Is Iraq the new Vietnam?

Why the memory of Vietnam is haunting both coalition supporters and critics in Iraq.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘There are so many echoes of Vietnam in Iraq’…. ‘Iraq is Vietnam revisited’…. ‘The parallels between Iraq and Vietnam’…. ‘Mistakes of Vietnam repeated in Iraq’…. ‘Ghosts of Vietnam haunt a nation in mourning’…. The headlines say it all. Anti-war activists, commentators, American military veterans and even some Pentagon officials claim that Iraq is becoming the new Vietnam, with US troops getting bogged down in a bloody war and occupation of a hostile land.

In the UK Independent, Charles Glass, ABC News’ former Middle East correspondent, claims that ‘the parallels with Vietnam are asserting themselves again and again in Iraq’ – from President George W Bush’s dubious ‘justification for committing American troops to battle’ to the ‘body count and kill ratio’. Max Cleland, a veteran of the Vietnam War and a former US Senator, penned an open letter to President Bush, saying: ‘Welcome to Vietnam, Mr President…. the mistakes of Vietnam are being repeated in Iraq.’ (1)

It isn’t only anti-war types who are mentioning the V-word; apparently it is also being whispered in the corridors of the Pentagon. Paul Bremer, America’s civil administrator in Iraq, was ‘urgently summoned’ to Washington on Tuesday for what many described as emergency talks on developing an exit strategy for US forces in Iraq. Despite being the public face of American rule, Bremer took the ‘unusual’ step of endorsing an internal CIA document that says ‘we are going to lose the situation [in Iraq] unless there is a rapid and dramatic change of course’ (2). Bremer and co may not have said ‘Vietnam’ out loud, but they certainly seem to be thinking about it.

Is Iraq really the new Vietnam – another disastrous and humiliating third world venture for America’s political and military elite? The coalition’s war has certainly made a mess of Iraq, creating a political and societal vacuum and giving rise to new forms of nihilistic terrorism. But objectively, on the ground, there is little comparison between the bloody confusion of postwar Iraq and the all-out 10-year war between the US military machine and Vietnamese communists in the 1960s and early 70s. The Vietnam venture was an imperialist war launched by the USA to assert its domination over part of the third world, against a national liberation army that wanted to create an independent nation state; the war in Iraq was launched by a confused coalition to protect the world from evil Saddam and his elusive WMD, where the enemies are disparate nihilistic terrorists with no name or mission. The widespread talk of ‘another Vietnam’ reveals more about the state of mind in Washington than it does about the state of affairs in Iraq.

America’s war in Vietnam lasted from 1964 to 1973. Vietnam had earlier been a French colony, but as part of the postwar anti-colonial movement across much of the third world, Vietnamese forces defeated the French in 1954. France’s response to its defeat was to partition Vietnam between North and South. The North became the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, governed by communist forces – who launched a war of national liberation to end partition and reunite Vietnam as an independent nation. US forces intervened in the mid-1960s to prop up the stooge government of South Vietnam, against the North. The strength of the communist-led national liberation armies, supported by the Soviet Union and China, caused America’s eventual withdrawal, bringing victory to the North in 1975.

Comparing Vietnam and Iraq, Charles Glass claims that ‘old words come howling out of the past: body count, kill ratio’ (3). Others have written of Iraq’s Vietnam-like ‘body bag syndrome’, where, once again, rising numbers of casualties abroad are causing deep upset at home. Yet the numbers killed in Iraq, however tragic, do not compare to the numbers killed in Vietnam. Since Gulf War II started in March 2003, 397 Americans have been killed – 271 of them in combat situations and 126 in accidents, friendly fire incidents or by natural causes. A further 75 coalition troops have been killed, including 53 Britons and the 17 Italian military policeman killed in Nasiriyah this week. That brings the number of coalition deaths to date to 472.

During the more protracted war in Vietnam – from 1964 to 1973 – 47,244 Americans were killed in action; a further 10,446 were killed in accidents or by disease. Among America’s allies, the Southern Vietnamese forces lost 223,748 men; South Korea lost 4,407; Australia and New Zealand lost 469; and Thailand lost 351 (4). In total, America and its allies suffered around 286,665 deaths in Vietnam. The number of American wounded in present-day Iraq stands at 1,956. The number of Americans hospitalised for wounds in Vietnam was 153,329, and the number of Americans wounded without needing to be hospitalised was 150,375. Among Southern Vietnamese forces, 570,600 were wounded (5).

