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How do you know if you are winning a war?

By Keith Suter - posted Thursday, 15 September 2005


The insurgents’ violence continues in Iraq.

Is this the last gasp of the insurgents making one final desperate push against the US? Or is the US being sucked deeper into a quagmire that (as in Vietnam) will lead to another humiliating defeat? No one knows for sure.

Last July’s death of General William Westmoreland, the most controversial soldier in America’s recent history, is a reminder of his problem in trying to assess how well he was going in Vietnam. He oversaw the US military build-up in Vietnam in the 1960s and he predicted that the US could win the war. There were around 15,000 American troops in the country when he arrived and over half a million troops when he left.

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He was convinced the US could win the war. His strategy was one of attrition: wearing down the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces. He wanted the enemy killed faster than they could be replaced. This was to be done by “search and destroy” missions.

The war was the world’s first in which air mobility, via helicopters, played such a key role. The US had an unprecedented ability to move soldiers and equipment across the country. The US thought that superior technology and a large military budget could win the war.

In fact, the strategy was a failure. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were able to maintain their numbers. Large numbers of people (fighters and civilians) were killed but people were so resentful of the American presence that others came forward to take their places.

The US may have had air superiority but the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had superiority where it counted - on the ground at village level. The US failed to “win the hearts and minds” of the people.

A guerrilla war is not necessarily a war for territory. It is different from a conventional war, with its emphasis on gaining territory and eventually capturing the other side’s capital city.

In a guerrilla war, the enemy moves back and forth across the country. The front line is everywhere.

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Commentators at the time said Westmoreland was following the wrong strategy. But he brushed them aside. Given his past record of bravery and brilliance, he was convinced that he was on the right track. He continued to predict eventual victory and claimed that there was “light at the end of the tunnel”. He could never imagine the US would ever lose a war.

Meanwhile, the Americans in Vietnam had to devise a new way of assessing how well they were doing. American soldiers were therefore asked to count the number of dead enemy: the “body count”. But dead civilians and dead farm animals were often also included to boost the numbers. The “body count” numbers were not a reliable indicator of the war’s progress.

Ironically, in Iraq the US has said explicitly that it does not do “body counts”. This has given rise to fresh complaints that there is no record kept of the total number of Iraqis killed in the war.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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