Somalia: Limits to the Vietnam Analogy

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- "It's Vietnam all over again," says Sen. Fritz Hollings of the Somalia debacle. Many people agree with him, which is why he said it, and why it's likely to be over soon -- which would be the right outcome for the wrong reasons.

The grisly photos and videotapes coming out of Mogadishu do indeed evoke old nightmares. As was true in Vietnam, in Somalia young American servicemen are dying, sometimes horribly, because of policies made far away by people who know little of war. This infuriates the public.


And as was true in Vietnam, because every new televised atrocity fuels politicians' ambitions and stampedes them to the microphones, the level of concern rises rapidly.

In those respects, to be sure, the resemblance to Vietnam is not only close, it's eerie. The noises that came out of Washington 25 years ago on the subject of Vietnam could in many cases be substituted word for word for the bloviations on Somalia being emitted today.


In early 1968, with a Democratic president in office, Republican Sen. George Aiken of Vermont called American policy in Indochina "self-destructive fantasy." He wanted the troops pulled out and brought home. The administration, he said, had "become the prisoner of its own bad rhetoric" and was on a course that threatened to "endanger the peace of the world and to embitter our society at home in a manner not seen in a century."

On the other hand, a lot of important people from both parties were supporting the military effort in 1968.

"What are we going to do other than what the president is doing right now?" asked Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen. "We can't retreat, we can't pull out and we can't get the other side to negotiate."

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Richard Russell, who had opposed U.S. involvement from the beginning, agreed. American honor and credibility were at stake, he said, so "I don't see how we could come out of there now and abandon the field" to the enemy.

Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, whose son is now vice president, tried to come down firmly on both sides. National security was involved in Vietnam, he agreed, but the United States should get out after first securing its objectives through negotiation. He didn't say what it should do if the negotiations didn't work.

All that is why, to people who have been around for a while, today's commentary on Somalia has such a familiar ring. But despite the sense of deja vu, what's going on in Somalia right now has only a superficial resemblance to what went on in Vietnam. It's worth keeping the differences in mind, too.

The military has learned that it's dangerous to assume the next war will be like the last one, and civilian policy-makers ought to remind themselves of that as well. Saying Somalia is "like Vietnam" is easy, but neither precisely accurate nor especially helpful.

In Vietnam, at least, there was one clear policy goal from the start. This was halting the expansion of communism in Southeast Asia. Whether that was good or bad policy may be endlessly debated, but there was never any doubt that it was the reason for our enormous commitment.


In Somalia there is no such defining objective. Initially, we set about the tactical task of bringing food to starving people, and we completed it. But what is the goal now? If we want to help the locals build a new nation in the image of, say, Switzerland, we ought to say so. If we want to catch and punish the chief Somalian pirate, Mohamed Farah Aidid, we ought to say that.

One problem is that the United Nations doesn't appear to have a goal in Somalia, either, and we've been infected with its confusion.

In Vietnam, although every effort was made to slap the fig leaf of internationalism onto the American war effort, it didn't stick very well. The South Korean, Australian, New Zealand and Thai troops were a minor presence at best, and had little to say about either tactics or strategy. The war was Lyndon Johnson's, and later Richard Nixon's, to win, to lose or to abandon.

In Somalia, though, the Clinton administration seems undecided just whose war it is. When things were going well earlier in the year, and hungry people were photographed being fed by happy Marines, the Clintonians appeared to conclude, rather to their surprise, that military activity could be wholesome good fun. But now that the cheering has stopped, they aren't so sure.

Sometimes the administration strikes awkward-looking martial poses, makes brave pronouncements and acts as though it were in charge in Somalia. But at other times it appears to have persuaded itself that the American troops it has furnished are only spear carriers in a great United Nations crusade.

The military lessons of Vietnam are many, and most of them are already irrelevant. But the political-military lesson that endures is this: If you put American troops into combat, for whatever reason, you had better be prepared to give them all the support they need to complete their mission. Otherwise you should bring them home.


Peter Jay's column appears here each week.