My level of understanding at that age as to what armed confrontation was all about can be gauged by the fact that the difference between "soldiers" on the one hand, and "cowboys and indians" on the other, was still pretty blurry to me. Nevertheless, I have a clear memory of my parents explaining to me in hushed tones one day that my friend was having a bit of a rough time, as his dad had just returned from Vietnam and was behaving strangely. What was Vietnam, and how was he behaving strangely, I wanted to know. I was told that Vietnam was a place where American soldiers, like my friend's dad, were fighting in a jungle (a big forest, as far as I understood) and had bombs thrown at them on a regular basis. And my friend's dad was exhibiting unusual behavior because he had had bombs thrown at him too many times. It seems that the first night after he returned, a police car went by their house with its siren blaring. The next morning, when his wife woke up, he was nowhere to be found. After searching the whole house for her husband, she finally found him fast asleep under the bed. He had heard the siren in the night and, without waking up, had rolled off the bed and back under it to take cover from the "incoming shells".
Before discussing the merits and flaws of a comparison between the Vietnam and Iraq wars, a few words about the White House spin machine. It is notable that up until last week, anyone who compared the two conflicts was dismissed by the neocons as a defeatist or worse, since the ignominous end of America's engagement in Southeast Asia is still remembered as one of the deepest humiliations of US military power ever - until Iraq, that is. Although... there are some who still insist that it was not a defeat for the US, and their worldview is captured pretty neatly in this dialog between Archie and Otto in A Fish Called Wanda:
- You know your problem? You don't like winners.
- Yeah. Winners.
- Winners like... North Vietnam?
- Shut up! We did not lose Vietnam! It was a tie!
- I'm tellin' ya, they kicked some ass there. Boy, they whupped your hide real good!
- No, they didn't.
- Yes, they did.
- Oh, no, they didn't.
- Oh, yes, they did.
- Oh, no, they... Shut up!
The highest form of propaganda consists of not just distorting the truth a little bit, but of proclaiming the opposite of what everyone knows to be true. (Thus, for example, commenting on the resignation of disgraced Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has the gall to accuse the Democratic Congress of "dangerously politicizing the Justice Department", which is of course exactly what Gonzales has been doing.) So it should come as no surprise that after years of pooh-poohing any resemblance between the Vietnam debacle and the Iraqi quagmire, the White House now turns around and cites the example of Vietnam as a reason for supporting the continued occupation of Iraq. You gotta hand it to these guys: They distort reality at breathtaking levels of altitude, where most ordinary mortals would find it difficult to operate even with oxygen masks and sherpas carrying their bundle of lies for them.
Of course, such obviously false parallels can easily be shown to be wrong by anyone with even the most basic knowledge of history and international relations. Refuting the lies of the Republican spin machine is easy; but one wonders whether it is worth the effort, since by the time their claims are exposed as false, the spin doctors will have moved on to the next mind-boggling distortion. Nevertheless, here goes; we will first of all discuss why the parallels that Bush drew between Iraq and Vietnam in his recent speech are wrong, and then look in detail at some of the real differences and similarities between the two conflicts.
Speaking before the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) association in Kansas City, Missouri, Bush claimed that
“America’s withdrawal was paid for by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields.’”
Concerning the vengeance of the Communist regime on Southern Vietnam after the US retreat, it is worth noting that the Viet Minh movement was not always an implacable enemy of the US or the West. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor organization of the CIA, cooperated with Ho Chin Minh and the Viet Minh against the Japanese occupiers of Vietnam in 1945. It was only when they realized that the US would not support their bid for independence that the Viet Minh and their successors of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam turned towards Communism. That is to say, the refugee crisis and re-education camps were largely an outcome of US intransigence since the end of the Second World War and Washington's sustained support for a corrupt South Vietnamese regime after France pulled out of Indochina; to blame these deplorable developments on the US retreat is simply a reversal of cause and effect.
It is similarly ahistorical to attribute the "killing fields" to the US withdrawal from Southeast Asia. The rise of the Khmer Rouge to power in Cambodia, culminating in the capture of the capital, Phnom Penh, on 17 April 1975 (a mere two weeks before the fall of Saigon), can largely be attributed to the US bombing capaign against Cambodia during the previous years. In order to interdict North Vietnamese resupply routes through the neighboring country, Nixon ordered a secret strategic bombing campaign against Cambodia, which in turn enhanced the popularity of the Communist Khmer Rouge guerillas, whose rule of terror later led to hundreds of thousands of deaths on the so-called killing fields. Notably, it was the Socialist Republic of Vietnam that ultimately ended the reign of Pol Pot with an invasion of Cambodia in 1979. Again, the notion that the deaths of approximately 1.5 million Cambodians were due to the US withdrawal from Vietnam is a gross distortion of reality.
