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Two comparisons of Vietnam and Iraq

30 March 2008

All wars are unique. The Iraq War is like the Vietnam war in many ways. Here are two ways it is unlike Vietnam.

At almost the same time {Spring 1965} Phil Geyelin, a White House correspondent who knew Southesat Asia well, found himself troubled by the same kind of doubts about he direction of American policy and turned to William Bundy {Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs}. Did we really know where we were headed? he asked. Did we really know what we would do if the bombing failed, if he other side decided to match our escalation with its own?

Bundy reassured him; he said he had never been so confidient about any undertaking before. Vietnam was no Bay of Pigs, he emphasized; he had never seen anything so thoroughly staffed, so well planned. It reeked of expertise and professionalism, it all gave one a great sense of confidence.

From The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstan, chapter 23

The Pentagon Papers corroborate Bundy’s view. The war was lost, but not due to lack of professionalism or inadequate planning. The Iraq War has been, by all accounts, astonishingly poorly planned — but planning is no panacea.

Another difference is far deeper, although I do not know what it means.

In late 1964 Wally Greene {Commandant of the Marine Corps} was going around the the various service schools, Army and Marine Corps, and talked to the officers, giving a very militant lecture, saying that we should go in there and get the job done, use everything we had. This was the job to do and we ought to do it. It was all very upbeat and at the end he would turn to his audience and ask who was with him, and there would be a roar. A show of hand, he would say, let’s have a show of hands of those who want to go. Lots of hands up. And those who don’t want to go? Always fewer hands. Always, it turned out, the hands of men who had served there recently as advisers.

From The Best and the Brightest, Chapter 22.

That differs from the apparent support for the Iraq war among American officers who have served there. Of course, in 1964 most of these officers had served as advisers in Vietnam, working closely with the locals (large numbers of combat troops arrived in 1965). They saw the war in a different way than most of our troops in Iraq, who are relatively isolated from the local society. Still, whatever the cause, this is an important difference — probably with large effects.

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

Click here to see an archive of my posts about the Iraq War, plus some relevant articles by Niall Ferguson.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ralph Hitchens permalink
    31 March 2008 6:13 pm

    I wonder how support for the Iraq War would track by grade level within the population of officers who have served there.

    While I disparage, loudly and frequently, comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, in this case I think the link — absence of prior analysis of the likely combatant(s) — is fairly evident. I recently reviewed a book for Vietnam Magazine, _Replacing France_ by Kathryn Statler. Deals with the 1950s, when we eased out the French after Dien Bien Phu and made the Diem regime our client state. It’s a scholarly book with extensive archival sources, and you will find no evidence that the military consequences were analyzed, that we took a hard look at the Viet Minh and its military and political capabilities. Hardly anyone really had a clue what we were getting into.
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    Fabius Maximus: Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest says that Army Chief of Staff Ridgewar sent a survey team to Vietnam aprox April 1954. They concluded that victory would require 500,000 – 1,000,000 men plus enormous construction costs. They also noted that, unlike Korea, the locals were likely to be no help — or even help the Vietminh. Quite prescient. Of course, during the 1964 -68 buildup everyone was very careful not to perform this research and analysis — that would ruin the war.

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  2. 1 April 2008 3:45 am

    Both Spencer Ackerman and Abu Muqawama have repeatedly posted despair-filled emails from soldiers in Iraq, bemoaning that they’re accomplishing nothing, and so on. Army opinion, even amongst veterans, is not uniform, or even strongly pro-occupation. This is (perhaps) yet another sad lie of the suffocating presence of the milbloggers.

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  3. OldSkeptic permalink
    1 April 2008 10:38 am

    And they are burning out. The US hasn’t seen operational tempos like this since WW2. You can only keep someone in the frontline for so long, until even the best crack.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: for more on this see An Army near the Breaking Point — an archive of links, with links to Army reports and studies going back to 2000 on this problem.

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