Bridging the Troubled Waters Between Vietnam and Iraq?
Historical analogies deserve a certain skepticism. They represent the artifice of simplifications intended to deepen our understanding of events which are unfolding before our eyes, as -maybe - we imagine future historians will explain our present to our progeny. In order to highlight certain threads of history, they are defensible as long as we remember they are simplifications, and not at all to be considered above suspicion.
In fact, simplistic historical analogies can become quite malevolent in their effects on policy.
Consider, for example, the meticulously careful and conservative lessons drawn by George Kennan as he drafted his doctrine of Containment of the Soviet Union. He was drawing from the disastrous consequences of the Munich syndrome - appeasement of totalitarian states in Europe. His writing served Truman and subsequent American presidents well as they negotiated through the years of the Cold War.
Contrast Kennan's craft with the misconceptions of Dean Rusk and the rest of JFK's "Best and the Brightest" as they greedily snatched up the reins dropped by the French in South East Asia. Vietnam looked like a repeat of Korea. (However, the Sigman Rhee (George Washington) of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, was ensconced in the North).
And, as I thought at the time, Rusk's State Department even thought Vietnam looked a little like the pre-Franco Spanish Civil War in the 30's [into which Hitler had dipped his hands], and needed to be bolstered up, else it fall like the dominoes of Eastern Europe under Nazism. (Are you beginning to get the sense of how historical analogies can jerk you around?)
But instead, SE Asia turned out to be quite different than SE Europe, huh? It turned out that to the local inhabitants (never consulted), totalitarianism wasn't such a big deal as was nationalism. Had that thought struck Rusk, might he have not seen the French Indo-Chinese syndrome as a variant of the French-Algeria syndrome? But Rusk was an errant heir, driven to see that JFK inherited Saigon from the French, and that LBJ inherited the same from JFK. Had not Indochina been so polarized with such a bloodletting, Ho could have emerged as an Asian Tito: communist, but non-aligned. (Actually, he did.)
By now, you can tell where I'm going with this.
Since Bush announced his mission accomplished there has been too much spilled ink and torn paper about similarities and dissimilarities between Vietnam and Iraq not to insert a caveat at this point: this is a working paper and I fully intend to accommodate, by editing, some of the comment it attracts. With that said, here goes:
- Casus Belli: LBJ’s decision to augment a detachment of American advisors in Vietnam with troops was the result of a fraudulent allegation that the Vietnamese Navy had attacked an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tomkin. As we learned later through the Downing Street Memo, GWB attempted something of the same nature: painting American war planes with U.N. insignia and sending them over Iraq in sorties designed to draw anti-aircraft fire. In the end, Bush and Cheney stampeded our country into war in the post-9/11 hysteria and on the pretense that Saddam’s dictatorship had weapons of mass destruction and was associated with al Qaeda.
- Origins: In Vietnam, JFK and LBJ serially inherited a half-completed war of national liberation against the French and turned it into a sectional (north-south) Vietnamese civil war, while all the time managing to call it a case of international aggression. In Iraq, GWB impulsively re-ignited a half-completed war (halted a dozen years prior) with a cold-blooded invasion, followed by an unplanned occupation resulting in a civil war, the warnings of which had been ignored.
- Legitimacy of War Time Presidents: Presidents with dubious personal mandates waged both bloody fiascoes. LBJ became president by way of assassination, GWB by way of a 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court after having lost the popular vote to an opponent vastly more qualified.
- Length: The Vietnam war lasted twice as long as the Iraq war, but the latter quagmire is still counting days, months, and years.
- Escalations: The Vietnam war escalated in terms of external air strikes against North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; GWB's adventure has threatened/is threatening to spillover into Syria and Iran.
- Regional Instabilities: Nixon’s politically destabilizing of Cambodia resulted in the Khmer Rouge and genocide. In Iraq, a separatist Kurdistan could result in ethnic cleansing battles with the Turks.
- Dominoes: Vietnam was basically sold as a domino, which had to be held up else others in South East Asia, would fall. The Iraq misadventure metamorphosed in terms of mission creep. It was originally sold as a war to prevent an attack of weapons of mass destruction, which were often undefined. Its mission crept up to include al Qaeda, regime-change, a democratization of Iraq, and a domino process throughout the Middle East. So, in Vietnam, the domino theorizing initiated the project; in the latter case of Iraq, domino-izing was thrown in when other casus belli proved to be too leaky to hold water.
- KIA's & MIA's: The death toll in Iraq remains well short of Vietnam's numbers. The wounded-in-action statistics of both wars were marked by 'improvements' in the technology of emergency medical care: more soldiers survived with critical, life modifying wounds. This means that one of the hidden costs of Iraq will be the continuing costs of lifetime medical care, psychological trauma and occupational support of veterans.
- Draft/No Draft: There's no draft at this point in Iraquagmire. The Vietnam effort required drafting of an increasingly reluctant civilian military, susceptible to declining morale and political support. In Iraq, the invasion was carried out by a professional military that was supplemented by hired mercenaries in the subsequent occupation. In the latter case, the military has been able to reduce desertion rates to a trickle by offering the carrot of benefits rather than the stick of incarceration. However, also in the case of the case of Iraq, the need for boots on the ground has required the mis-use of personnel for ground combat: the elevation of the National Guard units; the use of support personnel for ground combat; and the stop-loss process of overuse of certain personnel.
