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.