Some commentators claim that America’s attitude towards Iraqi civilians is similar to the way it treated the Vietnamese. One writer says America is starting to use Vietnam-learned tactics, including the ethos of ‘destroying the village to save it’ (6). In fact, America has attempted to exercise caution in its treatment of Iraqis; it made avoiding civilian casualties a central part of its war strategy, and, during the war, promised to ‘go round cities, even if the main road goes through [them]’ (7). Of course, such strategies did little to spare civilians; America’s war from on high – all ‘shock and awe’ rather than battles on the ground – visited terrible destruction on the people of Iraq. Estimates of civilian casualties vary from 7,800 to 9,600.

But the Vietnam War killed approximately two million people – out of a population of 18million. From 1964 to 1969, an estimated 666,000 communist forces (including North Vietnamese forces and their Viet Cong allies in the South) were killed, alongside hundreds of thousands of civilians. According to Gabriel Kolko’s Vietnam: Anatomy of a War 1940-1975, the USA in Vietnam ‘unleashed the greatest flood of firepower against a nation known in history’ (8). US planes dropped seven million tons of bombs on Vietnam, or one 500lb bomb for every man, woman and child in the country – twice the total that was dropped on both Europe and Asia during the whole of the Second World War. America also sprayed Vietnam with defoliants, a form of chemical warfare that caused widespread famine.

In 1969, under President Richard Nixon and secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the US military expanded the war in south-east Asia to Cambodia. On the premise of targeting North Vietnamese communist bases in eastern Cambodia, America launched Operation Menu, a bombing campaign over Cambodia that lasted from March 1969 to August 1973. During this period, 16,527 sorties dropped 383,851 tons of explosives on Cambodia – killing tens of thousands of civilians.

There’s another difference between Vietnam and Iraq – in Vietnam, America fought a real war and faced a real enemy. The communist North Vietnamese Army was 570,000-strong by the early 1970s, organised into 18 infantry divisions, two training divisions and 10 regiments of artillery. In addition, it had 30,000 Viet Cong guerrillas in Southern Vietnam. They got financial and military backing from the Soviet Union and China, allowing them to build up an impressive array of weaponry – including T-59 medium tanks (9). The communist forces displayed their strength in January 1968, when they launched the Tet Offensive – a series of surprise attacks on targets across Vietnam, including on the US Embassy in Saigon, which left over 1,000 American troops dead and was a turning point in the war.

By contrast, Saddam’s wretched regime simply collapsed when coalition troops rolled over its borders in late March 2003. There were no major clashes between American or British troops and Iraqi forces that could seriously be called a battle. In Baghdad and Basra resistance faded away, and Saddam’s last stand, widely predicted in the media and political worlds, failed to materialise. In postwar Iraq, coalition forces face sporadic attacks by an enemy that doesn’t even show its face or declare its interests, much less launch offensives or declare war.

These are chancer terrorists who feed off coalition uncertainty for the impact of their squalid suicide attacks, nihilistic groups that merely lash out blindly – a million miles from the anti-imperialist guerrillas of the Viet Cong. In contrast to Vietnam’s national liberation movement – which had aims, a mission, weapons and the backing of the Soviet Union and China – America’s enemies in Iraq are invisible bin Ladenites, whom no one supports.

Nor can today’s anti-war protests over Iraq be seriously compared to the anti-Vietnam War movement in the late 1960s. Then, there was a militant opposition to America’s war in south-east Asia, as part of broader movements for change in society; anti-war protesters demanded that American forces withdraw from Vietnam and ‘bring our boys back home’. The demos against the coalition’s war in Iraq, by contrast, have been lame and confused, not so much a militant campaign against Western intervention in Iraq as an expression of frustration and isolation from mainstream politics (see The Sixties, and the cynics, by Jennie Bristow).

Despite these striking differences between the Vietnam War and Gulf War II, everyone from concerned-about-war journalists to coalition officials are talking about these two wars in the same breath, with one writer warning that ‘one Vietnam was enough – let’s not make another in Iraq’ (10). For all the dubious attempts to draw comparisons between what’s happening in war-wrecked Iraq and what happened a generation ago in the jungles of Vietnam, the Vietnam-talk reveals more about American problems at home than it does about American problems in the deserts of the Middle East. It is a deeper uncertainty about America’s mission and purpose that leads many to raise the spectre of Vietnam at the first sign of a setback in Iraq.

It becomes clear that the Vietnam-talk is not specifically about current events in Iraq, when you consider that the spectre of Vietnam was being raised even before Gulf War II kicked off. One Democrat politician said in February 2003 that a full military invasion of Iraq would be a mistake ‘like that made in Vietnam’. In the weeks before the war, newspaper editorials asked whether America was getting itself into ‘another Vietnam’. Namechecking the V-word appeared to be an expression of caution about taking decisive military action, a call for restraint, rather than a considered comparison between military ventures then and now.

