The Bush Administration insists that the Iraq War bears little resemblance to the Vietnam War. As with most of Bush Administration assertions, this claim bears little resemblance to the truth. Indeed, the similarities between Bush's Iraq War and Vietnam are many and granular. Incredibly, as if they denied all the lessons of the first tragedy, the generation that was itself stuck in the quagmire of Vietnam has mired its own children in the quicksand of Iraq.
The contexts were similar. We may not recall today the depth of fear of the "red menace" that pervaded the country in the 1950s/60s. People built bomb shelters. School children ducked under desks in civil defense drills. Television programming was interrupted with testing of an emergency warning system. Civil liberties came under fire as purported "communists" were outed. [Today, substitute terrorism for communism, duct tape for bomb shelters, color-coding for television instructions, destruction of civil liberties for blacklisting, and the differences are small. The communists were described as ruthless, inhumane, unreasonable, and harboring a world view antithetical to democracy and human dignity.]
The pretexts for both wars were false, and the reasons for full-scale war trumped up. The Gulf of Tonkin 'incident' was the pretext for the full-scale invasion of Vietnam. In Iraq we had the pretext of WMD and the Saddam Hussein link to Al-Qaeda. In both cases Congress gave wide swaths of authority to conduct war to the President by lopsided margins. The Congress also had not learned the pitfalls of sweeping grants of authority.
In both wars we installed regimes of "our" people who had not even been in the country. After walking from the Geneva accords in 1954 because we did not want the likely outcome of the communist Ho Chi Minh winning the national election in1956, we plucked Ngo Dinh Diem from a Catholic monastery in New Jersey and implanted him in South Vietnam as President. In Iraq we airlifted Chalabi, the scion of a wealthy Iraqi family who had not been to Iraq for 35 years, to lead a popular uprising that never happened.
In Vietnam the ultimate goal was to establish a democracy as a bulwark to Communism. Establishing a democracy in Iraq was supposed to trigger democratic change in other middle eastern countries, reducing the basis for terrorism. This premise, repeated without contradiction, was never critically examined: Turkey became a democracy in the 1920s, but none of its neighbors followed suit; and, Lebanon was a democracy of sorts without any democratic trends noted among its neighbors either. What historical example is there of their repeated assertion, and rationale #5 for the war, that democracy established in Iraq would have a positive influence on its neighbors? If anything, the evidence is contrary.
In both wars we accomplished precisely the opposite of what we proclaimed was necessary for our security to prevent. Ho Chi Minh was indeed a communist, but also a nationalist, who fought the French, then the Japanese, the French again, and then the U.S. We ignored the long history of Vietnamese/Chinese enmity, and claimed that there would be a (Red) Chinese domination of Southeast Asia. Indeed, it was our invasion that drove Vietnam into the arms of (Red) China, and, by destabilizing Cambodia by our 'incursions'to fight North Vietnam, we also succeeded in paving the way for the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities, a group that had been fought by Prince Sihanouk for years with (Red) Chinese help. As soon as Vietnam was free of its need to fight the U.S., it began a border war with China.
Similarly, Iraq was an unlikely Al-Qaeda ally: it was a secular, brutal dictatorship that could not tolerate an uncontrolled power in its midst. In the Gulf War Saddam showed he valued his regime's survival by refraining from using the WMD he did have at that time. Instead of reducing the fundamentalist Islamist threat, the Iraq invasion created another font of terrorism where none existed, and raised the status of Islamist fundamentalist terrorism in other parts of world. As with Vietnam, we accomplished precisely the opposite of our supposed intention.
In both wars treatises making the cases for invasion had been developed long before the military actions. For Vietnam it emerged with the publication of the Pentagon Papers. For Iraq it was the Project for a New American Century signed by the radical rightwing group that later populated the Bush Adminstration (Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Feith), essentially to free the use of American military power from the 'handcuffs' of the views of allies and obligations to international organization to re-make countries in its own image. The same "arrogance of power" (as Senator J.William Fulbright, Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, called it) animated policymakers during Vietnam.
