Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Tet Offensive and Iraq

I’ve never been to Iraq, but I did serve in Vietnam. Specifically, I was there during the Tet Offensive of January 1968. So I’ve been intrigued by some recent comparisons that have been made with Iraq. President George W Bush, who usually denies any such comparisons like the plague, recently told an interviewer that the violence in Iraq was similar to Tet.

I’m usually more receptive to Vietnam War analogies than others, but exactly how the fighting in Iraq today compares with the Tet Offensive seems kind of stretched to me. Indeed, the differences seem more instructive. Let’s summarize some of them:

The cities were safe

By and large Vietnam’s major cities were fairly safe during the Vietnam War, both before the Tet Offensive and after. The fighting overwhelmingly took place in the countryside – the “boonies” – to use the expression at the time.

I often walked or drove around such cities as Nha Trang or Saigon, often unarmed, without feeling a sense of danger. I remember riding through Saigon to visit a former classmate’s villa (all off-base accommodations were “villas” no matter how humble) only weeks after Tet.

What gave Tet its impact was the fact that the enemy launched its attack against these supposedly safe enclaves, including the mountain resort of Dalat, which, to my knowledge had ever even heard the sound of enemy gunfire.

If the insurgents in Iraq were to launch a coordinated attack on Iraq’s cities – assuming that have the command cohesion to pull it off – would anybody even notice?

The generals were not afraid to ask for troops

Gen William Westmoreland, who oversaw the big buildup, never hesitated to ask for more troops. And, up to Tet, he got them. In that respect Tet was the high-water mark of the American war effort. At that time about 500,000 troops, three times as many as in Iraq, were fighting in Vietnam.

In the immediate wake of Tet, Westmoreland asked for an additional 206,000. Presumably he felt that the enemy was on the ropes and that the time and a few more divisions would administer the final blow. Maybe he was right.

But in any case, President Lyndon Johnson’s new Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford, calculated that the North Vietnamese Army would infiltrate enough troops into the south to match any American buildup, and the request was turned down.

This, more than anything that Walter Cronkite may have said on television, was the real turning point in the war. From then on we began an agonizingly slow drawdown of troops.

The South Vietnamese held

Tet has often been described as a military victory, but to the extent it was a victory it was a victory for the South Vietnamese army. It was they who, by and large, beat off the attackers.

The main exception was in the northern city of Hue, where a large contingent of North Vietnamese regulars captured the city and had to be rooted out by US Marines in the heaviest urban fighting until – well, until today.

The southern army was routinely disparaged both by US troops in Vietnam and by outsiders, but it seems to be they were a veritable wehrmacht compared with the Iraqi National Army.

I trusted my Vietnamese counterpart completely. (And as he was one of the first to flee the country after the Northern troops captured Saigon and didn’t emerge as a closet colonel in the North Vietnamese Army, my trust was well placed.) I wonder how many American soldiers really trust their Iraqi counterparts.

Tet was not aimed at America

I think that Americans have an exaggerated opinion of our adversaries’ ability or interest in manipulating American public opinion. Today we hear from some that the heavy fighting in Baghdad is aimed at influencing the mid-term elections.

The fact that the Tet Offensive was timed to begin in January 1968, an election year in the US, was a coincidence. The timing of the attack – the Lunar New Year in Vietnam - was picked because the enemy figured that the Southern army would have dropped their guard because of the holiday.

Among the many places the enemy attacked in Saigon was the American Embassy compound. Not surprisingly the US press corps fixed on this action. Gen. Westmoreland even inspected the scene.

This morning I watched on Fox News an episode of “War Stories,” narrated by Oliver North, on the Tet Offensive. A quarter of the program was devoted to the embassy attack, so traumatic was this squad-sized action, even today.

Believe me, if the enemy had known what impact this action would have on American public opinion, they would have sent a battalion against it, not 19 men.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Deadly Kind of Fizzle

It is probably unwise to taunt a man who commands a million-man army. It is also probably unseemly to make light of the man’s ballistic and nuclear weapons, even if they don’t work.

Right now people around the world are running around in circles, pulling their hair and wringing their hands over North Korea’s underground atomic bomb test, when it ought to be the subject of late-night television comedians.

