September 1989
by Edward Barnes

There are striking parallels between the drug war and the Vietnam war, the only one this nation ever lost. Just as with the conflict of two decades ago, violent skirmishes have become a regular feature of the nightly news, and the death toll mounts with brutal regularity. Gaping combat wounds that hadn't been seen since Vietnam are appearing in the emergency wards of our urban hospitals. This month, when National Drug Policy Director William Bennett announces a new battle plan, it is expected to include sending advisers abroad to help producing nations wipe out their drug crops. Most significantly, as in Vietnam, the conduct of the drug war seems to stumble from crisis to crisis without a credible long-term strategy. Consider the similarities, but bear in mind one difference: The drug war is being fought on home soil. Its loss could be incalculably greater.

TWO ENEMIES Just as the U.S. military fought both regular army troops from North Vietnam and the indigenous Vietcong, government agents and police are fighting large, well-financed multinational drug organizations and small, street-level operations within U.S. borders.

WARS OF ATTRITION  The American military adopted strategy of attrition in Vietnam, setting American fire-power and technical ability against the enemy’s ill-equipped foot soldiers.  The U.S. planned to beat its adversary into submission simply by inflicting huge casualties.
Urban police have adopted the same methodology.  By directing their efforts primarily at neighborhood dealers, the foot soldiers of the drug war, they hope to make the selling of drugs a dangerous and economically unsound occupation.

TACTICS  The Vietnam battle plan was carried out through search-and-destroy missions--the tactic in which a large military unit would raid an enemy stronghold and then withdraw.  The infamous body counts frequently were inflated to appease headquarters commanders.
Police use Tactical Narcotic Teams and the like to sweep drug-infested areas, targeting dealers for harassment and arrest.  A sweep is successful if the arrests are high.  Yet an arrest for disorderly conduct, for example, counts the same as an arrest for dealing.  The tally, like the body count, is meaningless.

QUAGMIRE  Three Presidents promised not to let the U.S. get dragged into an Asian land war.  But with the Saigon government near toppling in 1965, despite thousands of American advisers and billions of dollars in aid, policymakers tried to recoup our investment by introducing combat forces.  Having inadequately assessed the consequences of earlier decisions, Washington became snarled in the bloody war it vowed to avoid.
Police have traditionally had responsibility for controlling drugs.  As long as illicit peddling was low, the job was manageable.  But as the drug war expanded, the police continued as the prime combat force.  Today, without a broader strategy, each new crisis is solved by asking police to do more.  Indeed, drug czar Bennett is expected to press on with requests for more money, more firepower and more cops.  But as in Vietnam, escalation of police responsibility will only drag us deeper into the morass.

OBJECTIVES  The U.S. never adequately defined what would comprise victory in Vietnam.  A postwar survey found that 70 percent of the generals who managed the war were uncertain of its objectives.
There are no tangible, attainable goals for the police of the nation in the drug war either.  Instead, success is defined by platitudes such as “The war will be over when the streets are safe again.”

A DIVIDED COMMAND  In Vietnam the Army technically controlled the battlefield.  The air missions-except for B-52 bombing under the Air Force–were controlled by the Navy.  The CIA operated its own clandestine war in Vietnam and neighboring countries.
The drug campaign also suffers from lack of coordination.  In any infested area there may be as many as 15 police agencies independently pursuing cases, unaware of one another.  There is little effort to direct the hundreds of local, county, state and federal law-enforcement agencies toward the same goals.  Because of interagency jealousies, duplication of work on drug traffickers is common.

EDUCATION  In Vietnam the U.S. inaugurated the “hearts and minds” program to win local support for the Saigon regime.  The primary education effort in the drug war has been “Just say no.”

CONTAINMENT  The Vietnamese villagers in contested areas were relocated to government-controlled “strategic hamlets.”  Housing projects have become the strategic hamlets of the drug war.  Like the squalid camps created in Vietnam, particularly since the advent of crack, American cities, either by policy or practice, have turned their projects into warehouses of problem citizens and incubators of crime.

DEPOPULATION  In Vietnam large areas were cleared of civilian population and declared “free fire zones.”  Anything that moved within became a target.
The drug war has had similar effect on sections of our cities.  Whole neighborhoods have been abandoned as residents flee the crime and violence that occur when narcotics take over.  East St. Louis has lost more than half of its population.  When New York City’s South Bronx was one of the most drug-plagued areas in the nation, the precinct house became known as Fort Apache.  Today the same police station is situated in a barren wasteland and is now called the Little House on the Prairie.

REFUGEES  During the war 20 percent of Vietnam’s farmers, their crops and homes destroyed, fled to the relative safety of government-controlled cities.  Today’s drug battles bring similar fear and economic collapse to urban neighborhoods, swelling the numbers of homeless.

MAPS  At press briefings, progress in Vietnam was measured on maps colored in yellow and red to show the extent of friendly and hostile areas.  Today’s newspapers carry  maps with shaded areas indicating drug-infested and high-crime neighborhoods.  The coded sections bear the same message: These are not government-controlled zones.

INTERDICTION  In Vietnam the U.S. bombed and mined the Ho Chi Minh Trail to stop the flow of soldiers and matériel from the North. Still men and arms poured into the South. When the war started it took six months to traverse the trail. Near war's end the trip could be made in one week.
The government's $1.5 billion program to interdict drugs has met with a similar lack of success. Other federal agencies began to assist customs and Coast Guard teams in 1986, but despite a record number of seizures drug supplies have increased. In the early 1980s the wholesale price of a pound of cocaine was $60,000; today the price is $12,000, an all-time low.