Having established that it was US interference in Southeast Asia, not the decision to withdraw, that caused the phenomena wrongly attributed by Bush in his recent speech, we should also look at some of the actual historical similarities and differences between Vietnam and Iraq.
The main difference is that the Iraqi resistance has no support from a superpower, unlike North Vietnam, which received supplies and diplomatic backing from Moscow as a Soviet proxy in the context of the Cold War. Despite the attempts by the neoconservatives to frame Iran as acting in such a manner, both the Maliki puppet government in Iraq and the Karzai regime in Afghanistan report that Iran has been a constructive force in the recent regional turmoil, meaning that Tehran has not been extending significant support to insurgents in either country. On the one hand, Iran certainly retains that option if certain parameters should change - for example, if it should become the target of US attacks. On the other hand, Tehran's long-term interests include the establishment of a stable situation in the region, preferably with an enhanced role for itself.
A secondary difference is one of geography. Iraq has no forests offering cover and retreat areas for large bodies of insurgent fighters, and the various militias and armed groups cannot move across the desert in sizeable formations. Of course, that means that there are no massed targets for the US military to attack and destroy in open engagements. This is also why most of the US casualties have been incurred in urban environments, and due to roadside bombs. The densely built-up areas of Iraqi cities are the contemporary equivalent of the Vietnamese jungle.
Conversely, the similarities between America's two worst military debacles in the past 50 years are fairly evident.
In both cases, the justification to go to war was based on patent lies. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing US President Lyndon B. Johnson to use force in Southeast Asia was obtained by distorting and inflating a minor or non-existent confrontation between the US Navy and Vietnamese ships; the Iraq War Resolution was based on many months of sustained propaganda and disinformation campaigns directed at the US Congress, the American public, and a skeptical world at large. Among the outright lies disseminated by the White House were
- the claims about 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta having met with Iraqi intelligence officials in Prague;
- lies about alleged Iraqi attempts to buy yellowcake uranium from Niger (leading to the Plamegate scandal);
- Bush and Blair referring to a non-existent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency supposedly claiming Iraq was six months away from developing a nuclear weapon;
- plagiarized reports on Saddam's Iraq, some of which referred to the state of affairs 12 years earlier.
Also, just as in the case of its support for the Diem regime in Southern Vietnam, the US is repeating its mistake of over-reliance on weak and corrupt local allies that lack legitimacy among the Iraqi population. Ahmed Chalabi, the designated puppet at the start of the war, was convicted of bank fraud in Jordan after the collapse of his Petra Bank. He managed to convince the neocons surrounding Bush in 2002 that his opposition group of Iraqi exiles, the Iraqi National Congress, should be installed as the new government as soon as Saddam was overthrown. He was reportedly exposed in 2004 as a spy for Iran. Chalabi's nephew Iyad Allawi was subsequently named prime minister, but has since fled the country and now lives in London.
Perhaps the most dangerous misjudgement both in Vietnam and in Iraq has been a near-complete misconception, or perhaps misrepresentation, of the US enemies' motivation. Concerning Vietnam, US defense secretary Robert McNamara claimed that if the country were allowed to fall into the hands of the Communist Ho Chi Minh, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow (the "domino theory"). Of course, that never happened; even after the ignominous defeat of the US, most of the neighboring Asian countries remained safely in the capitalist camp, and until the 1990s, the "Tiger states" of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan displayed some of the world's biggest economic growth levels. Vietnam today has become a de-facto capitalist state, though it retains its one-party government. Most historians agree that Uncle Ho was fighting a war of national liberation, which had started with resistance against China and Japan and continued through the French colonial period until the conquest of Saigon and the US withdrawal. That is, Communism was an ideology used for mobilizing the Vietnamese people against foreign domination, but the National Front was essentially a national liberation movement rather than conceiving itself as part of a global movement or aiming to export revolutionary fervor to the region.
Similarly, the Bush White House insists that the armed groups resisting the US occupation of Iraq are "jihadists" (the latter-day "Commies") and al-Qaida franchises, since acknowledging that most are local sectarian militias opposed to the US presence would undermine the rationale for the war effort, which has been implicitly, and wrongly, linked to the 9/11 attacks. Bush claims that "we are fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here"; that narrative would implode if it were acknowledged that 95% of the Iraqi resistance have no ties to al-Qaida or other foreign Wahhabi groups.