In the old days opposing armies faced each other in an open field, war paint on their faces, feathers in their helmets, rattling their shields and making rude comments about their opponents’ manhood.

Today global leaders rattle their ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons rather than spears and battle axes, but it is still a macho world. And in macho terms, Kim Jong-il is a man who literally can’t get it up.

In July North Korea tried to launch a multi-stage ballistic missile that fizzled out over the Sea of Japan minutes after it was launched. This was the second test firing in eight years and it was even less successful than the one in 1998, which at least flew over Japan, landing somewhere near the Aleutian islands.

Two months later the North conducted a purported nuclear weapons test, which may not have been an obvious fizzle, but its extremely low yield of less than one kiloton of conventional explosives (about 550 tons to be precise) strongly suggests it was a dud.

Sub-kiloton nuclear tests are not unheard of. Pakistan set off five bombs in 1998, three of which were supposedly of sub-kiloton yield, although that has never been confirmed.

It is confirmed that the British in a series of above ground tests in South Australia in the mid-1950s set off a half-dozens explosions ranging from 27 kt down to less than one kiloton (930 tons).

The US has conducted numerous sub-kiloton tests in its quest to miniaturize atomic bombs to put in artillery shells and other delivery systems. But no nuclear weapons state - from America’s “Trinity” test in July 1945 (20kt) to Pakistan (40kt) - has ever made its world debut with such a low yield.

Initial detonations have all been in the 10kt-60kt range. So the North’s explosion was lower than the lowest by a factor of nearly 20. “No one has ever duded their first test of a simple fission device,” says “North Korea’s nuclear scientists are the worst ever.”

There are several reasons why a nuclear test might fizzle. Indeed, “fizzle yield” is a recognized nuclear term, indicating the complexities of igniting a fission bomb, especially one that is made from plutonium.

A fizzle can happen when the bomb literally blows itself apart too fast for the nuclear chain reaction to take place properly and generate the large amount of energy needed for a full-scale explosion. Should that happen a bomb meant to be in the Nagasaki range (20kt) may yield only about a kiloton.

There are two ways this can happen. One is contamination with Plutonium-240. The key ingredient for a plutonium bomb does not exist in nature; it is manufactured in a nuclear reactor when atoms of Uranium-238 capture loose neutrons and are converted to Plutonium-239, the stuff of bombs.

But these plutonium atoms can, in turn, capture neutrons, becoming Pu-240 and even Pu-241. They are not fissionable. With a bomb contaminated with Pu-240, the probability of a fizzle is very large. The US maintains a standard that none of its bomb-grade plutonium will have more than 6% Pu-240.

Presumably North Korea’s physicists, not to mention their Russian and Chinese advisors, understand this problem. But whether they applied the skill needed to suppress PU-240 build-up is another question.

The North could avoid the problem of contamination entirely by using uranium as the basic ingredient of its bomb. Much less is known of the North’s purported uranium enrichment program, but it very unlikely that it progressed to the point of producing sufficient weapon’s grade material.

The other problem concerns detonation. Plutonium bombs work on the “implosion” principle. A sub-critical core of plutonium about the size of soft ball is surrounded by conventional explosives. The pressure from the explosion squeezes the plutonium into a critical mass, setting off the nuclear explosion.

But the shaped charges must be so precisely engineered that they go off simultaneously. If even one charge explodes prematurely, even by a nanosecond, it may blow the bomb apart, cutting short the chain reaction and reducing the yield.

Of course, even a sub-kiloton bomb can cause a lot of damage. A one kiloton bomb will have the radius of destruction of about a third of the Hiroshima bomb, not exactly a city-flattener, but perhaps something that could work as a terrorist weapon.

North Korea should understand the destructive power of even sub-kiloton explosions from experience. On April 22, 2004 in Ryongchon near the Chinese border an explosion of presumably ammonium nitrate killed or injured about 3,000 people (roughly the same number as killed on September 11) and flattened acres of houses.

