Iraq Rhymes With Vietnam

How is the Iraq War like the Vietnam war? Let us count the ways. Oh, wait, the Cunning Realist has done it for us, riffing off a Mark Twain line that “History doesn't repeat itself; at best it sometimes rhymes”:

S/he finds fifteen similarities between the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq, and then issues a challenge:

If someone—-perhaps a supporter of this war—-can come up with fifteen ways in which the two conflicts differ materially, I look forward to reading your list in the comments section:

Well, let's see. I'm no supporter of the war, but I like a challenge.

1. It was wet in Vietnam, it's dry in Iraq.

2. There's much more oil in Iraq and more money to be made there.

3. In the case of Vietnam, the US government made up or exaggerated the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in order to spook Congress and justify its actions. In the case of Iraq, the US government latched on to a real but irrelevant attack on the US to spook Congress and justify its actions.

4. In Vietnam the US fought against nationalists and a political ideology (Communism). In Iraq, the US fights against nationalism and a religious ideology (radical Islam). The Islamicists have more allies with less to lose who are thus more willing to help them.

5. I give up.

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7 Responses to Iraq Rhymes With Vietnam

  1. James Wimberley says:

    6. In Vietnam the pretext was partly true: in that the Vietcong were not a purely South Vietnamese insurgency, as some opponents held, but wholly controlled by the Communist leadership of North Vietnam. Without US intervention, the North Vietnamese CP would conquer South Vietnam. Since it in fact did so after US forces were withdrawn, this 1965 assessment was surely correct. (The wider donmino theory, as observed already, was however mistaken.) In Iraq the two pretexts, that Saddam Hussein supported Al Qaeda and possessed WMD, were wholly false – and known to be false by the administration and its main ally.

    7. In Vietnam, the adverary enjoyed, and was completely dependent on, continuous support from outside South Vietnam, viz. from North Vietnam, in turn aided logistically by the USSR (eg SAMs). The Iraqi insurgency enjoys no such significant support from outside the country; but is doing well for all that.

    8. The Vietcong were supported by a sizeable proportion of the majority ethnic Vietnamese population all over the country. The Iraqi insurgency draws its support exclusively from the Sunni minority. The insurgency is still succeeding in making central Iraq ungovernable, but offers no prospect of creating a stable alternative government, however nasty, on the analogy with the Vietnamese Communists. The reason for this is the dismantling by the occupiers of the instruments of former Sunni hegemony (the army, secret police and Baath party). The consequences of walking away in the two cases are therefore quite different: predictable Communist takeover against God knows what.

    9. The US was offered, before the Iraq war, an excellent oportunity for attacking and destroying the small group that now leads the insurgency (Zarqawi’s), and turned it down for cynical political reasons. No such opportunity was ever available in Vietnam.

  2. paperwight says:

    I think your #9 conflicts with your #8. Zarqawi may be the leader of the religious attackers, but the Sunni minority you describe, along with the elements of the former government, are secular. Not to say that they’re not both technically Sunni and both attacking the US occupation, but that they’re not under a single organization.

  3. Kaimi says:

    Oh, come on. You start to sound silly when you seem to suggest that there are only four differences between Iraq and Vietnam. It doesn’t help anyone when all of the left critics of the war start drinking the kool-aid.

    So, without further ado, a few other major, important differences between the two.

    1. The major underlying problem in Vietnam, driving the conflict, was a classic two-state war between North and South Vietnam. (Fueled by the broader Soviet and Chinese expansion goals). In Iraq, there’s no second state. It’s America versus a bunch of ragtag former Baathists, mingled with Islamic radicals from around the region.

    2. Vietnam involved a much more conventional war than Iraq. The enemy had tanks and artillery and an organized army. Major incidents like the Tet Offensive would be essentially impossible for any of the current opposition forces in Iraq to replicate.