During both wars there were also those who claimed that we were not using enough power. In Vietnam Air Force General (ret.) Curtis LeMay said we should bomb them back into the stone age ("bombs away with Curtis LeMay"). Nixon bombed Hanoi and Haiphong, but within a few years North Vietnam achieved victory. Today, virtually everyone except Dick Cheneyacknowledges that we occupied Iraq with too small a force, ("stuff happens" was Rumsfeld's answer to not guarding the munition dumps). We never had sufficient allies to mount a sustained 500,000+ occupation. Deposed Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki was dismissed when he spoke the truth about the needs of a post war occupation. For that matter, in Vietnam we never had much allied support either--and considerable opposition among our NATO allies.
In both wars generals were called to make public political statements endorsing the strategy, and the Administration attacked the opposition as weak, cowardly, defeatist and unpatriotic. During Vietnam General Westmoreland endorsed the Administration's military policy, claimed we were making great progress with our strategic hamlets policy, and supported civilian claims that "we have turned the corner and there is light at the end of the tunnel." During Iraq generals made the incredible statements that they have enough troops and Vice-President Cheney told us nine months ago that "the insurgency was in its last throes." Now, General Petraeus has switched his position on the adequacy of troops to fit Administration needs to asser they have changed course, and violated his own "rules" of the ratio of troops to population required to prevail in a counterinsurgency.Other than deposed General Shinseki, no high-ranking military man, it seems, is willing to forego that last star to save the lives and limbs of their troops.
In both wars U.S. complicity with torture severely damaged our international reputation and reduced the chances for ultimate success. During Vietnam it was the tiger cages and the My Lai Massacre, and, for good measure, the notorious statement that "we had to destroy a village to save it." Although we have not (yet) had the Iraqi My Lai trial, Abu-Ghraib is Iraq's tiger cages. We have nearly destroyed Fallujah, with perhaps other cities to come.
There are also some interesting, but substantively irrelevant, congruencies. A major architect of each war, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara for Vietnam and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz for Iraq, had their failures rewarded by promotion to President of the World Bank. In each war the junior Senator from New York was the prior President's closest adviser, a "carpetbagger," and a major contender for President.
Vietnam had a lot to teach us about what would happen in Iraq, but those lessons were ignored and vehemently denied. Perhaps, just perhaps, we can still learn from the quagmire how to extricate ourselves from the quicksand. The first lesson is to eschew false fears and false hopes. In both wars the exit strategy was to fashion a Constitution, conduct democratic elections, and train the locals to take over their own security. In Vietnam the latter process (dubbed, "vietnamization") took more than four years, cost tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers' their lives, with many more seriously wounded, plus an untold numbers of non-combatant Vietnamese lives and limbs, and a generation of birth defects from spraying large areas with dangerous plant toxins. The outcome was no different than if we had left several years earlier.
We now face the question we should have addressed before embarking upon this reckless adventure: can we achieve our ultimate goal of a stable, secure, democratic Iraq and then how we extricate ourselves from this quicksand?
If the congruencies between the two wars mean anything, it is that we should be very wary of basing our policy on the assumption that the ultimate outcome for Iraq will be very different whether we remove ourselves now, or another 3100 lives/16,000 seriously wounded/$400 billion later. We faced the same claims about emboldening the communists if we withdrew, and the disasters that would befall the free world if we did, as we now hear about emboldening Islamic fundamentalists (i.e., as if they needed emboldening). The burden of proof must be very high to demonstrate that Iraq staying this course in Iraq is worth those risks and sacrifices.
To meet that burden, we must at least demand a time-limited (say, July) period to have resolved critical Constitutional differences over federalism, control over the oil wealth and the application of Sharia law. If the milestone is not met, we should remember the lessons of Vietnam to adopt the Murtha strategy of over-the-horizon redeployment to prevent any more Americans from suffering those fates for which we rightly honor their sacrifice. If those milestones are met, then we can adopt the Murtha strategy because of political progress.
Either way, the generation stuck in the Vietnam quagmire needs to extricate its children from the Iraqi quicksand into which George Bush recklessly marched them.