Prepare to Flee?
Fall-of-Saigon Parallels Fall Short
By Michael Tanji | September 24, 2007
Speaking to CQ Editor Jeff Stein, former CIA officer Frank Snepp wonders if we should not be preparing for a helo-atop-the-embassy moment in Baghdad.
The swift retreat of the South Vietnamese Army in the face of an enemy offensive was as much of a surprise to American commanders in Saigon as a complete Iraq government collapse is unimaginable to U.S. leaders today, says Frank Snepp, who was the CIA’s top analyst on communist strategy in Saigon in 1975.
“Wishful thinking is a narcotic, and it doomed us, and a lot of our friends, in Vietnam in the last days,” Snepp said . . .
It has become standard practice for both supporters and detractors of the war in Iraq to look back to past wars for parallels. Vietnam is particularly popular, though not always apropos.
True, the Iraqi military is not performing to a uniformly high US-standard, but today’s Iraqi army is not the army of Saddam Hussein; it is in effect the Army of General Petraeus. Those who have witnessed their performance first hand state that Iraq's best units are likely superior to the forces of any neighbor in the Middle East.
The question of national reconciliation is a more vexing problem, but then Vietnam is not where we should be looking for examples. A nation with deep tribal and sectarian divides is almost assuredly destined for devolution in some fashion. As grand strategist Thomas Barnett points out, Iraq is basically the Balkans in reverse. Granted, the Balkans may not be Shangri-la, but it is much more post-war Europe than post-war Southeast Asia.
Given that the Pentagon plans for just about everything, we can be fairly certain a plan exists to get us and our allies out in the event of a catastrophe. As Ambassador Crocker recently pointed out however, our ability to execute the plan in a timely fashion is questionable. This is the military that is using hand-held biometric devices to catalog large swaths of the population; to think that we don’t have copious records sufficient to serve as manifests for an airlift out is a little incredulous. Still, Mr. Snepp has a respectable chance to be proven right given that most plans, no matter how thorough, rarely remain in tact after the first shot is fired. If US forces in Iraq are dealt a spectacular blow, chaos and massacre is not out of the question.
Let us consider one last and very important factor where Vietnam comparisons fall short. The US military in Iraq today is not a draftee army exhausted from over a decade of a broadly unpopular and ill-fought war. The all-volunteer force of today continues to volunteer to fight in Iraq, often en masse. Desertions are almost unheard of. Whereas anti-Vietnam war protests could readily attract tens if not hundreds of thousands - despite multiple My Lai and Nguyen Ngoc Loan-moments over the past four years - more people show up to a Division II college football game than attend an anti-Iraqi Freedom protest.
We should not be overly confident that our transition out of Iraq will be as anti-climactic as our departure from what was West Germany, but neither should we give short shrift to the meaningful progress that has been made in so short a time. Our departure from Iraq is a given, but to think that a repeat of the fall of Saigon is inevitable is too convenient by half.