This blog post is growing far longer than intended, so I will sum up a few of the other more important similarities in brief. The Iraqi militants, like the Vietcong, are flexible and employ asymmetrical tactics against the US occupation forces; as a result, after losing its sense of invulnerability in the 11 September 2001 attacks, the US is now experiencing the destruction of its myth of invincibility on the battlefield, together with its international reputation, both of which it had painstakingly rebuilt after the humiliating experience of Vietnam.
Some other obvious similarities between Iraq and Vietnam were noted by Martin van Creveld, one of the leading military historians of our times, as early as September 2004 in an article on "Why Iraq Will End as Vietnam Did". This paper describes a trip to Vietnam undertaken by Israeli general Moshe Dayan in 1966 at the invitation of Walt Rostow, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and McNamara. Having spent several weeks in the country, including patrols on swift boats as well as on foot with the Marines and the 1st Air Cavalry Division, Dayan came to the following main conclusions: The US effort was going badly because it
- lacked intelligence,
- was losing the battle for hearts and minds, and
- was seen by global public opinion as a bully "beating down on the weak".
As to what he was told of the war’s objectives, such as defending democracy and helping the South Vietnamese people, he considered it “childish” propaganda; if many of the Americans he met believed in them, clearly nobody else did.In conclusion, I would like to refer to Barbara Tuchman's excellent book "The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam", which dissects America's blunder into the Vietnam conflict as an example of why and how governments pursue policies that are contrary to their own interests. She attributes the mistakes of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations to "follies", including over-reaction ("the invention of endangered 'national security', the invention of 'vital interest', the invention of 'commitment' which rapidly assumed a life of its own..."); the "illusion of omnipotence"; "wooden-headedness", which she also describes as the "Don't-confuse-me-with-the-facts habit"; a refusal to "take the enemy's grim will and capacity into account; and "'working the levers' as a substitute for thinking", or the "absence of reflective thought about the nature of what we're doing".
If all of the above "follies" are strongly reminiscent of the current US "surge" strategy, it is surely no coincidence. These are the only comparisons between the Vietnam war and the Iraq occupation worth making, and the only ones from which tangible lessons for the present quagmire can be drawn. However, I fear that we are soon to see a final historical parallel: As Bush attempts to postpone a withdrawal of US forces into the administration of his successor, we can discern the beginnings of a blame-shifting process.
The White House is trying desperately to pin responsibility for the disastrous course of the neoconservative Iraq adventure on anybody but the neocons themselves. The Republican Party, supposedly the party of individual responsibility, now blames its own catastrophic failure on the Iraqi government, al-Qaida, Iran, and - in a final twist of propagandistic desperation - the Democrats, as well as anybody else who is opposed to the war or dares call for a withdrawal of US forces. And here we can expect a final repetition of history: The Dolchstosslegende.
Just as the German military reactionaries after the First World War blamed the Social Democrats for having signed the peace treaty with the Allies and thus having delivered a cowardly "stab in the back" to the brave soldiers on the frontline, "unvanquished in the field", as the legend went ("im Felde unbesiegt"); and just as the right-wing conservatives in the US until today blame "peaceniks and hippies" for having lost the Vietnam War, the current administration and its lackey pundits will try to pass the buck to those who have tried to inject a voice of reason, rationalism, and realism into the debate.
America must avoid repeating this historical mistake, or its refusal to face up to its own failures may lead to a Weimar Republic scenario. Already today, ultra-conservatives in the US have a good deal of contempt for democracy, pluralism, and progressive politics - including the notion that military force is not always the best approach to solving foreign-policy problems. If the US should choose to continue the present course or even to embark on a military adventure in Iran, for example, and if it should end up suffering a complete defeat in the Middle East, it is not inconceivable that American democracy itself would be under threat, as the nascent German democracy was in the 1920s and 1930s.
Let us hope that 40 years from now, this historical analogy will turn out to be just as flawed as Bush's preposterous remarks before the VFW last week.
A postscript, 10 September 2007: I am currently reading Pausanias, "Description of Greece", and came across the following passage that I felt should be included with this discussion of Vietnam and Iraq.
About sixty stades from Marathon as you go along the road by the sea to Oropus stands Rhamnus. The dwelling houses are on the coast, but a little way inland is a sanctuary of Nemesis, the most implacable deity to men of violence. It is thought that the wrath of this goddess fell also upon the foreigners who landed at Marathon. For thinking in their pride that nothing stood in the way of their taking Athens, they were bringing a piece of Parian marble to make a trophy, convinced that their task was already finished. Of this marble Pheidias made a statue of Nemesis [...] Neither this nor any other ancient statue of Nemesis has wings, for not even the holiest wooden images of the Smyrnaeans have them, but later artists, convinced that the goddess manifests herself most as a consequence of love, give wings to Nemesis as they do to Love.