How the Iraq and Vietnam wars are mirror images of each other

Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) noted the strong parallels between our tactics in Vietnam then and Iraq now.  Now let’s look through the other end of the telescope.  How does our experience in Vietnam differ from that in Iraq?  I believe that in one key aspect of the war our actions in Iraq are a mirror image of those in Vietnam.

In Vietnam we sought to maintain a friendly government in South Vietnam, preventing its overthrow by insurgents or conquest by the Army of North Vietnam.  Simple, clear goals – allowing relatively easy definition of progress.  Our enemy, having read Sun Tzu, defeated us by attacking our weakest point.  Not our invincible military apparatus — undefeated on the battlefield — but the American people’s commitment to this foreign war. 

In 1964 Johnson campaigned as the peace candidate against the warmonger Goldwater — while his officials prepared to massively escalate the war in 1965.  His election victory was great, winning 44 states and 486 to 52 in the Electoral College.  But his mandate did not include a Southeast Asian war, especially a war whose connection with our national security was vague, despite the war’s great cost in money and lives.  After four years of war his Administration collapsed amidst the fires of the Tet Offensive. 

As it turned out, these concerns about the irrelevance of the war were correct, as our defeat in Vietnam had few long-term consequences.  (As this Wall Street Journal op-ed shows, three decades later some remain unable to see this simple story, still re-fighting the war like Confederate vets bemoaning Pickett’s Charge.)

Bush avoided Johnson’s error in the 2004 election by clearly promising a long, difficult war in Iraq.  The Administration and Congress have clearly stated our objectives (see here for a full list of our goals and benchmarks).  This is textbook perfect strategy. 

But – unlike Vietnam — our actions in Iraq seem disconnected from our goals.  Hence the long, confused debate about “winning.”  Are we winning or losing?  How will we know when we have won?  Here we repeat — in a different way — the fatal error that doomed our efforts in Vietnam.  Confusion must result when tactics and strategy clash, weakening public support for the war. 

We seek to “Build an Inclusive Democratic State.”  But our closest allies are the Kurds, and they have de facto broken away from Iraq.  The Kurds have the only functional polity in Iraq, having most of the attributes of a government — not just the trappings of a Potemkin village, but one with authority and power.  The Kurds have an army, they defend borders, their flag flies over State buildings, they sign contracts with foreign oil companies. 

In 2007 we took a fateful step away from our goals by our almost unconditional surrender to the core Sunni Arab insurgents.  We stopped fighting them, ceeded full control of their territories, and began paying, training, and arming their militia.  We ask nothing in return except that they continue fighting the Islamic extremists, with whatever timing and intensity they consider appropriate.  What more could they have asked for?

This has decreased violence in Iraq to only horrific levels, but at the cost of further balkanizing Iraq.  Does this advance our strategic goals in Iraq, or just give us more time to hope things move our way?  The Associated Press ponders this…

Sunnis across Iraq – more than 70,000 at last count – are turning to the Pentagon as generous patrons and allies.  Yet it could all sour quickly if the U.S. assistance to Sunnis dries up or the Shiite-led government resists Washington’s pressure to reward the Sunni militiamen with jobs in the security forces.

… But the projects and posts are worth far more than their sum total from the Sunni perspective.  They represent important signs of honor and hope – which they claim have not come from the Shiite leadership that replaced Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-centric regime.  “The government does nothing for us. It has kept us out of the army, the police and jobs,” al-Moaeini said at an abandoned shoe factory that his Awakening Council fighters use as a headquarters. The U.S. military wants to revive the factory.

Baghdad also has done little to improve basic services in Hawr Rajab, such as electricity and drinking water, or supply the town with heating fuel sorely needed during one of the harshest winters in years.  … The Shiite-dominated government remains deeply worried the Sunni fighters will one day again turn their guns against the establishment.

With such confusion of strategy and tactics, even accomplishing intermediate steps brings us no closer bringing most of our troops home.  Destruction of the Saddam’s government.  Approval of a Constitution.  Elections.  Turning over security to national and local security forces.  Improved security.  With each the accomplishment we are told that the troops must stay still longer, while the explicit goals and benchmarks for the Iraq Expedition seem increasingly impossible to achieve. 

Now we have McCain, the leading Republican Presidential candidate, talking of an open-ended commitment to victory in Iraq.  (Here is the text and video, also here)

Q:  What I would like to know is, I’ve heard you say a million times all the reasons why we can’t leave Iraq.  But I’ve never heard you say what it is you hope to accomplish in Iraq and how long it’s going to take.

