Politics & Policy

The Vietnam Playbook

Living in 1968, still.

The Dems are still the party of George McGovern, and for them it’s still 1968. They figure that what worked then will work now, so they are running their campaign to discredit George Bush according to their old Vietnam playbook. For weeks, they’ve been running the Tonkin Gulf play.

Remember Yankee Station? It was a spot in the ocean where the destroyer USS Maddox — gathering intelligence for the South Vietnamese — was attacked by four North Vietnamese patrol boats on August 2, 1964. Maddox — aided by carrier aircraft — severely damaged the attackers, leaving at least one dead in the water. The next night the Maddox (and the USS Turner Joy sent to reinforce it) reported another attack. LBJ then demanded, and got on August 7, open-ended authority to use military forces in Vietnam. (The Democratic convention met three weeks later to nominate LBJ as its presidential candidate).

In the decades since we’ve learned that much of what Congress was told about the Tonkin Gulf incident was right, and some was an error but not a lie. After many years of analysis of intelligence and logs, the Navy determined that there hadn’t been a second attack. But by 1968, the McGoverniks had already convinced themselves that the Tonkin Gulf resolution was a fraud, based on an entirely on a needlessly provoked and fictionally reported incident.

The McGoverniks and their pals in the press have been working feverishly to turn the “Niger uranium” sentence in the State of the Union address into the same sort of fraud they attribute to the reports that led Congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf resolution. At this point, the story is press-driven without even Bob Graham’s ridiculous fulmination. Across the Big Pond, the BBC’s parallel campaign to destroy Tony Blair seems to have backfired, and BBC bosses are more likely to lose their jobs than Blair is to lose his.

Because the Tonkin Gulf play is running out of political steam, the MediaDems are running the next end-around from the Vietnam playbook. The guerilla warfare our troops are facing in Iraq — if you believe to CNN, CBS, and the Baghdad Broadcasting Company — has destroyed morale among our troops, and threatens both their safety and our ability to build a stable government there.

The conditions in Iraq are worse than lousy. The afternoon temperatures often exceed 110 degrees, troops are still mostly eating MREs, mail from home is slow, and they are fighting a guerilla war. According to one senior officer now in Baghdad, “We are fighting former regime-backed paramilitary groups, Iranian-based opposition, organized criminals, and street thugs.” Our people are warriors, and while they fight they can overcome any obstacle and threat. But when you ask them to just sit there and bake — and occasionally be shot at — even the best will suffer, and come to resent it.

Danger was a commonplace when the major battles were going on. But the troops were all charging ahead together, involved in something much bigger than any individual or his unit. To sit in an M1A1 tank racing across the desert fighting the bad guys — and seeing dozen of others around you doing the same — is nothing like sitting in a lone Humvee guarding a Baghdad bank, waiting to be shot at. This assignment is deadly for morale, and can eventually destroy it. But that hasn’t happened and won’t any time soon. The troops are bitching, which is their right (when they keep it to themselves). But when they stop bitching, and hide their fears and resentment, it’s time to worry.

The good news — the considerable progress in rebuilding Iraq, and the superb performance of our people despite local harassment — is buried under the growing momentum of presidential politics. Read these few excerpts from a long e-mail I received last week, written by another army officer now in Baghdad about incidents over the past several weeks. I’ve edited out some of the more, ah, colorful terms he used.

The only reason the GIs are pissed (not demoralized) is that they cannot touch, much less waste, those taunting bags of gas that scream in their faces and riot on cue when they spot a camera man from ABC, CNN, BBC, CBS, CNN, or NBC.

Remember the explosion in the Fallujah mosque a couple of weeks ago? This guy was there.

A mosque in…Fallujah blew up…while the local imam, a creep named Fahlil (who was one of the biggest local loudmouths and frequently appeared on CNN) was helping a Syrian Hamas member teach eight teenagers how to make belt bombs. Right away the local Fedayeen propaganda group started wailing that the Americans had hit it with a TOW missile…One fool was dragging around a piece of tin with blood on it, claiming it was part of the missile.

The cameras rolled, and the idiot started repeating his story…We took the clown in custody and were asked rather indignantly by the twit from the BBC if we were trying to shut up “the poor man who had seen his mosque and friends blown up.” I told the (BBC gentleman) who the (gentleman) was and (that) if he knew Arabic…he’d know (this gentleman) was a Palestinian. I suggested we take him down to the local jail and we’d lock him and his cameraman in a cell with the ‘poor man’ and they could interview him…They declined the invitation…Guess what played on the Bullshit Broadcasting System that evening? ‘Did the Americans blow up a mosque?’ ‘See the poor man who is still in a state of shock over losing his mosque and relatives?’ Yep. Our friend the Palestinian.

In Vietnam, the McGoverniks and the antiwar media fueled each other’s fires, and between them created a political situation in which the leaders wouldn’t level with the troops or with themselves. This destroyed morale at home first, and then in the field. It precluded victory. In Iraq, what began as an enormous improvement in media-military relations may be delayed for years because of the Dems’ need to discredit Mr. Bush, and the media’s rush to help them.

Morale will remain high so long as our leaders are honest with the troops, and keep faith with them. President Bush and our military leaders will do this, despite the press. Those old media hands who learned the Vietnam playbook in the 1960s and 1970s are now the bosses of the networks and newspapers that brought us Vietnam. They opposed the Iraq campaign, and will oppose Bush until he is out of office, or the last helo lifts off from the American embassy in Baghdad. Between now and then, they will run the plays from their Vietnam playbook over and over again.

The only answer to them is success, which is not yet in sight, but perhaps not that far away. Tuesday’s news that Curly’s kids were killed in a fight with Coalition troops is not only good for morale, but brings us closer to the day when their daddy is in the bag, and the people if Iraq finally come to believe they are free. That day cannot be far off, no matter what Peter Jennings and the BBC want us to believe.

NRO Contributor Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and is now an MSNBC military analyst. He is the author of the novel Legacy of Valor.

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