Tuesday, September 18, 2007

How the Iraq war is so unlike the Vietnam War

There's been some chatter about comparing the Vietnam War with the Iraq War; some say they're similar, some say they're not to be compared. Some say both. So I started thinking. How are the wars the same? How are they different?

I try to compare and contrast the two wars below. In the paragraphs below, I may refer to the Vietnam War as "that war" and the Iraq War is "this war." For example, that war (Vietnam) was fought over the course of two decades. This war (Iraq) has been fought barely half a decade.

A few things to get out of the way first. I am not a military expert. I am not a war expert. Most of what I know comes from paying attention to current events (of which Vietnam was not). I wasn't even born until after the Vietnam War started. On that note, most of what I know about the Vietnam War has come from reading and hearing about it from my relatives and Wikipedia.

I have an issue with war in general and the Iraq War in particular. So take that for what it's worth. The commentary below may cause you to become really angry at me and want to tear my head off. I mean no disrespect to anybody who's ever put on a military uniform, provided they served and aren't wearing something they got out of an Army surplus store.

What compelled me to think and write about this subject was the President himself. I seem to recall that he bristled at comparisons between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. Then, just the other day, he compared the two wars himself. I don't know why he waffled, but he did, it seems.

Before he compared the two wars, he seemed to get really bent out of shape whenever somebody else did it.

Here's a brief video on President Bush's speech comparing "that war" to "this war."

In any event, here goes:

The Differences

There's a joke that goes something like this:
What is the difference between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War? President Bush had a plan to get out of Vietnam.
But that's not really funny. Okay, it is funny, but it isn't true.

Alright, it's true, but, damnit, that's not the point.

That war was then. This war is now. The 1960s suffered from the Cold War jitters. There was an understanding -- and fear -- that Soviet Communism had to be curtailed, at almost any cost. They were trying to take over the world, one country at a time; we needed to save the world, and to do that, we had to rebuff the Soviets every step of the way.

Almost 60,000 US military were killed in Vietnam. "Only" (at last count) close to 4,000 Americans have died serving their country in Iraq.

Vietnam was about combating Soviet Communism. Iraq was about, hmm, not so sure. Was it:
  1. Oil More
  2. Israel
  3. Weapons of mass destruction
  4. Iraq ties to Al Qaeda
  5. The first in a string of experiments on installing American democracy in the Middle East
  6. To bring down Saddam Hussein because he threatened George W. Bush's father, George H.W. Bush
  7. A pre-emptive strike against a known, albeit impotent, enemy
  8. To serve as a warning to any and all other nations that the US was to be taken seriously
  9. To topple a regime that posed an imminent threat to the United States
Who knows? The stated reasons can be found here.
And our mission is clear, to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein's support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.
We've been fed so many reasons that it's hard to figure out why we went to war. Maybe it was some or all of the above. But the official justification for war changed several times over the course of the last few years. In any event, the reasons are more complicated and convoluted than they were for Vietnam.

That war had a draft. This war doesn't. Yet.

One of the biggest differences between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War is the way the American public has responded. Americans were generally very angry with members of the military, oftentimes calling them "baby killers" and other vile things. This anger with the war was not focused on the engineers of the war, but rather it was focused on the military (who, in large part, but with notable exceptions, were "just doing their jobs").

Contrast that response with the response given to the soldiers fighting today's war. "Support the troops" banners are all around: On cars, trucks, boats, windows. I don't know of many who have been terribly critical of the troops on the ground. No, the anger and frustration that people have with this war have been targeted towards the orchestrator of the war, namely, the Bush administration.

People get angry when they're lied to. It would have been more palatable for Bush to say, "We're taking out Saddam because he's killed thousands of his own people." Not "imminent threat," "mushroom cloud," or "WMDs," all reasons given but unsubstantiated and, after-the-fact, of course, proven wrong.

I'll go out on a limb here and say that those claims were lies.

There, I said it. Send your hate mail to the link at the bottom of this site.

