One battle rarely wins or loses a war, at least in the moment. Gettysburg crippled Lee’s army in 1863, but the Confederates fought on until 1865. Stalingrad broke the back of the German 6th Army, but it would be two-and-a-half years before the Russians took Berlin. War – particularly the modern variety – is a complex mixture of tactics, technology, and politics. Then there are the intangibles, like morale.

But while a single battle may not end a conflict, it can illuminate an underlying reality. This reality generally gets lost in the thunder of propaganda, illusion, and wishful thinking that always accompanies the horsemen of the apocalypse.

Now that some of the dust has settled over the recent battle of Basra that pitted Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army against the armies of the United States and Iraq, it is time to examine what that clash meant, and what are some analogies that might help bring it into focus. There were certainly echoes of Vietnam in last month’s fighting, and some of those parallels, particularly to the 1968 Tet offensive, are worth a closer look.

Remembering Tet

As Frank Rich pointed out in The New York Times, there was indeed a whiff of Tet in the debacle in Basra. Just before the 1968 attack, U.S. General William Westmoreland made his historic “light at the end of the tunnel” prediction. In recent testimony before the Senate, General David Petraeus said the United States was making “significant” progress in Iraq, and his spokesman, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, bragged that the United States had the Mahdi army on the ropes: “We’ve degraded their capability.”

“There is a parallel to Tet here,” says military historian Jack Radey. “’We have won the war, violence is down, the surge works’ [the U.S. told itself], and then Kaboom! The Green Zone is taking incoming.”

Radey argues that the American “victories” against the Vietnamese in the period leading up to the Tet offensive were an illusion. “If the enemy seems to be missing from the picture, this is not proof you have wiped him out,” he says. “It is more likely proof that you have lost track of him, and he will, at his own chosen time, find ways to remind you of his presence.”

Which is exactly what Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi army did.

According to historian Gareth Porter, the United States mistakenly concluded that the ceasefire Sadr declared six months ago was a sign that the Mahdi army was vulnerable. When the Americans began attacking Sadr strongholds – more than 2,000 militia members and leaders have been arrested since last July’s truce – and the Mahdi army did not react, the United States was convinced that the militia was weak.

Other Analogies

But Tet is not the only relevant Vietnam analogy. The other parallel was Operation Lam Son, the 1971 invasion of Laos by the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). The United States pushed South Vietnam to attack Laos in order to demonstrate that the ARVN could stand on its own two feet, and to make the point prior to the upcoming 1972 U.S. elections that Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” was working

Instead, U.S. audiences watched as panicked ARVN troops clung to helicopter landing skids in their desperation to escape from Laos. Lam Son “was a disaster,” writes historian A.J. Langguth in Our Vietnam: The War, 1954-1975: “Vietnamization became one more doomed fantasy. After 10 years of training and costly equipment, South Vietnam’s troops seemed to be no match for the Communists.”

Radey says the Lam Son analogy is a useful one. The invasion didn’t work “because the [ARVN] soldiers didn’t believe in the cause they fought for,” while their opponents, with far less fire power, “believed in what they were doing. Vive la difference.”

As for Iraq and the recent fighting: “Was anyone paying attention the last time this lesson was taught in Vietnam?” Radey asks. “Did anyone do the reading? Hello? Do I have to start throwing chalk?”

In Basra

On the surface, the battle of Basra – which quickly spread to virtually every major city between Basra and Baghdad – was a major setback for Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki and the Americans. As Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar points out in the Asia Times, the principal outcome of the fighting is that “the Bush Administration’s triumphalism over the so-called Iraqi ‘surge’ strategy has become irredeemably farcical.”

The fighting also exposed the Iraqi Army as a hollow shell, much as the Laos invasion revealed the incompetence of ARVN. While Petraeus was telling the Senate that “recent operations in Basra highlight improvements in the ability of the Iraqi security forces to deploy substantial numbers of units, supplies, and replacements on a very short notice,” journalists were reporting that thousands of Iraqi troops refused to fight and abandoned their weapons.

According to Ali al-Fadhily and Dahr Jamail of the Inter Press Service, much of the Iraqi army simply disintegrated. A Baghdad police colonel told the reporters that the “Iraqi Army and police forces, as well as the Da’wa and Badr militias, suddenly disappeared from the streets, leaving their armored vehicles for the Mehdi militia to drive around in joyful convoys.” The Badr militia is associated with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a major ally of Maliki’s Da’wa party. Like the Mahdi army, both parties are Shiite.

So, after three years and $22 billion in training and equipment, the Iraqi army got shellacked. The only thing that prevented a full-scale rout was the intervention of U.S. troops and air support.

While the Americans have tried to distance themselves from the disaster by claiming that Maliki never consulted with them, historian Porter argues that the claim is ludicrous. “No significant Iraqi military action can be planned without a range of military support functions being undertaken by the U.S. command,” he writes, pointing out that U.S. trainers are embedded with every unit in the Iraqi security forces.

It’s the Oil, Stupid

Rather than as an assault on “criminal militias,” virtually every independent observer saw the attack as an effort by Maliki and the Americans to take control of Basra’s oil resources preliminary to turning them over to private oil conglomerates. Standing in the way of both those goals was the nationalist-minded Mahdi army as well as Iraq’s oil and dockworkers unions.

As the Bush administration saw it, a successful attack on the Mahdi army would not only clear the way for privatizing the Iraqi oil industry, it would demonstrate that the Iraqi army was ready “to stand up,” thus boosting the campaign of Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

But as Karl von Clausewitz once pointed out, no plan survives contact with the enemy. Historical analogies are tricky. They may obscure as much as they reveal. But history is the only guide we have, and it is one the Bush administration has willfully chosen to ignore.

As it did in Vietnam, the United States looks at Iraq though the lens of firepower and troop deployments. But war is not just about things that blow up, and occupiers always ignore the point of view of the occupied.

For starters, people don’t like losing control of their country. With the exceptions of the Kurds and Maliki and his allies, Iraqis are overwhelmingly opposed to the occupation. That disconnect between occupied and occupiers was summed up by Luu Doan Huynh, a Vietnamese veteran of the war against the Japanese, the French, and the Americans, and one of the key diplomats in the Vietnam peace talks. “The Americans thought that Vietnam was a war,” he said. “We knew that Vietnam was our country.”

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus ( columnist.

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