MINORITIES Blacks have borne the brunt of both conflicts. During the early years of Vietnam blacks constituted 10.6 percent of the Army but accounted for 20 percent of battlefield deaths.
The war on drugs is being fought almost exclusively in black and Hispanic neighborhoods: In Washington, D.C., of 235 murders, most of which were drug related, only 15 victims were white. In some northern cities, blacks are 20 times more likely than whites to be murdered.

THE INVISIBLE ENEMY Vietnam was a war without front lines. It was often impossible to distinguish the enemy from the local population. In today's ghettos there is no way to tell if a 12-year-old on the street is just playing or is working as a lookout for a drug gang. Instead of black pajamas, sandals and Kalashnikov rifles, the enemy now has Troop jackets, sneakers and Uzis.

THE TEENAGE WAR The average age of U.S. soldiers who served in Vietnam was 19. (World War II's was 26.) Teenagers make up the infantry of narcotics organizations.

DALLAS, OCTOBER 1988: Frankie Walker, whose arrest record includes burglary, theft and prostitution, is taken in on a possession charge.

MEDICAL CARE Hospital emergency rooms today bear a striking resemblance to the battlefield triage stations of Vietnam. A wounded American soldier could expect to get medical treatment within 30 minutes, no matter how remote the battlefield. The result was that only 19 percent of wounded Americans died. Medical care for civilians, however, was substandard.
A police officer shot in the line of duty gets unstinting medical care. Other victims of the drug war, most of them poor, receive increasingly madequate treatment. Private hospitals claim they would go bankrupt caring for these usually indigent patients. Instead, large, understaffed public hospitals must cope with the growing burden.

PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECTS As disenchantment with the Vietnam war spread to the battlefield, troops became reluctant to engage in combat. By 1971 there were 333 incidents of "fragging," troops attacking their own officers. In the aftermath of the war, posttraumatic stress syndrome has afflicted some 500,000 veterans.
Demoralization is causing similar reluctance among police. The result is that we are fielding a war-weary urban army, locked in combat with an enemy it can neither understand nor defeat. The officers who fight the war, like their counterparts in Vietnam, do just enough to get home each night alive. We are now seeing the first cases of posttraumatic stress syndrome among police.

PUBLIC OPINION The Vietnam war took several years to become the prime issue among U.S. citizens. First the public demanded results; then, as human and economic costs spiraled upward, withdrawal.
The drug war's public support is following a similar pattern as drug-related crime puts the issue at the top of the political agenda. If current efforts fail, support will evaporate. But this time there can be no withdrawal.

COSTS Vietnam cost an average of $15 billion a year for 10 years.
The direct cost of fighting the drug war is $10 billion annually.  But lost productivity and medical and other social costs total more than $60 billion a year. There are no dollar figures for the destruction of neighborhoods or the loss of a generation of children.

HERBICIDES More than 18 million gallons of defoliants were sprayed over the jungles of South Vietnam to remove cover hiding enemy soldiers.  Concerns over long-term health or environmental effects were overridden.
In the drug war the herbicides Paraquat and Spike have been sprayed in the production areas in Asia and South America despite objections on health and environmental grounds.

RECRUITMENT As the war wound down and the public tired of it, military recruitment became difficult.  With the end of the draft in 1973, the armed forces had severe problems finding qualified recruits.
As the police become consumed with the battles of the drug war, they are finding it harder to sign up qualified officers.  New York’s director of civil service testing admits that the city’s police exam could be passed by a “functional illiterate.”  In response to declining skills, the city’s report forms were redesigned to allow check-offs rather than written descriptions.  As people, both black and white, with other prospects choose different careers and standards drop, police work will become just another dirty job no one else wants.

SMALL ARMS In war, death by small-arms fire is the hallmark of vicious, close-in combat.  Vietnam was the first war in which the majority of deaths were from small arms.  In ghettos the primary cause of death of young black men is homicide by small-arms fire. The increased presence of guns is taking an overwhelming toll: The fastest growing cause of death in the U.S.--after AIDS--is being accidentally shot as an innocent bystander.

CASUALTIES Overall, the casualty rates for the drug war and Vietnam are neck and neck. In Vietnam 47,244 Americans were killed and more than 300,000 wounded during the decade of combat. During the week ending May 11, 1968, the most devastating week of the war, 562 servicemen were killed in action.
While police casualties are rare, America is still burying about the same number of bodies a week in the drug war as in the worst days of Vietnam. Overdoses and narcotic-related murders average about 450 a week. Add to that the AIDS cases that are drug related--about half of the total--and the deaths of children that are the result of abuse or neglect by addicted parents, and the death rate exceeds that of Vietnam at its worst.

NEWS COVERAGE Like Vietnam, drugs provide primetime time news shows with plenty of action footage. But there are differences too. In Vietnam 419 news personnel were assigned to cover the war by 1966, but there are few full-time drug correspondents. The result is shallow coverage, usually of last night's shootout, lacking in the under­standing of the dynamics of this conflict.

THE FUNDAMENTAL FLAW In Vietnam the military was asked to solve what was essentially a political problem. In the streets of America's cities the police are being asked to solve what is at heart a social problem. In both wars the reliance on force has siphoned energies from potentially more effective approaches. On the following pages LIFE offers suggestions we hope the administration will consider as it plots a future for America's current war.