The Similarities

Contrary to President Bush's claims, up to his latest flip-flop, Iraq and Vietnam are quite similar. It seems that, in both, the engineers of the war had no plan for withdrawal. It's as if nobody asked the question, "How do we extract ourselves without causing untold damage to the country?"

Maybe that points to another difference, however: Perhaps George Bush didn't want to get out. Maybe he wanted the US to establish a firm foothold in the Middle East.

But I digress.

The success of both wars, then and now, were predicated on political and economic victory in addition to military success and the establishment of security.
The big thing that we need to understand and learn from Vietnam as we try to deal with very different issues of Iraq is that the major issues are political and economic, not military and security. The path to the future is, in fact, a legitimate Iraqi government that has the loyalty of the Iraqi people and the Iraqi governmental system. What we always lacked in South Vietnam was a credible government that the people of South Vietnam respected and were willing to fight to preserve. (William Nash, retired Major General who served in Vietnam and was a commander in the first Iraq War)
In Vietnam we were fighting a strong and determined guerrilla force. In Iraq, it seems we're fighting a similarly strong and determined insurgency, made up of multiple factions: Sunnis, Shias, al Qaeda, and perhaps other terrorist organizations. But the flavor of the opposition is the same.

Iraq, some say, is in the midst of a civil war. Our own Civil War, fought nearly one hundred and fifty years ago, tore our country in two. That's what civil wars do. Iraq and Vietnam are no different: Both have been torn into at least two factions, with one side fighting the other.

Vietnam spanned two decades. Iraq might just get there. There is no indication that the US will withdraw its troops before 2009; I doubt we'll ever leave. How can we? And, really, have we ever left Vietnam? Have we ever left Korea (oh, yes, we're not in North Korea, but we're right on the border)?

We never completely withdrew from the Middle East after the first Iraq War. Which brings another point: We wage wars and never leave. We can't. Doing so would upset the status quo. It would show weakness. It would allow our enemies to rebuild and reconstitute.

As Korea was a prelude to Vietnam, so, too, was the first Gulf War to the Iraq War. World War II was largely the result of unfinished business of World War I.

It is obvious that war breeds war. Think of it as the playground mentality, only with much graver consequences: Two kids fight, next thing you know, they fight again, or they bring in friends to fight with them the next time. War is using schoolyard tactics by grown men with guns.

Yes, sometimes it is necessary. The World Wars are excellent examples. The war in Afghanistan, after the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001, is another good example.

However, this war was a war of choice. As former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said, subsequent to 9/11, Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney wanted to attack -- not Afghanistan -- Iraq because "it was an easy target."

Another notable similarity between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War lies in the rationale for going to war: Both wars had dubious beginnings. The Vietnam War was supposedly started (at least the US intervention) because the North Vietnamese fired on two US boats. Iraq: WMDs.

Both contentions proved false.

One final similarity is the rosy predictions of victory. Iraq was supposed to be fully-funded by oil revenue. We'd go in, topple the regime, and (what was that third thing?) get out. This war has cost over $400 billion (actual dollars).

Vietnam should have been a cakewalk, too. But we underestimated the ferocity and ingenuity of the enemy. That war ended up costing, in dollar terms only (not the irreplaceable lives lost and ruined forever), over $500 billion (in 2005 dollars).

So a comparison of the cost of the two wars reveals their final similarity: Pretty much an easy victory was predicted, followed by years of death and carnage, accompanied by a price tag of roughly a half a billion dollars (and this war is not nearly over).

Perhaps the only solace we can take from Vietnam and bring to the Iraq situation is: We got out of Vietnam (for the most part). We'll get out of Iraq. That's the glass-half-full part of me.

The glass-half-empty part of me says we'll never leave. Time will tell. It's just sad that with the passing of time will come the passing of more and more people, most of whom are "just doing their jobs."

I won't even bring up the civilian loss. Iraqis didn't ask us for this. After all that's gone on, I'm not sure they feel better off today.