Counterinsurgency and Insurgency from Vietnam to Iraq

The desperation that now pervades the US military occupation of Iraq is palpable on the ground, even as the mystifying rhetoric by those in command, both civilian and military, persists. In a recent perceptive eye-witness account of the occupation, Lucian Truscott notes: “No matter what you call this stage of the conflict in Iraq–the soldiers call it a guerrilla war while politicians back home often refer to it misleadingly and inaccurately as part of the amorphous “war on terror”–it is without a doubt a nasty, deadly war (NYTimes 7 Dec 2003, 4:13).

The war has, in fact, become even nastier and deadlier for the occupying forces, leading to the adoption of tactics that recall past counterinsurgency campaigns, especially those during the US war in Southeast Asia. In a quote that is reminiscent of that past war in Vietnam where destroying a village was presented as “saving” it, a Colonel Nathan Sassaman offered his interpretation of recent punitive measures by US forces in Iraq. “With a heavy does of fear and violence, and a lot of money for projects, I think we can convince these people that we are here to help them” (NYTimes 7 Dec 2003, 1:13). While the “fear and violence” part recalls brutal counterinsurgency programs, such as Operation Phoenix, that summarily executed thousands of supposed Vietnamese insurgents, the “money for projects” part reflects the pork-barrel programs that Lyndon Johnson once proposed for Vietnam and now George W. Bush puts into operation in Iraq.

Even if Kellogg, Brown & Root, Bechtel, and Halliburton are cashing in on projects in Iraq, reinforced by the passage of the 87 billion dollar boondoggle in Congress, these same companies are becoming more squeamish about the lethal environment in Iraq. According to Truscott’s report from one of his US infantry confidants: “One of the Bechtel truck convoys got ambushed on the way up here three weeks ago, and one of the security guys got wounded…They abandoned their trucks on the spot and pulled out, and we haven’t seen them since” (NYTimes 7 Dec 2003, 4:13). Is it any surprise that the Bush Administration has tried to accelerate plans for inducting more Iraqis into security details, even if that means creating warlords with private militias?

What is surprising, at a certain level, is the effort by the Pentagon to return to the use of body counts. Intending to demonstrate that more of the “bad guys” are being hammered by US military engagements, this tactic also recollects the disastrous and illusory use of body counts in Vietnam War. The most egregious recent incident in Iraq at Samarra clearly demonstrates that Pentagon fabrication of insurgent deaths. Instead of the 54 black-clad fedayeen (reminiscent of black-clad VC?), the actual body count at Samarra was, according to independent sources, 8 killed and 55 injured, all civilian. Apparently, after being fired upon indiscriminately by 120 mm canons mounted on Abrams tanks and 25 mm machine guns from Bradleys and Humvees, some civilians actually fired back. “Civilians shot back at the Americans,” said 30-year-old Ali Hasan, who was wounded by shrapnel in the battle. “They claim we are terrorists. So OK, we are terrorists. What do they expect when they drive among us?”

Indeed, what are the expectations of US military commanders in Iraq, falsely groomed by the Bush Administration to be welcomed as liberators and then fed a steady stream of racist theories about the “Arab mind?” According to one US company commander: “You have to understand the Arab mind…The only thing they understand is force…” (NYTimes 7 Dec 2003, 1:13). Now, force and violence are being applied with ruthless abandon in the hopes that the US military won’t lose out to the insurgent forces. In villages where insurgents have been waging their guerrilla tactics, the US military, adopting a page from Israeli occupying forces in the Palestine, are bulldozing houses, rounding-up all men for interrogation, and surrounding large areas with barbed wire fences and intimidating security checks.

This policy of counterinsurgency, while consonant with Israeli military occupation, is also reminiscent of Vietnam pacification programs. Such programs were intended to dry up the guerrilla sources of support when, in fact, they often led to civilian massacres and the creation of more insurgency. Part of the reason for the failure of US counterinsurgency in Vietnam “was to treat indigenous political culture as a nullity” (Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, 590). Hence, in Iraq the Bush Administration’s insistence that the insurgents are either remnants of the old Saddam Hussein regime or smuggled in al-Qaeda operatives. Whether they actually believe this to be the case or not only reinforces the sense that Washington policymakers are incapable of admitting the truth to the American people about the occupation.

The truth about the insurgents is, of course, rather complicated. There is obviously a well-financed and planned out part of the insurgency that does have direct links to Saddam Hussein’s previous command structure. On the other hand, there is incident after incident where Iraqis who express their antagonism to the old regime nonetheless embrace the insurgency. Commitments to that insurgency will only grow in response to the vindictive violence that Washington continues to mete out in Iraq.

As in Vietnam, more US working class soldiers will realize that they are not fighting for a noble cause, but for a narrow self-interested agenda of US hegemony at any price. There are now wide-spread reports of growing numbers of AWOL reservists and soldiers on the ground in Iraq bristling with contempt for the Bush Administration chickenhawks. Stars and Stripes, the official military newspaper, conducted a poll of US military in Iraq that indicated over half of those still in Iraq were fed-up with the whole operation. Perhaps, as in Vietnam, an insurgency within the US military may also be the reason for Iraqifying the war. Given the failure of Vietnamizing the war to stem the insurgent tide in another time and place, there is reason to believe that US policymakers will once again be forced to abandon a flawed strategy to make-over a society in their own image.

FRAN SHOR teaches at Wayne State University and is a peace and justice activist. He can be reached at:


Fran Shor is a Michigan-based retired teacher, author, and political activist.