The author, a retired senior Foreign Service officer, goes beyond superficial comparisons of the United States’ experiences with Iraq and Vietnam. He thoughtfully notes similarities in, for example, press reaction to the two confrontations, along with other factors. But he points out dissimilarities, as well. What is the balance he presents? You make the call.—Ed.
by David T. Jones
Being of an age when Vietnam was the defining element in the life of a draft age male, I watched closely as developments unfolded in Southeast Asia from 1965-1974. Although I served in the U.S. Army, as well as with the Department of State, during the war, I was never assigned to Vietnam. Now, closer to the end of life than its beginning, we baby boomers attempt to draw from our personal challenge of Vietnam applicable lessons for addressing Iraq. Although every conclusion is personally derived, some observations may be pertinent.
First some differences:
The Vietnam War was a combination of conventional and guerrilla war with major forces on both sides. Our opponents had privileged sanctuaries in the North (where our ground forces never ventured) as well as massive logistic support from great powers such as China and Russia. The forces engaged totaled well over a million U.S. and South Vietnamese troops, and their allies. The resultant casualties were very high (some 58,000 Americans killed) in comparison with anything engaged in Iraq. Ultimately, North Vietnam succeeded in a war of conquest to gain control over what had been French Indochina. This control continues to be exercised directly over the South and indirectly over Laos and Cambodia. Iraq has no privileged sanctuaries for the terrorists; no external invasion from Syria or Iran; no major terrorist military units.
Iraq Is Not a Civil War
One can play with definitions, but Iraq is not a war with directly opposed civil/political centers in different parts of the same country. This is not the United States in the 1860s or China in the 1930s-40s or Nigeria in the 1960s. Iraq perhaps is more akin to Europe’s religion-driven Hundred Years War in which Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other until exhaustion was the victor. Perhaps the still ongoing “cleansing” in the shards of former Yugoslavia is brutally dividing a previously integrated population into segments that are ethnic/religious unities. Perhaps, to retool a Latin tag line from Caesar’s Gallic War, “Iraq est omnia divisa in partes tres” will be the solution; after all, Iraq is an artificial construct state with no political mandate or extended history to justify its current geographic configuration.
But the similarities to and parallels with Vietnam are haunting.
The Other Side Supposedly Fights Harder
Iraqi police and security forces are taking heavy casualties (largely uncounted and ignored by the media) in the struggle against 360-degree insurgency. But the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army and cadres seemingly fought with more dedication than South Vietnamese forces — and they won. Somehow, the intensity of Southern motivation never matched that of the nationalist/communist North. We are seeing the same scenario play out in Iraq; the intensity of those Iraqis committed to democracy, pluralism, federalism, and religious toleration is noble and inspiring; however, their opponents’ level of commitment and willingness to sacrifice — to kill all concerned, including themselves — appears greater. In Iraq, “our guys” seem to be looking over their shoulders wondering what we are going to do to win the war for them; they appear reluctant to take charge of their own destiny. The same could be said to some extent of the South Vietnamese forces.
Certainly the interest in compromise by sectarian opponents in Iraq appears minimal; fanatics grind up those who might be willing, who thereupon take the remnants of their lives and fortunes and flee to live elsewhere. Shades of the Vietnamese boat people!
Suicide bombers are not new in terrorism, of course. Just as did the self-immolating Buddhist monks in Vietnam, suicide bombers in Iraq grab media attention. In Iraq, however, the use of this terrorist method evidently is far more intensive than in Vietnam.
Corruption Appears Ubiquitous
The reported levels of waste, fraud, and abuse in Iraq lead to a U.S. domestic conclusion that whatever is being done is being done badly—or destroyed as fast as it is completed. A “get mine now” attitude pervades Iraq. A similar attitude existed in Vietnam, although to a far lesser degree. Anyone who got even a glimpse of the thriving, organized Saigon black market at the height of the war could attest to that fact.
Torture Is Highlighted
In Vietnam, we were repelled by accounts of “tiger cages” in which prisoners were held in less than pristine circumstances. Reports abounded about tossing recalcitrant Viet Cong from U. S. helicopters to encourage others onboard to be more biddable in communicating on topics of our interest. In Iraq it was Abu Ghraib. We are simply not ready as a society for abstract discussions of what constitutes “torture” let alone willing to accept action along the lines of the French security forces during the Battle of Algiers. If the defining photos of Vietnam were the napalmed naked little girl and the Vietnam security chief shooting a captured Viet Cong during the Tet offensive, it is now the “crucifixion” photo of a hooded Iraqi detainee. War is hell, in Sherman’s phrase. And it doesn’t matter in PR terms that the burned girl survives today as an adult and the Iraqi detainee remains unidentified
Media Opposition is Widespread
Journalists are by profession skeptics. So it was in Vietnam. Journalists became contemptuous of military briefings (the “five o’clock follies”) and convinced that the war was not only unwinnable, but not worth fighting even if it could be won. In both Vietnam and Iraq, the simple media message, “Get out, now!” overwhelmed the complex message that the costs were down payments for long term benefits. In Korea from 1950 to the present we were willing to pay the price (and saved the South from becoming the type of society that the North has become). In Vietnam we were not willing to pay the price, and the result is a polity throughout former Indochina that is distinctly less humane or prosperous than that in South Korea. The issue remains in doubt in Iraq
We Defeated Ourselves in Vietnam; We Can Do So Again in Iraq
The Vietnam War was conducted in a way on the television sets in U.S. living rooms. In part it was lost because a partly draftee army looked increasingly unfair. We are well on the path to the same objective in Iraq. It is harder this time to defeat the United States in its living rooms, but not impossible. Harder because the middle-class kids for whom the draft was anathema are not involved in Iraq. The all-volunteer military has its problems and stresses, but like the police and firemen, they are all professionals who remain remarkably motivated. Not impossible, however, because media expansion and internet availability can make every death into a personal tragedy.
So What Is the Bottom Line?
In Vietnam we had a set of specific objectives: sustain a viable democracy; assist in economic development; prevent a communist conquest of the South, Cambodia, and Laos. We failed on every count. The only item that could be regarded as a “success” was that the domino theory predicting communist conquest of other states in Southeast Asia, one after another, did not eventuate. In Iraq, essentially we have not yet reached a bottom line. We have, however, sunk through various levels of rationale for our presence: the presence of weapons of mass destruction; the linkage between Saddam and al-Qaeda; an easy transition from vicious dictatorship into multiethnic democracy. We are now working against time to create something equivalent to socio-political stability against the all too evident enthusiasm that religious factions take in killing each other’s adherents. Indeed, we may yet see the disintegration of the country and even its emergence as a new haven for anti-Western terrorists.
Our last “bottom line” will be that unlike an Iraq under Saddam, there is little or no likelihood that any political faction emerging from the struggle will develop nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
For that nightmare, we will have to look to Iran.
Note: The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U. S. Government.