PORTLAND, ORE. — Is the US getting stuck in another Vietnam? I'm surprised the issue didn't come up sooner, and it will probably hover over every new setback that occurs during the occupation of Iraq.
There's going to be a lot of debate about our military tactics in the next few months. But any comparison to Vietnam would be a distraction from the real problem: America is facing a new kind of battle that requires our armed forces to create different rules of engagement as we go along.
Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center, I heard former Sen. Gary Hart tell an interviewer that the 9/11 hijackers had blurred the line between war and crime. That fact should never be left out of any future debate as we look for ways to combat terrorism.
Unfortunately, the violence we're seeing in Iraq is like a roll call of bad memories from the past four decades. Urban combat (the Tet offensive), hostage taking (Lebanon, Terry Anderson, Terry Waite), convoys targeted (Soviets vs. Afghans). There's plenty of déjà vu to go around.
For the American media, a frustrating problem is simply choosing words that truthfully describe the people who are attacking coalition forces. The opposition isn't monolithic; there are numerous anti-US agendas in play. Many journalists have settled on calling hostile forces "insurgents" or "militants." President Bush has used more derisive language by saying they are "thugs and assassins." So is it accurate for us to think of Baghdad as a genuine war zone, or just a city wracked by explosive lawlessness?
The overlap of war and crime also raises complicated questions about the motivation of our enemies and how to deal with them.
Is the Al Qaeda network a bunch of ruthless political gangsters or a cult of martyrdom? Our president has said repeatedly they must be "brought to justice." Does he envision putting hundreds of captured terror suspects on trial? That could put quite a strain on the Iraqi court system.
Crime and war also combine to create widespread fear, and that's surely the biggest obstacle the coalition must deal with as it asks for cooperation from average Iraqi citizens. Helping Americans is a life-threatening activity in many Iraqi communities right now. Perhaps what the rebuilding effort really needs under these conditions is a gigantic overseas version of the federal witness protection program.
Who could have predicted that international conflict in the 21st century would morph into this bizarre hybrid form? When I think of how the world looked before 9/11, the phrase that seems most appropriate is one that Robert Graves coined for his memoir about World War I: "Goodbye To All That."