Indeed, the American elite’s obsession with Vietnam over the past 30 years has revealed more about deep domestic crises than about problems in foreign fields. America’s defeat in the drawn-out, bloody war in Vietnam was a devastating blow, its greatest national humiliation, which provoked widespread revulsion against further military interventions in the third world. American military officials bitterly referred to Vietnam as the ‘revenge’ of the third world, mortified that the ‘gooks’ in the jungles of Vietnam had beaten the mighty USA on the world stage. America’s experience in south-east Asia gave rise to the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, a trepidation on the part of political and military officials about launching all-out wars in the third world.

Yet too many have tried to understand this Vietnam Syndrome – the mentioning of the V-word when ever things go wrong – in strictly foreign policy terms, as a shift in America’s relationship with the third world. The USA’s defeat in Vietnam was not only a setback to its global role – it also became part of a broader crisis of confidence at home, bound up in a deeper national malaise about the American way of life, about what America stood for, and about its mission around the world. If America lost the battle in Vietnam, it lost the war at home.

In the USA, there was widespread opposition to the war in Vietnam, particularly among middle-class students. This opposition emerged slowly, only reaching its height after America had suffered numerous setbacks in Vietnam (particularly after the Tet Offensive of 1968) and once the body bags started coming home. As well as expressing revulsion at the bloodshed in Vietnam and the deaths of young American men drafted into the army, the anti-war protests were a powerful indicator of a deepening disillusionment within American society.

The protests came at a time of unprecedented turmoil for the USA, under the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. There were ghetto riots in most major American cities, after the US government reversed its programme of reforms in relation to black civil rights, while the privileged, well-educated sections of America’s youth (referred to by one US Senator as ‘our future leaders’) marched against the war in south-east Asia. After the Tet Offensive, President Johnson announced that he was withdrawing from the presidential contest and opened negotiations with the Vietnamese in Paris. Nixon won the presidential election of 1968 on a ticket of ending the war in Vietnam – though, before long, he had extended it to Cambodia.

As Gabriel Kolko wrote: ‘The anti-Vietnam War movement accurately reflected the organisational, political and intellectual disorder of America at mid-century by creating a politicised form of inchoate but nonetheless real opposition.’ (11) This is what the American elite’s Vietnam Syndrome has most clearly expressed – its loss of direction and purpose at home, as well as its loss of face in south-east Asia. The spectre of Vietnam is the spectre of America’s deeper malaise and uncertainty in the post-60s world.

That is why successive administrations’ attempts to resolve the Vietnam Syndrome abroad have failed – and why Vietnam still haunts today’s American officials, military men and commentators, 30 years after America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. During President Reagan’s relatively small-scale wars in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, many commentators wrote of America finally recovering from Vietnam Syndrome – as one book title put it, Beyond the Vietnam Syndrome: US interventionism in the 1980s (12). During the first Gulf War of 1991, President Bush senior declared that attacking Iraq ‘will put paid to the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all’. Yet today, Bush junior has returned to Iraq, and the spectre of Vietnam is being conjured up once again – if anything, more than ever before.

It is America’s own crisis of confidence that leads many to see the shadow of Vietnam in Iraq, rather than anything that is happening on the ground in Baghdad and Basra. America’s Vietnam Syndrome, its lingering obsession with one past war, cannot be resolved by launching new wars somewhere ‘over there’ – because the Vietnam Syndrome speaks to bigger crises at home. Indeed, the experience of the post-Vietnam era suggests that projecting domestic problems on to the international stage only throws into relief the US elite’s internal crises and ends up making them worse – while doing nothing to make the nightmares about Vietnam go away.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Mistakes of Vietnam repeated with Iraq, Max Cleland, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 18 September 2003

(2) ‘We could lose this situation’, Julian Borger and Rory McCarthy, Guardian, 13 November 2003

(3) ‘There are so many echoes of Vietnam in Iraq’, Charles Glass, Independent, 13 November 2003

(4) Data on Vietnam-Era Veterans, Office of Information Management and Statistics, Washington DC, September 1983

(5) Data on Vietnam-Era Veterans, Office of Information Management and Statistics, Washington DC, September 1983

(6) ‘There are so many echoes of Vietnam in Iraq’, Charles Glass, Independent, 13 November 2003

(7) See Military disengagement, by Brendan O’Neill

(8) Vietnam: Anatomy of a War 1940-1975, Gabriel Kolko, Allen and Unwin, London, 1986

(9) The Vietnam Almanac, Harry G Summers Junior, Ballantine Books, New York, 1985

(10) ‘We could lose this situation’, Julian Borger and Rory McCarthy, Guardian, 13 November 2003

(11) Vietnam: Anatomy of a War 1940-1975, Gabriel Kolko, Allen and Unwin, London, 1986

(12) Beyond the Vietnam Syndrome: US interventionism in the 1980s, MT Klare, Institute for Policy Studies, Washington, 1981

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