A:  …And then what happens is American troops withdraw and they withdraw to bases and then they eventually withdraw, or we reach an arrangement like we have in South Korea, with Japan.  We still have troops in Bosnia.  But the fact is it’s American casualties that the American people care about and those casualties are on the way down rather dramatically.  …And what we care about is not American presence, we care about American casualties and those casualties I believe will be dramatically and continue to be reduced.

Q:  I want to know how long are we going to be there?

A:  Thank you sir, and I can look you in the eye and tell you that those casualties tragically continue as I made very clear in my opening remarks. But they are much less and we will eventually eliminate them.

Q:  President Bush has talked about our staying in Iraq for 50 years…

A:   Maybe a hundred.  We’ve been in South Korea, we’ve been in Japan for 60 years.  We’ve been in South Korea for 50 years or so.  That’d be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed.  Then it’s fine with me, I hope it would be fine with you if we maintain a presence in a very volatile part of the world where Al Queda is training,

Q:   I want to go back to Iraq – 50 years?  What if American soldiers are being killed one per day four years from now?

A: I understand what’s at stake here.  And I understand that American public opinion will not sustain a conflict where Americans continued to be sacrificed without showing them that we can succeed.

Q: So what I hear is an open-ended commitment?  An open-ended commitment? –

A:  I have a quote open-ended commitment in Asia, I have an open-ended commitment in South Korea, I have an open-ended commitment in Bosnia.  I have an open-ended commitment in Europe.

The future of the Iraq War 

We can afford to continue the war indefinitely, so long as our Asian and OPEC creditors lend us the money to do so.

Our military can continue the war for many years, albeit at the cost of slowly degrading the quality of its equipment and people.

Our primary weakness is just like that of the Vietnam War, our willingness to fight a long war for vague gains.  Let us hope that Bin Laden is a student of neither Sun Tzu nor modern history, otherwise we might see another flare (like Tet) that — whatever its military significance — burns away the American people’s willingness to stay in Iraq. 

The consequences might be large.  Or, like Vietnam, small.   Either way we face the prospect of hearing for the next thirty years how the Iraq War could have been won if only the American people had been stronger and more resolute.  If we listen, we might hear Sun Tzu’s laughing in heaven.

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).

Go here to see an archive of my posts about the Iraq War.

11 thoughts on “How the Iraq and Vietnam wars are mirror images of each other”

  1. One difference between Iraq and Vietnam shall be that sooner or later ( sooner, IMHO ) our foreign creditors will cease to fund it. Another is that Iraq is not now nor ever has been “the central front in the War on Terror.” Pakistan has been, is, and shall be that front. If Pakistan goes South, as is quite possible, then the folly of devoting so many resources to the Iraq sideshow will become manifest.

  2. “If Pakistan goes South, as is quite possible, then the folly of devoting so many resources to the Iraq sideshow will become manifest.”

    I agree, however I think it’s allready apparent with the struggle and unfinished business in Afganistan. Further non-sense about attacking Iran, Syria, etc, underscores this position.

    Sadly America has squandered it’s treasure, resourches, pepole, national resolve and coheasion, all in Iraq, obstensively for an almost entirely bogus cause. While far more pressing situations loom on the horizon.

    And so the legacy of the American disasterous politcal affair with the socalled Neo-Conservative movement will go down in history as the tipping point, in America’s forfieting of it’s short lived singlular and unchalanged world superpower status.

  3. I’m skeptical of those who would draw parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. While there are external actors supporting the various resistance factions in Iraq, this support is in no way comparable to Hanoi’s support (and micromanagement) of the Vietnam War, and the in situ factions themselves are disunited.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve long believed that we did find a solution to our problem in Vietnam — US airpower and “Vietnamization” (advisors, logistical support to the ARVN), which defeated the 1972 Easter Offensive (no US ground forces involved), held on (if just barely) to all major cities and towns, and inflicted massive casualties on the NVA. Nixon famously promised South Vietnam that he would reengage with US airpower if Hanoi violated the Paris Accords. Unfortunately, this successful resolution of the conflict was followed immediately by a domestic political crisis that removed Nixon from power and emboldened Congressional opponents of further US involvement in Vietnam. Military assistance was slashed, the War Powers Act was passed, and as our domestic dust settled the North Vietnamese arranged their endgame — a large-scale conventional forces invasion — with confidence.

    In Iraq, US airpower plays a negligible role and our current “success” appears to be based on a number of local accommodations worked out with factions who remain hostile to our long-term presence. What the next president will have to do is figure out a way to extract our forces in a manner that saves a bare minimum of face, with the realization that no “threat of US reengagement” is remotely credible. “Into a corner ourselves we have painted,” as Yoda would say.

