Is Iraq Another Vietnam? Actually, It May Become Worse

Posted by: Editor on Tuesday, April 20, 2004 - 04:00 AM

by Robert Freeman

A virtual cottage industry has sprung up comparing Iraq with Vietnam. And well that it should. Vietnam cost the lives of not only 58,000 Americans but of three million Vietnamese. Neither the US nor the Iraqi people nor the world need another such horror.

The similarities between Iraq and Vietnam run both shallow and deep. The shallow similarities are obvious and can serve to signal our attention. But it is the deeper similarities, those that shape policy and drive alternatives, that should signal our fears. For they point to the possibility of an outcome perhaps even more calamitous than in Vietnam.

Both Iraq and Vietnam were founded on lies. In Vietnam, the original lie was that an impoverished nation of pre-industrial age farmers posed a threat to the mightiest empire the world had ever known. The Gulf of Tonkin hoax was the manufactured excuse to jump in with all guns blazing. And the Pentagon Papers were the meticulous, irrefutable chronicle of the litany of all the rest of the lies.

With Iraq, we don’t need to wait for a Pentagon Papers to know the trigger or the extent of the lying. It is already notorious. Weapons of Mass Destruction. Connections to Al Qaeda. Complicity in 9/11. A “cakewalk”. Being welcomed as “liberators”. A “self-funding” war. “We’ve found the weapons of mass destruction.” Reducing global terror. Mission Accomplished. The real question in Iraq is not whether the Bush administration has told any lies but rather, almost literally, whether it has told any meaningful truths.

Both wars quickly became guerilla wars. In Vietnam, the battlegrounds were jungles, rice patties, and small rural hamlets. It was the antithesis of the set-piece battle style of warfare the U.S. military had been built and trained for. In Iraq the battlegrounds are city blocks with houses, apartments, stores and schools. In both settings, the enemy controls the timing, scale, and place of engagements.

They shoot opportunistically and quickly melt away into their surroundings. Combatants are indistinguishable from civilians with the result that eight civilians are killed for every combatant. This understandably alienates the civilian population from its “liberators” while increasing its support for the resistance—an inescapable and fateful cycle. In Vietnam, this process became mockingly known as “winning the hearts and minds of the people.” It hasn’t been graced with a name yet in Iraq.

Both wars used the palpable fiction of “democracy” to pacify the American public into quiescence. In Vietnam, “democracy” took the form of a clique of wealthy, urban, Catholic dictators running a country of poor, rural, Buddhist peasants. After the US had its puppet, Diem, assassinated in 1963, it took two years and seven different governments before a suitably brutal but still obeisant figurehead could be found.

In Iraq, a “governing council” of US-appointed stooges pretends to represent Iraqi interests by handing over almost all industries to large U.S. corporations—all of which just happen to be munificent donors to the Republican party. Commenting recently on the handover of “sovereignty,” US proconsul Paul Bremmer noted in seemingly oblivious irony that, “There’s not going to be any difference in our military posture on July 1st from what it is on June 30th.” This is democracy™ for foreign subjects, American style.

But there are still deeper bases for comparing Iraq with Vietnam. It is these that are most disquieting for America’s prospects.

Both wars were against victim nations already deeply scarred by colonial domination. It is this legacy that poisons all U.S. sanctimony about installing “democracy” in Iraq. Vietnam was dominated for over a century by first the French, then the Japanese, then the French again, and eventually the Americans. But all the Vietnamese people ever wanted was to be free of such domination, to craft for themselves their own destiny, much as the American colonists had done in their revolutionary war.

Iraq, too, bears the scars of a long and repressive colonial legacy. It was created in the aftermath of World War I, literally carved out of the sand by the British for the sole purpose of controlling the world’s oil supply. The US helped Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party overthrow the uppity Karim Qasim in 1963 but its purposes were the same as the British’s: to control the world’s supply of oil. The aggressively disinformed American public is unaware of this legacy and, therefore, the reason behind Iraq’s vociferous resistance to its would-be “liberation.”

Still deeper in meaning is the strategic context of the two wars. Both wars were fought in the vanguard of grand U.S. strategy. In Vietnam, the strategy was “Containment,” George Kennan’s famous formula for stopping the Soviet Union from expanding its empire. Eisenhower’s overwrought and ultimately disproved version had dominoes falling from Laos and Cambodia, on to Thailand and Burma, all the way to India.

In Iraq, the grand strategy is global hegemony. It is the neo-conservatives’ vision of the once-in-a-millennium chance to dominate the world. With the Cold War ended and no plausible military challenger in sight, such a chance must not be let to pass, certainly not for want of sufficient “manhood”. Iraq is simply the first tactical step in this vision, the basis for controlling the world’s oil and, thereby, the US’s strategic competitors. This is the reason the Pentagon plans to leave 14 military bases in the country indefinitely—to project military power throughout the Persian Gulf, site of 55% of the world’s oil.

