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History repeats: Fallujah signals the beginning of the new Vietnam

By Gary Brown - posted Friday, 19 November 2004

The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue. Mao Zedong.

This famous quotation from Mao Zedong encapsulates the predicament of the US and the other occupying powers in today's Iraq. The Americans have, to all intents and purposes, reduced the militant stronghold of Fallujah, albeit at the cost of reducing large sections of the town to ruins. In an operation reminiscent of the Vietnam War, Fallujah has been destroyed "in order to save it". A US officer once said of the Vietnamese town of Ben Tre that "it was necessary to destroy the town in order to save it".

But it is already clear that many of the fighters the US hoped to defeat in Fallujah have melted away - moved elsewhere - before the assault on the town even began, while the upsurge in anti-coalition attacks elsewhere in the country shows that the destruction of Fallujah has not blunted the power of the Iraqi resistance to oppose the US. If present reports are reliable, many of the fighters are now concentrating in Mosul, north of Baghdad, in order to convert it into a new centre of opposition to the occupation. This raises the prospect of yet another Iraqi town being smashed by urban warfare if the US decides to "save" it in the manner of Fallujah and Ben Tre.


The parallels with Vietnam are many, and not just on the US side either. It is perhaps unfashionable to recall that the Vietnamese insurgents employed many methods we would now label terrorist - booby traps, reprisals, murders of collaborators and non-combatants and so on. However, leaving the morality of the belligerents to one side - war is hardly the arena to seek moral exemplars, though there have been exceptions - what is important here is the nature of the conflict which has developed since the defeat of the Saddam regime's army.

I think it is now safe to say that after its surprisingly easy conquest of the country - to be fair, most official US sources expressed a pre-war optimism which I did not share - the US and its partners now find themselves bogged down fighting an ongoing insurgency. This is the result of failure to plan effectively beyond the overthrow of the Saddam regime. It contrasts sharply with the far more careful planning undertaken towards the end of World War II for the occupations of Germany and Japan.

When these states surrendered to the Allies there were elaborate plans in place for post-war administration. In Germany, the Nazis had set up a guerrilla organisation, "Werewolf", to fight the Allies after the regular forces were defeated. In the event, "Werewolf" never amounted to much and was extinct within a few months. In Japan - where the Americans were at least as culturally alien to the populace as they are in Iraq - post-war resistance was negligible. The outstanding success of the US occupation in Japan can still be recognised today in the Japanese aversion to armed conflict. Though conservative elements there would like to amend the "peace" clause in the US-imposed constitution, they have never been able to gather the necessary political support. The closest Japan has come to armed conflict since 1945 is, ironically, its despatch of troops to Iraq where they perform purely humanitarian and infrastructure work. Even this is deeply unpopular with the Japanese electorate.

Though Al Qaeda and ex-Taliban fighters have infiltrated the country in some numbers, it would be a mistake to suppose that they are the mainspring of the resistance. The core of the Iraqi resistance is home-grown - Saddam loyalists, Shia Muslim radicals and, no doubt, many who simply object violently to a foreign occupation of their country.

This is why the above quotation from Mao is relevant today: the insurgency in Iraq is now a guerrilla war, and the US has neatly trapped itself and its coalition partners. Already President Bush has had to postpone scheduled troop withdrawals; how long before he has to deploy more troops?

The (North) Vietnamese had a number of military maxims which, as they are a power which forced the US to accept defeat, are also worth considering today.

  • If the strategy is right, and the tactics are right, the war will be won.
  • If the strategy is right, but the tactics are wrong, battles will be lost but the war will still be won.
  • If the strategy is wrong, but the tactics are right, battles will be won but the war will still be lost.
  • If the strategy is wrong, and the tactics are wrong, the war will be lost.

Tactically the US undoubtedly holds most of the cards. Its forces are more numerous, better equipped, trained and resourced than its enemies can ever hope to be. So battles, whether the grand battle against Saddam's army in 2003 or lesser engagements like Fallujah, have been and will continue to be won - albeit at the cost of destroying much of what it intended to "save".

But what is the US strategy in Iraq? This is a more difficult question to answer, because to all appearances Washington has fallen into a purely reactive mode of operations. There does not seem to be an overall guiding principle governing American operations there, beyond that of killing as many insurgents as possible. However, if the insurgency is, as I now suspect, substantially Iraqi in nature, there will be "plenty more where they came from" and this strategy cannot of itself prevail.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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