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Think Again: Iraq Isn’t Vietnam, but America Is Still America

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This just in: Six U.S. soldiers were killed and four injured yesterday in Iraq’s northern Diyala province. The U.S. military also reported that three American soldiers were killed Tuesday in a neighboring province. "The two-day toll makes the latest effort to flush out the militant group al-Qaida in Iraq the deadliest military operation in months," says the L.A. Times.

What’s more a new survey by the World Health Organization estimates that 151,000 Iraqis died from violence in the three years following the U.S.-led invasion of the country, in addition to a 60 percent increase in nonviolent deaths — from such causes as childhood infections and kidney failure — during the period.

Remember Iraq?

While everyone is obsessing about New Hampshire and Iowa, let’s take a few steps back and take a look at two other locations that, like those two states, have come to signal so much more than geography: Iraq and Vietnam. Comparisons between these two disastrous U.S. military interventions are hardly uncommon. Everyone from George W. Bush, to Harry Reid, Henry Kissinger, and even Osama bin Laden, has made the analogy. With so many people insisting that the metaphors imply conflicting conclusions, one is tempted merely to let the matter drop.

That would be a shame, however, because the analogy has a great deal to teach us about our own country, if not about the nations of Iraq or Vietnam. Thankfully, a group of historians of U.S. foreign policy have attempted to tie together what some of these lessons might be in a recently published collection, Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam: Or, How Not to Learn from the Past, edited by Lloyd C. Gardner and Marilyn B. Young. The book reveals many telling similarities between the two occupations, along with several key differences.

Iraq may not be “Farsi for Vietnam,” but one truth emerges in this collection of essays: America is still America, and we make the same mistakes over and over. When we heard the drums of war in 2002-03, the alarm bells were sounding. Alas, most of our media and political establishment could not be bothered to stop and think about them, and our soldiers and the Iraqis are paying the price for that today.

When a democracy decides to launch an offensive war, the public must be convinced in advance. And so it’s appropriate that the collection begins with an overview by Gareth Porter of the process of threat exaggeration, if not invention, in both wars.

In the first weeks of the Kennedy administration, a National Intelligence Estimate was produced that concluded that the fall of Vietnam and Laos to Communists would produce no “falling dominoes”—no states that would subsequently ally with Communist China. The report acknowledged there would be less willingness among Southeast Asian nations to go along with policies of hostility towards China as there was in the past, but as Porter writes, this assessment did not make the case that war hawks in Kennedy’s cabinet needed to make.

Nevertheless, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—fully aware of the NIE’s analysis to the contrary—wrote in a memo to Kennedy that “the fall of South Vietnam to Communism would lead to the fairly rapid extension of Communist Control, or complete accommodation to Communism, in the rest of mainland Southeast Asia and in Indonesia.”

A sensibly skeptical John Kennedy rejected this incorrect analysis, but following his assassination, McNamara and his followers made the false “domino theory” case again to Lyndon Johnson—even though yet another NIE was issued stating that while the fall of Vietnam might force a series of “livable settlements with the Communists” among Southeast Asian nations, no dominoes would fall. However, as John Prados writes in his essay “Wise Guys, Rough Business, and Iraq,” Johnson’s hawkish advisors consistently presented the opposite opinion to Johnson until he eventually acquiesced.

The historical record was certainly clear by March 2003 that in the run-up to Vietnam, hawkish elements inside the government had fabricated a threat contrary to all the intelligence in order to justify a war of choice. Had the media learned the lesson of Vietnam, they may have actually questioned the predictions of mushroom clouds and WMDs much more aggressively. Liberal hawks and politicians who now claim they were simply fooled by Bush would have been a little less susceptible had they, too, engaged in a moment of historical memory.

As the war drags on, comparisons to a quagmire in Vietnam become more prevalent. There are many ways the two wars can’t be compared. As David Elliott observes, “each insurgency has a distinctive political and socioeconomic character,” and making comparisons between the Viet Cong and the Iraqi insurgency is fraught with pitfalls and contradictions.

But, as Elliott points out, there is still an important parallel to Vietnam as the war drags on, distancing its current objectives from its original stated purpose. The United States entered Vietnam ostensibly to prevent dominoes from falling, and certainly to increase our influence in the region—but when the war went south, the justification changed over and over so fast nobody could keep up with it. These were actually tallied up at considerable length in a book called called Many Reasons Why: The American Involvement in Vietnam by Michael Charlton and Anthony Moncrieff. At one point, John McNaughton, McNamara’s chief deputy, attempted to define what remained of U.S. interest in what was clearly a failing war effort. U.S. aims, he reasoned, were “70 percent—To avoid a humiliating defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor). 20 percent—To keep SVN (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands. 10 percent—To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life.” This shift in rationales is not much different from Bush abandoning of a strategy to transform the Middle East, Elliott argues, in ever-changing and frequently contradictory fashions.

Today, war supporters and most of the media speak glibly of the “success” of the surge—now over a year old—without noting that the point of this war was never purely military. And politically, our policies are as clueless with regard to Mesopotamia —and thus, prone to almost certain failure—as they were Indochina

The most important parallel between Iraq and Vietnam, according to Elliott, is about the limitations of American power in reshaping the world. The nation seemingly learned its lesson after ignominious withdrawal from Vietnam, but “it is remarkable how quickly America’s humbling defeat in Vietnam was eclipsed by the triumphalism that followed the end of the Cold War,” he writes.

There is no undoing the mistakes that have gotten America into Iraq. Perhaps the most pressing question facing the nation as we attempt to extricate ourselves from this unnecessary catastrophe is the one Pete Seeger asked last time around:

“When will we ever learn?”

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His blog, “Altercation,” appears at www.mediamatters.org/altercation. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will be published in March.

George Zornick is a New York-based writer.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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