- Combat: In Vietnam, our opponents were known colloquially as the Vietcong, but were indistinguishable from the People's Army of Viet-Nam (PAVN). Warfare was initially asymmetrical guerilla-counter guerilla warfare and evolved towards the use of air power and armor on both sides. Our enemy was a single ideology-driven nationalist group operating from a known secure base. They were supported by two members of the nuclear club (who weren't themselves that friendly.) Our Iraqi adversaries are multiple and shadowy: insurgents, terrorists and street criminals sponsored by Baathist 'dead-enders', foreign terrorist 'beheaders', and indigenous militias with no secure terriorial sanctuary. Warfare has evolved from the conventional battle between two standing, formally structured militaries to entirely an asymmetrical insurgency-counterinsurgency hostility in which pitched battles are rare. Whether our adversaries have possession of secure bases of operations is not a settled issue: Shiite militias (not united among themselves) are said to be supported from Iran, a future nuclear power; Sunni insurgents are suspected to be supported through patrons throughout the Middle East, traversing through Syria and Jordan.
- Terrain: The United States had to resort to napalm and Agent Orange to deal with the concealment their jungle offered the VC. In Iraq, the mere scent of white phosphorous in a dramatically more urban theater was spontaneously and universally condemned. Also, it has been argued that the urban warfare in Iraq has rendered the maintenance and repair of national infrastructures a larger issue than it was in South Vietnam. However, in both cases, infrastructure and economies suffered greatly. The net effect was that America had to destroy these theaters in order to save them.
- Guns and Butter on the Home Front: During LBJ’s presidency we had an attempt to unify the country through the War on Poverty and the Great Society; nowadays, we have the 'Compassionate Conservatives' waging a war against the middle class through wartime tax relief for the rich.
- Opposition: In the case of Vietnam, protests increased as the war went on. The Iraqi war was the first war in which the largest protests occurred before the American invasion which had been telegraphed for a year or more.
- Loyalist Reaction to Dissent: The same phraseology has been used in both cases: there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and the need to see it through and settle for nothing less than complete victory and more fighting and sacrifice and winning hearts and minds. These expressions give us more than twinges of deja vue.
- The Vietnam-Iraqi Syndrome(s): In both cases, the double-edged sword of a historical blame game is played. The military blames their civilian leadership for sending troops to their deaths without deploying sufficient forces at the same time micro-managing them from afar. The other side of the syndrome is the liberal democratic complaint: don’t send our servicemen out into foreign lands unless you are prepared for us to talk about what they are doing and why they are there.
Update (21-May-06): I have just fallen upon comments of a historian who has lived through both 'twins'. From his blog, History Unfolding, here are David Kaiser's 'money' conclusions:
What got me thinking, however, as one old enough to remember these events vividly, was the obvious, deep division between the leadership of the Administration on the one hand and the Congress and opinion leaders on the other. After the very heavy fighting of 1968 (which was not confined to the Tet offensive, but continued through the year), the bulk of Americans had concluded that we were not going to achieve our original objectives. Nixon had not. And so began a tradition that has persisted, off and on, for 36 years: that of an Administration more or less secretly pursuing a policy in which the American public does not believe, because it has convinced itself that such a policy is necessary and dissenters are simply playing politics, showing naivete, or working against their own country.I'll digest this later!
Something similar certainly seems to be happening today. President Bush and Secretary Rice remain totally committed to their idea of a democratic, pluralistic, relatively secular Iraq, despite the lack of any evidence that such an outcome is getting nearer. (It is not clear, on the other hand, that Vice President Cheney or Secretary Rumsfeld, the other major powers in the Administration, have ever cared much about the future of Iraq once Saddam was gone.) Realism in 1970 would have involved agreeing to a coalition government or acknowledged partition in South Vietnam, allowing the troops to come home, the American defense establishment to rebuild (clearly, based on the new documents, the main concern of Defense Secretary Laird), and the people of Vietnam at least to live in peace. A great deal of suffering might have been avoided, and it is possible that Communists would not have taken power in Laos (whose Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma told Nixon in the spring of 1970 that a coalition government was the answer in South Vietnam) or in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge were not yet a significant factor. Realism today, in all probability, would involve recognizing that Iraq is almost certain to fracture into three parts, and trying to start negotiations to make that process as painless as possible. But within the Green Zone, the American authorities still seem committed to the vision of impartial security forces, disarmed militias, and law-abiding Iraqis. Events seem be happening on two entirely different planes. And it seems, as under Nixon, that no one can serve in the upper reaches of this Administration who does not officially believe in the happy ending to come. (A Washington Post article indicates that some American military officers are advocating partition, but they appear to be in a minority and do not yet include anyone of high rank. (See Washington Post)
Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld apparently believed Saddam had to be eliminated, and did not much care about the consequences. Regime change--or rather, regime elimination--was the sum and substance of their policy. They seem to be, essentially, conventional military thinkers who are only intermittently interested in broader political trends. (Rumsfeld's leaked memo in 2003 or 2004, I believe, was one example of momentary interest.) And now they are fixated on Iran, which is more of a conventional threat than Iraq was. Nixon reacted to stalemate in Vietnam by opening a new front in Cambodia--one that ended even more disastrously--and deepening our involvement in Laos. When South Vietnam fell in 1975, Kissinger, now under Gerald Ford, reacted by trying to get the United States involved in a civil war in Angola to show we had not lost our will. If the Congress wants to stop an air campaign against Iran, it had better move pre-emptively to do so.