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Iraq: An Encore

By Christopher Brauchli

It was déjà vue all over again. -- attributed to Yogi Berra

That was then; this is now. Thank goodness. It would be a pity if history were to repeat itself. It would suggest we weren't smart enough to learn from experience.

"Then" began in 1950 with the establishment of the United States Military Assistance Advisory Group that was established to supervise the issuance and employment of $10 million in military equipment to help the French legionnaires who were fighting in Vietnam. By 1953 an additional $350 million had been provided. In January 1955 American advisers arrived in Saigon to help train the South Vietnamese army. From 1955 through 1960 the United States had between 750 and 1,500 military advisers helping the South Vietnamese government. On May 11, 1961, President Kennedy approved sending 400 Special Forces and an additional 100 military advisers to South Vietnam. By December 1961 there were 3,205 military advisers on the ground supported by $65 million in military aid and $136 million in economic aid. At a news conference on February 14, 1962, President Kennedy said: "The training missions we have [in South Vietnam] have been instructed that if they are fired upon, they are, of course, to fire back, but we have not sent combat troops in [the] generally understood sense of the word." By December 1962 there were 11,300 military personnel on the ground in South Vietnam. By 1963 the number of U.S. military advisers in that country was 16,000. By 1968 there were 536,100 American troops in Vietnam. The rest is history. The foregoing is, of course, just a very short description of how things went in that country from the time of the United States' entry into that country's conflict. It is all brought to mind as one follows events in a completely different part of the world that nonetheless involves the United States and its military.

In early June 2014, 300 advisers were sent to Iraq to assess the condition of the Iraqi army. On August 12, 2014, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that 130 additional advisers were being sent to Iraq's Kurdish region. The purpose was to halt the advance of Islamic State militants. According to the report, many of the advisers are marines but they are not combat marines, just advising marines. They joined 90 advisers already in Baghdad and 160 advisers working with Iraqi security forces in Erbil and Baghdad. In early September President Obama ordered another 475 troops to be sent to Iraq. By the end of September there were approximately 1,500 U.S. military advisers in Iraq.

On October 12, 2014, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained on ABC's This Week that he had not yet encountered a situation where US air strikes would be more effective if US troops were on the ground. But, said he, that will change when Iraqi forces are ready to take the offensive against the Islamic State. On that same day on Meet the Press National Security Advisor Susan Rice said there would be no boots on the ground:

"We are not going to be in a ground war again in Iraq. It's not what is required by the circumstances that we face and even if one were to take that step, which the president has made clear we are not going to do, it wouldn't be sustainable."

On November 7, 2014, it was reported that the president authorized the deployment of 1,500 additional troops to Iraq. In a statement released by the White House it was said that:

"As a part of our strategy for strengthening partners on the ground, President Obama today authorized the deployment of up to 1500 additional U.S. military personnel in a non-combat role to train, advise, and assist Iraqi Security forces, including Kurdish forces . . . . U.S. troops will not be in combat, but they will be better positioned to support Iraq Security Forces as they take the fight to ISIL."

With that deployment the total number of U.S. troops deployed in Iraq will be 3,000. That is 205 fewer than were in Vietnam in December 1961.

All of the foregoing is nothing more than a funny coincidence. With the most recent deployment there is going to be a request to Congress for $5 billion for military operations in the Middle East. That includes $1.6 billion for a new "Iraq Train and Equip Fund." Five billion is slightly more than the $201 million that was supporting the U.S. effort in Vietnam in 1961.

There are, as always, a few querulous souls. One of them is CODEPINK co-founder, Jodie Evans. Commenting on the latest announcement she said:

"For months we've been hearing 'no boots on the ground' over and over from the administration, but with an additional 1,500 we now have 3,000 American soldiers in Iraq. When will we learn from our mistakes and stop repeating history?"

That is actually a very good question. Perhaps someone in the administration will take the time to answer it after signing the orders needed to get more troops back into Iraq.


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