Some speculate that the North may have skipped the debut stage and moved directly to testing a deliberately weaponized bomb. Such a low-yield bomb would be more suitable for a export to terrorist. If that were the cased, the test may not have been aimed at world opinion in general but was, in fact, a demo for potential buyers.
So one is left really with two possibilities: Was it meant to be a normal, moderate-to-high yield test that fizzled out, or it was a deliberate low yield test, a subtle advertisement for the atomic marketplace?

If, as seems likely, the test was designed for show or for its purported deterrent effect on the US, then it was almost certainly a failure. A yield so small as to leave the world wondering what really happened should not count as a major propaganda victory.

A deliberately low-yield test is oddly more nefarious but also so difficult to pull off that it would seem to be beyond the competence of North Korea in view of its shortage of top-tier physicists and engineers.

Of course, Pyongyang may set off more nuclear tests (using up their limited stocks of plutonium). Someday they might build a multi-stage ballistic missile that really works; someday they may conduct a successful nuclear test; someday they may marry the two. Yes, and Kim Jong-il may live to be 100.

Monday, October 02, 2006

100 Years of Satyagraha

The date September 11, 2001, is seared into the consciousness of Americans, a symbol of mindless, incomprehensible violence. But there is another September 11, whose meaning, quite different, still reverberates down the century.

September 11, 1906, marked the birth of Satyagraya – literally the path of truth – meaning nonviolent resistance to oppression. On that date an Indian barrister, named Mohandas Gandhi, chaired a meeting in the Empire Theater in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The 3,000 or so people gathered there were protesting against the Transvaal Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance, which required them to carry internal passports and live and work under segregated conditions.

The people at the meeting resolved to refuse to observe the terms of the ordinance even to the extent of going to prison. Gandhi later said:

“I had to choose between allying myself to violence or finding out some other method of meeting the crisis and stopping the rot, and it came to me that we should refuse to obey the legislation that was degrading and let them put us in jail if they liked. Thus came into being the moral equivalent of war.”

The Empire Theater was torn down years ago, but Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence has survived down the decades, inspiring such leaders as Martin Luther King and Myanmar’s democracy leader Aung San Sui Kyi.

The centennial of Satyagraya has not been forgotten in the land of Gandhi’s birth, even if the memory of the man has receded over the years. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to South Africa this week, timed to coincide with the anniversary.

He visited the Gandhi Prison Exhibition in Johannesburg and several other sites relevant to Gandhi’s work in South Africa.

For many younger Indians, obsessed with making money now and with India’s rise as an economic superpower, Gandhi is a distant and dour figure, someone they probably read about only in dusty textbooks at school.

But the Bollywood film, Raho Munna Bahia, a comedy in which the ghost of Gandhi appears to a smalltime crook, has been hugely popular and has made Gandhi cool again to younger people. Gandhi websites have sprung up, and young people wear his slogans on T-shirts.

The question that arises is: In the backdrop of rising terrorism and with non-states themselves becoming more oppressive, could Satyagraha still be used as a method to attain higher political goals?

In a world whose discourse now is dominated by such phrases as “war on terror”, “jihad’, “water boarding”, “improvised explosive devices”, “clash of civilizations”, Abu Griab”, “coercive interrogation,” is there still room for Satyagraha?

Would Gandhi’s methods work today against Osama bin Laden, or, for that matter, and from a different perspective, against America’s own brand of imperialism?

It is difficult to imagine how Gandhi’s principles would work successfully against the al-Qaeda leaders. After all, a hallmark of Gandhi and of his followers such as Martin Luther King, was face-to-face confrontation.

Al-qaeda operates from a distant, isolated and secret position making it impossible to counter his violent aims through Satyagraya.

But it is more intriguing to wonder what would have happened if Iraqis has applied the principles of non-violent resistance to the American occupation instead of triggering roadside bombs.

The situation, after all, is not so different from the one that Gandhi faced in India under the British. And even Gandhi acknowledged that he could not have succeeded if Britain had been a dictatorship.

If Satyagraha worked in India why couldn’t it work in Iraq?

Perhaps in a way it is. It may be that there is no Iraqi Gandhi, but more than the insurgency itself, it is the silent resistance of the ordinary Iraqi that is America’s biggest worry and challenge. It is this “struggle” that could ultimately lead America to “quit” Iraq.