq.

(Republished from Asia Times by permission of author or representative)
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