    3. Vietnam was almost certainly a more difficult terrain to control. A bunch of flat open desert, versus an overgrown jungle. Also, American ability to monitor and control terrain has increased tremendously. As a result, there is no question that America controls the actual terrain in Iraq, and can more or less move troops and equipment to wherever it wants.

    On the flip side, the Iraq insurgents have been very successful at their own hiding. But it’s not because they hide well in holes in the desert. It’s because they’re very adept at blending in to the civilian population in the urban centers.

    4. In Iraq, America completely replaced the existing regime. In Vietnam, America went in working with the existing regime, which was considered an ally. As a result, added friction in Iraq should probably be expected.

    These differences don’t necessarily mean that the war is right, or that there aren’t also important similarities between Iraq and Vietnam. But there are definitely important differences as well, and to pretend otherwise makes the left look self-delusional.

  4. Ereshkigal says:

    Do your own numbering:

    We blamed French colonial occupation in southeast Asia for our difficulties interacting with Vietnamese factions; we blame the British colonial occupation for the factional problems in Iraq.

    During the war in Vietnam we tended to think of Communism as a monolithic enemy and failed largely to discern differences among Communist players; we tend to think of radical Islamism as a monolithic enemy in the war in Iraq, and fail to discern differences among Islamist players.

  5. michael says:

    Vietnam involved a much more conventional war than Iraq. Not in the ways that mattered. The US always won the big stuff; it was the insurgency that couldn’t be controlled. In that sense Iraq might be worse as there is more urban insurgency. Today the US civilians huddle behind a Maginot green line (and ride in fear from the airport); they at least had the run of Saigon and for most of the war had access to the airlift.

    Vietnam was almost certainly a more difficult terrain to control. See “urban” above. Who cares about the desert — except around the pipelines. And the US can’t control those real well…

    In Vietnam, America went in working with the existing regime. Um, no. Actually the CIA put Ngo Dinh Diem into power. Then, with US support, he canceled elections for fear Ho Chi Min would win. Then, the US abandoned him, and (at least tacitly) supported the coup in 1963.

  6. Too Kind By Half says:

    SO, if I may conflate the views of two posters here, “the Vietcong were…wholly controlled by the Communist leadership of North Vietnam” and “were supported by a sizeable proportion of the majority ethnic Vietnamese population all over the country” in what was “a classic two-state war between North and South Vietnam.”

    What malarky!

    James won’t go as far as even the Backroom Boys did in admitting the facts. But he apparently allows that at least a “sizeable” number of “South” Vietnamese apparently supported their own thralldom to “North Vietnamese” masters. The “two” states of course were an imposed fiction — and that’s extraordinarily relevant although neither James nor Kaimi acknowledges it.

    Michael has corrected a bit of Kaimi’s misinformation regarding the facts of our “conflict” with Southeast Asia in saying “Actually the CIA put Ngo Dinh Diem into power. Then, with US support, he canceled elections for fear Ho Chi Min would win.”

    While true, that hardly goes far enough in correcting these comments.

    Much of our war planners’ thinking on these subjects is no secret, so let’s not hide from it.
    They quite explicitly realized that a majority of ALL Vietnamese would support the “wrong candidate.”

    So when Michael says “for fear Ho Chi Min” would win, don’t think for a minute that we’re talking only about Diem’s fears. WE knew quite well that we were imposing a series of unpopular governments there. We, for the most part correctly, called those “puppets” when the Soviets did it.

  7. James Wimberley says:

    Irony is often a mistake. Do I have to spell it out that both wars were colossal and tragic blunders? The point of both Daniel Froomkin’s post and my additions is that the differences don’t exonerate the Bush administration at all. You could make a reasoned case in 1965 for Johnson’s policy (if not the deception preparing the Gulf of Tonkin resolution), but the Iraq war was based not only on instrumental lies but on deeply held delusions. Now its continuation can only be defended on the “better ‘ole” argument (see the famous WWI cartoon by Bruce Bairnsfather )

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