  4. Ralph Hitchens — The “skeptical of … drawing parallels between” wars view makes useful analysis of military history and theory impossible. We have to compare actual wars for contrasts and similarities. What else do we have to work with?

    Of course this has to be done carefully. It is an exercise in abstraction, which means loss of detail. “The map is not the territory, the name is not the thing itself.”

    I do not understand what points you are making about Vietnam. We lost the war. Undefeated on the battlefield, but the battlefield is just one dimension of war.

  5. Oh, c’mon FM, disliking this particular linkage doesn’t mean I disdain mining military history for useful lessons and parallels. A few years ago I was quite happy to point out the similarities between Iraq and our war in the Philippines a century ago. (That was then; now I’m less happy.) Then there’s Punic II and … maybe the American Civil War?

  6. Mr. Crawford — thanks for posting this!

    Mr. Hitchens — I do not believe you have quoted me accurately. I said that to avoid “parallels between wars …makes useful analysis of military history and theory impossible”. I did not say or imply that you ” disdain mining military history for useful lessons.”

    I drew a specific contrast, which can be disputed. In reply you said that you “distain” (nice word!) this method (drawing parallels), after which all we can say is “OK, whatever”. And then you gave a parallel, one with which I agree with.

  7. I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak. Politicians make no difference. We have bought into the Military Industrial Complex (MIC). If you would like to read how this happens please see:
    Washington’s $8 Billion Shadow” (about SIAC)
    The People vs. the Profiteers” (about Halliburton)

    Through a combination of public apathy and threats by the MIC we have let the SYSTEM get too large. It is now a SYSTEMIC problem and the SYSTEM is out of control. Government and industry are merging and that is very dangerous. There is no conspiracy. The SYSTEM has gotten so big that those who make it up and run it day to day in industry and government simply are perpetuating their existance. The politicians rely on them for details and recommendations because they cannot possibly grasp the nuances of the environment and the BIG SYSTEM.

    So, the system has to go bust and then be re-scaled, fixed and re-designed to run efficiently and prudently, just like any other big machine that runs poorly or becomes obsolete or dangerous. This situation will right itself through trauma. I see a government ENRON on the horizon, with an associated house cleaning. The next president will come and go along with his appointees and politicos. The event to watch is the collapse of the MIC. For more details see:

  8. There is always another perspective from which to view these things…. The rulers of every regime demand flattery. Democracy is no different. We are the rulers, and demand that we be considered vituous. Hence all ills of society must be blamed on others. Evil, perhaps insane our traitorous, follow Americnans (of the right or left, depending on our current mood). Or evil foreigners. Best of all, the “system” — through the wonder of abstraction avoiding the painful necessity of assigning responsibility.

    All we must do is wait for politicos to arrive that are worthy of us, for wom we can vote and begin a new age. Or, alternatively, these evils will grow until things collapse in a cleansing fire. On these ashes a new world will arise.

    Perhaps so. I’ll bet that instead …
    1. The government continues more or less corrupt as are we ourselves.
    2. The government improves (or deteriorates) more or less proportionate to changes in our willingness to get involved in it.

  9. McCain may have a point despite the fears of neighbours Germany and Japan have not caused any trouble because each had 100,000 US troops sitting on them and still has long after the Cold War has ended. Can a case be made that the lesson of WW1 Germany was a defeated state has to be controlled through permanent bases, be they peaceful democracy or not.

    Sunnis are in the army, the police are solidly Shia and they are the ones Iraq’s Sunnis are frightened of. If the Sunis are shored up that gives a way to balance Shia predominance.

  10. Given the all but perfectly peaceful recent elections and developments in Iraq since then generally, shouldn’t you revisit this topic? Please, Cassandra?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Why? Has something happened?

    This post gives Martin van Creveld’s view, which I will “re-visit” if he does. My last few posts on Iraq cover the situation adequately, IMO. Nothing much willl happen until US troops leave (if they leave), and its internal political order adjusts.

    My posts followed a consistent pattern. In October 2003 — far ahead of most — I said we were fighting an adaptive and determined insurgency, and focused on our political goals for the war. In March 2007 I declared the insurgency over — again far ahead of most — and thereafter focused mostly on the results in terms of our political goals.

    Here is an early analysis of our goals:
    * Lessons Learned from the American Expedition to Iraq, 29 December 2005 — Reviewing US goals.

    Here are my posts describing the end of the war, and guesses about its results:
    * The Iraq insurgency has ended, which opens a path to peace, 13 March 2007
    * Beyond Insurgency: An End to Our War in Iraq, 27 September 2007
    * Iraq, after the war, 20 May 2008
    * Slowly the new Iraq becomes visible, 18 July 2008

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