06/24/2014 05:05 pm ET Updated Aug 24, 2014

Vietnam and Iraq: What Do They Have in Common?

What do the Iraq and Vietnam wars have in common? A lot, actually. Questions of legitimacy are probably the central issue. Who gets to control the government of a faraway region, and what does this have to do with the U.S.? Is the political transformation that the Americans might wish for something that can, in fact, be sustained in the long run, even the short run?

The U.S. invaded Vietnam because many in our government -- Lyndon Johnson's best and brightest -- imagined it could impose a government on that country that would provide a buffer against China and stop the supposedly rolling dominos of Communism. The problem, of course, was that the Republic of Vietnam didn't have organic roots. It was a byproduct of the Cold War, and wobbled along for nearly two decades -- a morally corrupt and illegitimate government backed by outside forces. After a protracted conflict, the Vietnamese in the south couldn't summon the political will to oppose a Communist takeover, which has in the end proved durable if not democratic, and wholly separate from China. As ever, our best and brightest didn't know much history, so didn't understand the traditional antipathies between the Chinese and the Vietnamese.

"Iraq was the single worst strategic mistake in American history," said Al Gore, in a famous statement recently echoed by Senator Harry Reid. But -- if truth be told -- Vietnam is probably the winner in that dismal sweepstakes. Over 58,000 American soldiers lost their lives in the jungles of Vietnam for nothing. As many as three million people died in total, most of them Vietnamese (according to Vietnamese estimates).

I was on assignment in Southeast Asia not long after the war, and I recall flying over the mountains of northern Vietnam and seeing the sad consequences of Agent Orange -- vast stretches of once-green jungle and arable land poisoned forever by dioxin-laced defoliants, with a legacy of cancer and birth defects that has had a horrendous effect on the population. The U.S. should long ago have paid serious reparations there, but that's another story.

We lost the war in Vietnam, which has cost us well over a billion dollars for the care of our veterans, who continue to crowd V.A. hospitals. (Isn't it time we stopped making Veterans of Foreign Wars?) One of many reasons we lost that war was that it's impossible to sustain a government that isn't for the people and by the people and of the people. It never works.

The American people, after more than a decade in Vietnam, lost the political will to sustain a folly that had already cost them so much American blood and treasure and wreaked havoc on the region. It was a stupid war, waged without a sophisticated understanding of regional dynamics.

How is Iraq any different? In some ways, it's on a smaller scale, though the costs have been astronomical, reaching far into the future as we care for wounded veterans. For no good reason, George W. Bush and the best and brightest he could muster, including the likes of Paul Bremer and Paul Wolfowitz, decided it made sense to attack Iraq. This was a so-called war of choice. The real reasons for this invasion will elude us forever, I suspect. Weapons of mass destruction? Nobody really believed that, not even Colin Powell, who was forced to pretend that he did in one of the most embarrassing speeches in American history. Did we really invade Iraq because of 9/11? Alas, most of those involved in al-Queda came from Saudi Arabia. But they were our allies, right? Historians may one day unpack the bizarre reasoning that our leaders at the time employed to justify what will remain a tragic blunder on an epic scale, with incalculable consequences.

We lost nearly 5,000 American soldiers in Iraq for nothing. We created wounded veterans on a scale that is swamping our V.A. system. We killed over a hundred thousand Iraqi citizens, drove a million or more Iraqis into exile, and opened Pandora's Box in a tense region where we should never have meddled, as we didn't fully understand the dynamics or history at play.

It didn't help that, with boots on the ground, we blundered again and again, dismantling the Baathist army that Saddam had carefully put together, ultimately siding with the Shia against the Sunni population. We set the table for a civil war, and now the feasting has begun in earnest.

Saddam Hussein was, indeed, a madman who had gassed some of his own people -- during a period when he had backing from the U.S. government. As ever, we seem unable to get it right. At least under Saddam there was an uneasy truce in the region. He kept a volatile mix in check through outright brutality. It wasn't pretty. But it was a problem that the Iraqi people needed to solve, and it didn't help to have us rush onto the scene with guns blazing, leaving weapons of destruction of our own -- the tribal insurgents of ISIS are now using many of our leftovers to overwhelm villages en route to Bagdad.

American failures in Vietnam and Iraq suggest that it's not really possible to create and sustain a proxy government in a country far from our own borders. The United States spent a decade in Iraq, and it only made matters worse for them, and for us. The consequences of our behavior in these two wars have been, in truth, devastating for American foreign policy, but it's our fault. And those who fail to learn from the past, as they say, will be forced to repeat it.

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Jesus: The Human Face of God. Follow him at Twitter@JayParini.