THE PENTAGON has little choice but to begin planning for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. The House of Representatives has just passed rules that make a soldier's second or third tour in Iraq possible only after an equal amount of time has been assigned at home. We don't have enough troops now, and the House action will mean even fewer troops will be available.
Journalists have an interesting way of illustrating the difficulties involved in a withdrawal: If all the trucks, humvees, tanks, semitrailers, and wheeled artillery pieces were lined up in a convoy down the road south to Kuwait, Time magazine reported, they would stretch 100 miles. It wouldn't happen this way of course, but for sheer history-book gee-whiz quality, that would be a photo opportunity to equal the helicopters leaving the roof in Saigon.
And appropriately so. For that photo, which showed the haste and confusion of Vietnam withdrawal that occurred almost entirely without planning, probably hurt US military prestige more than any other single image. Vietnam proved that wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. If you can get out at all.
I was in Vietnam at what would be called today the tipping point of the war. In 1970, the sad agreement was that the United States had all but lost. There was no support at home, and Richard Nixon had been elected on his promise that he had a secret plan to get out of the war.
On the ground in South Vietnam, odd shortages began to plague the American forces. We were, unbelievably, short of bombs. We had dropped more tonnage of bombs on the jungles and fields of North Vietnam than had been dropped by all sides in the entire span of the Second World War. The Air Force began buying bombs back from the German Air Force, bombs we had previously sold them. In the Army we ran short of 105mm artillery shells, the most basic of all ordnance, and the one that kept the North Vietnamese at bay through the night.
The Nixon administration decided to blame the South Vietnamese. For years, the training of the South Vietnamese Army had been hit or miss. Most of the US commanders pushed the Vietnamese aside and boldly, or so they thought, undertook the fighting missions with their own men. We didn't trust our allies, regarding them as cowardly or lacking alacrity.
Their commanders were certainly corrupt and more than willing to let the Americans do the fighting. After all, Vietnam had been at war off and on for the last 500 years, and nothing much had been accomplished. The Nixon plan, when finally revealed, was to "Vietnamize" the war, a plan that called for the turning over of great amounts of materiel to the South Vietnamese Army. And so we did - artillery pieces, trucks, aircraft, trailers, refrigeration units, and so on.
I was an interpreter and intelligence officer in the First Cavalry Division and was sent to see how some of this turnover was going. Other than the refrigeration equipment and the trucks, not much of the newly gifted equipment made the Vietnamese jump for joy. Some of it was rejected as junk, which it was, and other quantities were accepted and then abandoned.
At the same time the American command was ordered to lower US troop strength by not replacing American soldiers who rotated home. This goal was political, so Nixon could report a lessening of American involvement. But on the ground the result was greater danger to those who remained. Patrols and scouting missions were cut back; perimeter guard troops were reduced; and it became impossible to pile on when the elusive enemy was located. We didn't have enough men.
The South Vietnamese quickly figured out what our plan was. So did the North Vietnamese, whose spies reported this to General Giap in Hanoi, who increased attacks, mortar barrages, their sapper infiltrations, and even daylight raids.
Morale went to hell. Orders were questioned, disobeyed, or ignored. I was with one infantry platoon that sat for a week in one place all day in the jungle and reported that they were conducting patrols. Neither the men nor their lieutenant made any effort to keep this from me, and it never occurred to me to report it. We all knew that artillery was short and helicopter support was unreliable. Roughly 250 Americans were being killed a week in Vietnam during this period - for nothing, in our opinion - and we had no desire to join the number.
A great deal can be learned from the US wind-down in Vietnam. At least we can hope for intelligent planning. It will take skill, finesse, and careful attention to detail to leave Iraq without a great loss of American life. It took four to five years, by various reckonings, to get out of Vietnam. And as you can tell by this writing, some of us are still there.
Jeff Danziger is a cartoonist with the