In the last days of March 1975, Danang, South Vietnam’s second largest city, was under siege. Danang was a major base of the South Vietnamese military with large naval and air facilities once operated by the United States. Except for a token force, the Americans had left Vietnam, under the terms of the peace agreement reached just over two years earlier.
At the beginning of March the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong had launched a major new offensive against the South, and by late March they had Danang surrounded. The city was in total panic. I and my news team — a Canadian cameraman and a South Vietnamese sound man who was also our interpreter — were on the streets filming the chaos all around us.
Most newsworthy were the scenes, happening throughout the city, of South Vietnamese soldiers stripping off their uniforms, dropping their weapons and running away. As we filmed one such group of soldiers, the sound tech yelled, “Cut! We’re out of here.” I was ostensibly in charge, but I had long since learned that in such situations there is no discussion. You do as the interpreter says. As we abruptly moved away, he said, matter-of-factly, “They were going to shoot you.”
The North Vietnamese entered the city the following day, March 29. The sense of fear among Danang’s 1 million residents was truly palpable. Civilians and soldiers were desperate to escape. They fought ferociously for the spaces on American and South Vietnamese naval ships in the harbor and a few private planes the CIA had hired to evacuate the last Americans. Just one month later, on April 30, Saigon fell, officially marking the end of the Vietnam War.
As all this was taking place, there was a fierce debate going on in Washington. President Gerald Ford and his administration blamed Congress for the rout in Vietnam, because it refused to reopen America’s coffers for more military aid to the South.
I recall when I returned to Washington having some fairly heated discussions with “senior officials” on this subject. My argument then, as it remains, is that Congress could have sent a zillion dollars in new aid to the Saigon government and it wouldn’t have mattered — South Vietnamese soldiers in significant numbers were deserting as they had lost the will to fight and were no longer willing to die for their increasingly corrupt government.
There are direct parallels between what happened in Vietnam in 1975 and what is happening in Iraq today. In both countries, the United States had made a huge investment in blood and treasure. It had spent years training and arming the locals, so that when the Americans inevitably departed, the South Vietnamese, and later the Iraqis, would be able to defend themselves.
Ultimately, in Vietnam they were not. Something similar seems to be happening in Iraq, thanks to the extremist Sunni insurgency, which calls itself, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS.) It is an off shoot of the former al-Qaida in Iraq which moved across the now almost nonexistent border with Syria to join the rebels there, where it now holds significant territory.
Earlier this month, ISIS captured the major Iraqi city of Mosul, shocking those who weren’t paying attention. It has since taken lesser urban centers in northwestern Iraq and attacked a large Iraqi refinery. During this ISIS offensive, Iraq’s military initially was reported to have been routed. In many cases soldiers removed their uniforms and deserted. Shades of Danang 1975.
But at this point, the Vietnam/Iraq parallel begins to break down. That’s because in its essence, Vietnam was a civil war and when Saigon fell it was finally over. What is happening in Iraq is essentially a centuries old sectarian conflict between the two major sects of Islam — Sunni and Shiite — with no obvious finite end. Moreover, if ISIS were to carve out a de facto state containing parts of Syria and the Sunni portion of Iraq — and ruled as promised under a brutal, medieval form of Islam — this would be extremely destabilizing to the Middle East. It could also eventually represent a direct threat to American security.
The principal reason for ISIS’s early successes in Iraq is that it’s a militant Sunni organization fighting in the largely Sunni region of Iraq. The soldiers who tore off their uniforms were Sunnis, They feel no loyalty to the central government in Baghdad because it is controlled by the Shiites headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Ever since Maliki took over in 2006, America has been trying, without success, to persuade him to share power and form a national consensus with moderate Sunnis and the Kurds. Instead Maliki has been obsessed with settling old sectarian scores with Sunnis who dominated Iraq for many decades prior to the 2003 U.S, invasion, which empowered the Shiite majority. Since US forces left Iraq in 2011, Maliki has gone out of his way to antagonize Sunnis and Kurds and to deny them any tangible role in Iraq’s governance.
President Obama has been sensibly cautious. He is not going to send combat troops back into Iraq. But he did announce at week’s end, that he was sending about 300 U.S. military advisers to Iraq to “share intelligence and coordinate planning” with Iraqi forces. Still the president made clear that the United States has no intention of taking sides in what could become a full-blown Islamic religious war.
Yet because of the potential threat of an ISIS-created, terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, doing nothing is not an option either. That’s why America’s naval presence in the Persian Gulf has been beefed up, as has electronic surveillance of the area. And this weekend Secretary of State John Kerry is going to the region, reportedly to encourage Iraqis and others to persuade Maliki to step down. That’s now considered the first essential step toward a political solution to this crisis. And that is one point on which Iran’s help could be the key.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.MORE IN PerspectiveWhen John Doar died in 2014, Barack Obama, who’d already awarded him the Presidential Medal of... Full Story
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