The San Diego Union-Tribune

September 21, 2001

Experts say this is not like Vietnam


WASHINGTON -- As a career soldier and combat veteran, Army Secretary Thomas White said he saw his fellow citizens withdraw their support for the Vietnam War, nullifying the sacrifices he and his comrades made attempting to win that prolonged conflict.

But three decades later, White yesterday expressed confidence that the American people will support a long and potentially costly war against terrorism. Unlike Vietnam, he said, this conflict has struck home.

"I think the obvious difference from Vietnam is Ho Chi Minh never attacked the World Trade Center and killed 5,000 of our inhabitants," White said, referring to the late leader of North Vietnam.

In contrast to the remote and confusing fighting in Vietnam, he said, the fact that terrorism "can be brought home to any neighborhood or community in this country, with devastating potential impact, tends to focus the public's mind on the need to conduct these operations."

A retired brigadier general who was a platoon leader in Vietnam, White suggested that despite the inconveniences to people's lives because of the additional security, "we have unified behind the president and we will stay unified."

That view was echoed by two experienced defense leaders with different backgrounds.

Brent Scowcroft, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who was a national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, said he thought the public would maintain its support "probably for long enough."

For one thing, Scowcroft said, "it doesn't take the kind of support needed for Vietnam," which lasted 10 years and involved more than 500,000 U.S. troops at its peak.

And, he added, "it's more personal now" and a threat "people can internalize" because most have flown in airliners or been in tall buildings and thought about what could happen, Scowcroft said.

Also, "the horrific nature of what happened," he said, removes the Vietnam-era debate that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.  You can't put a freedom fighter label on any of what happened."

John Hamre, a former deputy defense secretary for President Clinton and a longtime Senate Armed Services Committee aide, said a long battle against terror "is going to be a very difficult thing for a democracy. It's going to be

But, he added, "I think we have it within us, I really do."

Hamre disagreed with the tendency to call the fight against terrorism a "war." He compared it more to the domestic campaign against organized crime that
started in the 1930s.

"That was a 30-year effort to stamp out a terrible problem that was deeply rooted in a society," he said.

"I see more of a determination in Americans than I've seen ever," Hamre said. "We are an impatient people, but we dealt with organized crime."

White, however, insisted the fight against terrorism "is not a police activity. We have treated it as a police activity in the past. But this is war."

"It is most likely there will be casualties. That's the nature of the beast," he said. "It's unreasonable for us to think that we will conduct a Kosovo-type campaign at very high altitudes without risking casualties."

And he envisioned the possibility of "sustained land combat operations" if the war were extended to nations that support terrorism.