Finally, it is the ideological context that perhaps most eerily presages (and dooms) the U.S. role in Iraq—just as it did in Vietnam. The Vietnam quagmire was formed in the toxic aftermath of World War II. When China fell to the communists in 1949, Republicans mounted an ideological dragnet to purge the government of those who had “lost China.” This morphed into Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts of the 1950s that targeted supposed “communist sympathizers” throughout the country.

It was close personal knowledge of these ideologically-driven purges that drove Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and even Nixon to aver that they would never allow the U.S. to fail in Vietnam for fear of being portrayed as “soft on communism.” Despite the fact that all of these presidents were warned—repeatedly—that Vietnam was unwinnable, all “soldiered on”, dooming ever more soldiers and civilians to death and destruction.

For years, the public rationale for U.S. involvement in Vietnam had been to keep Vietnam out of the hands of communists. But in March 1965, before the massive escalation that would make the war irreversible, Pentagon briefers told President Johnson that the true U.S. goals in Vietnam were, “70% to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat; 20% to keep South Vietnam (and adjacent territories) from Chinese hands; 10% to permit the people of Vietnam a better, freer way of life.” This is the smoking gun of the ideological aversion to withdrawal.

And so, because of the strategic imperatives of containment and the ideological pressures of McCarthyism, the U.S. couldn’t stay out of Vietnam. But because of the colonialist taint, the nature of guerilla war, the ludicrous fiction of “democracy”, and the foundation of lies that undergirded the entire venture, it could never win either. This was the essential, inescapable, tragic dilemma for America in Vietnam: it could not manage to stay out; but it could never manage to win.

Much the same can already be said of Iraq. Bush’s latest post-hoc rationale, that “we’re changing the world,” betrays a near-messianic obsession to stay. Such compulsion is impervious to mere logic or facts. Steadily increasing violence and chaos are cheerily parried with ideological divinations that these are actually proof we are winning! In psychiatric wards, this would be dismissed for what it actually is: dangerous delusion.

But as was the case with successive presidents in Vietnam, the necessity “to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat” now drives Bush policy more than anything else. And we should be clear: this goes far beyond the need to simply maintain appearances until November. If the U.S. is driven from Iraq, the credibility of U.S. force and the potency of U.S. power in the world will be irreparably damaged, far more than it was by the loss in Vietnam. This is why Iraq may actually become worse than Vietnam.

The reason is that military force has increasingly become the principal tool of persuasion for the U.S. in the world. Unlike the 1960s when its economy was still the envy of the world and its ideals were still the model for many nations, the U.S. economy is now a wreck and U.S. ideals are in tatters.

The private U.S. economy is so uncompetitive it runs a half trillion dollar a year trade deficit with the rest of the world. And the U.S. lives so far beyond its means it runs a half trillion dollar a year federal budget deficit. It must go, hat in hand, to the rest of the world to borrow these sums, well more than two billion dollars a day. This is hardly a model of economic vibrancy. And the U.S.’s civic culture—what the neo-cons once lauded as “the soft power of ideas”—is now feared and mocked by much of the world, including former allies. And herein lies the danger.

What is the point of spending more on the military than all of the rest of the world combined if it cannot deliver when called upon? In Vietnam, General Curtis LeMay answered this question with his famous dictum: “We’ll bomb them back into the stone age.” And Nixon tried, mightily. During one twelve-day period in December 1972 (the “Christmas Bombings”), the U.S. dropped more tons of bombs on North Vietnam than it had dropped during the entire period from 1969 to 1971, the military height of the war. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

This is now the danger for both Iraq and the U.S. Because of Bush’s strategic commitment to global hegemony and his messianic ideological persuasions, the U.S. cannot get out of Iraq; but because of the realities of colonialism, guerilla war, phony democracy, and the foundation of lies to justify it all, it will not be able to win either. Does this sound familiar?

Worse, the forces for moderation in Vietnam (such as they were) are nowhere in sight in Iraq. There is no independent media capable of calling out the emperor’s nakedness. There is no China next door to threaten another Asian land war should U.S. aggression become too heinous. There are no allies the U.S. needs to heed for its Cold War against the Soviet Union. In fact, without the Soviet Union, the U.S.’s former allies look more and more like its future competitors. Hence its public derision for their counsel of restraint.

Finally, if Iraq falls, Bush’s cabal of neo-conservative policy makers, never so much concerned with American interests as they are with their own, will be decisively, publicly, embarrassingly repudiated. All of this is a formula for potential catastrophe.

The damage to U.S. prestige in the world for its illegal invasion of Iraq is already done. The danger now is that in his desperation to “avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat,” the repudiation of his entire presidency, and a generation-long disdain for U.S. military power, Bush will resort to apocalyptic barbarism. This is exactly what Nixon did trying to salvage “peace with honor” in Vietnam. It is this temptation that only the American public can force Bush to resist.

Robert Freeman writes about economics, history, and education. He can be reached at