Iraq Isn’t Vietnam, but Unfortunately They Rhyme

Robert G. Kaiser, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON, 29 December 2003 — Is Iraq another Vietnam? The question, heard often now, implies more specific questions: Are we caught in another quagmire? Are we dooming thousands of young Americans to a premature death? Have we again lost our way?

“History doesn’t repeat itself, at best it rhymes,’’ Mark Twain is credited with saying. This is a wise warning. A close examination of Iraq and Vietnam quickly makes clear the limits of any analogy. There are just too many differences to justify putting these two entanglements in the same category.

But it’s easy to find the rhymes:

“Our military is confronting terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other places so our people will not have to confront terrorist violence in New York or St. Louis or Los Angeles.’’

— George W. Bush, Aug. 26, 2003

“If we don’t stop the Reds in South Vietnam, tomorrow they will be in Hawaii, and next week they will be in San Francisco.’’

— Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966

Two beleaguered presidents, each hyping his unpopular war, suggest how these two episodes can turn out to be similar in their effects. The war in Southeast Asia was Topic A for three successive presidential elections, from 1964 though 1972. Iraq seems destined for a similar role in 2004. In a domestic context, there are many similarities between the two: Disputed and inaccurate intelligence, molded for political purposes, created pretexts for both wars; each caused deep divisions in the country; and pro-war presidents draped themselves in the flag and preached the stark necessity of their war, while promising its speedy, successful conclusion.

Thinking about the similarities as well as the differences is instructive. Particularly because we did experience Vietnam — a fact that sets us apart from our compatriots of the 1960s, who didn’t have the benefit of an earlier, comparable event to learn from — we can anticipate some of the danger signs.

Militarily, the comparison of Iraq to Vietnam won’t take us very far. Consider:

In Vietnam the enemy was formidable: the Vietminh, the Communist and nationalist movement that defeated the French Army to win North Vietnam’s independence. The Vietminh were seen by many Vietnamese as legitimate guardians of their national identity. The Vietminh saw the United States as yet another colonial power trying to deprive the Vietnamese of their sovereignty.

The Communists’ supply network began in the Soviet Union and China, huge industrial powers committed to providing whatever material support the Vietminh needed. They had sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia, especially along the Ho Chi Minh Trail through both those countries, which allowed them to deliver Soviet and Chinese supplies to troops fighting Americans in the South.

To try to counter all this, the United States sent 550,000 troops to South Vietnam at the peak of the war (vs. 130,000 at present in Iraq), conducted massive bombing campaigns, built enormous military bases in South Vietnam and installed Americans in every district of every province. And still, US forces had their hands full with a ferocious North Vietnamese army unintimidated by the Americans’ firepower and helicopters.

The bands of Iraqis who are killing Americans appear to have plenty of ammunition, at least for now, but they have no resupply network comparable to North Vietnam’s. They have no organized military units. There will be no setpiece battles in Iraq.

After 10 months in Iraq, the United States has lost 471 soldiers. In the first 10 months after combat troops landed in Vietnam, the death toll was almost 2,000. Ultimately, more than 58,300 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam — half the number of Yanks killed in World War I, a huge number that no one expects from this Iraq war.

The contexts for the two wars are also very different. The subtext for Vietnam was the Cold War. Defeating North Vietnam was seen by US officials (though not by our European and Asian allies) as part of the policy of containing communism. We feared that a defeat in Vietnam would be followed by the fall of other Asian countries to communism — the “domino theory,’’ which happily proved unfounded after we finally did lose in Vietnam in 1975.

As retired Army Gen. William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, put it in a recent interview, there was intense pressure on Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to stand and fight in Vietnam. In contrast, Iraq really was a war of choice for the Bush administration. Attacking Iraq never enjoyed the level of public support that the war in Vietnam did initially.

And yet, there is a way in which Iraq really is like Vietnam, one worth thinking about. It involves ends and means, credibility and capability. In Vietnam, the strategic goal was to block communist expansion — which in Washington meant Chinese expansion — in Southeast Asia.

The war was launched to force Ho Chi Minh and his comrades in North Vietnam to negotiate an enforceable peace that would leave in place both North and South Vietnam, the latter as a new American ally on the model of South Korea. But Ho refused to accommodate this idea, and the United States had to find a Plan B.

So the Vietnam War became an effort to create and sustain an independent South Vietnam against a powerful indigenous rival, although that rival enjoyed numerous advantages.

The country we sought to prop up was an artificial creation. The leaders we backed were corrupt and too often unreliable.

They lacked nationalist credentials or popular followings. American military force could not end the Vietnam War on favorable terms, because it was a political struggle, and we did not have the political tools to prevail. We did not have means that could achieve our ends.