Iraq vs. Vietnam


This week President Bush put forth his new approach to deal with a truly deteriorating situation in Iraq. His plan, for the most part as I see it, is simply an increase in U.S. troop presence by 21,500, most of which will be deployed in and around Baghdad. In the tactful, PC language of the White House it’s called a “surge,” not reinforcements. Yet more troops do not equal a new direction and I see nothing here that will change anything in Iraq.

Now I know that most Americans, and the vast majority in Washington, especially Republicans, do not want to hear any comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, but as a historian I see it very clearly. We are making the exact same mistakes in Iraq today that we made in Vietnam in the 1960’s and, sadly, Bush is looking more and more like another Lyndon Johnson.

When seeking to engage in nation-building, as we are doing now in Iraq and attempted to do in South Vietnam, clear goals must be established and the will to carry out those efforts must be present, particularly when dealing with a hostile enemy, as we are with insurgents in Iraq today and as we were with North Vietnam and Viet Cong guerillas in Southeast Asia a generation ago.

In considering Vietnam, there were really only two options for the United States. One was to completely obliterate North Vietnam, turning Hanoi in to a giant parking lot, or as General Lemay said, “Bomb ‘em back to the Stone Age!” Having done this first option, we would not have needed the second. This possible second option was to build a viable, sustaining, self-sufficient nation in South Vietnam, in which the first option would not be needed. Doing both would have been okay too, but what did the United States do in Vietnam? Half of both! We fought a war against North Vietnam with one hand tied behind our backs, complete with bombing restrictions and no serious thought of invading across the DMZ to destroy the enemy on their own ground or to take out their sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia (This one sounds very familiar!). We also made half efforts to create a viable South Vietnamese republic. Now I realize we were not getting much help from either President Diem or his successor Nguyen Van Thieu in Saigon, only corrupt regimes, but we were not putting serious pressures on them either, such as insisting on meaningful land reform for the nation’s peasants, which many point to as a huge mistake. South Vietnam never did exhibit the kind of nationalism that was present in North Vietnam, so therefore, the people had no country in which to fight for. It was only a geographic entity, not a sovereign nation loved by its people. No one was ready to die for the Republic of South Vietnam.

The United States, and its allies, made a similar mistake after World War I, in which, as some would say, we stuck our nose where it did not belong. Germany was beaten when she surrendered to Allied forces in November 1918, yet she was not totally destroyed. Britain and France, particularly the latter, wanted to complete the job, even dismember the unified German nation into several smaller chunks, thinking a divided Reich would no longer be a threat. President Wilson and the U.S. opposed that plan but sought to bring Germany back into the family of nations. So, here we were, with the same two options and what happened? A middle ground was agreed upon in which Germany was punished just enough to be humiliated but yet left strong enough to seek revenge at another time, and we all know how that story ended.

I see a similar situation in Iraq today, doing half of both nation-building options. More troops will mean nothing without a new direction. Now our government has given the Maliki government some deadlines, mostly in regards to security, that they must meet, or, presumably, else. These, if they are insisted upon, would be a good start, something we did not insist upon in Saigon. But what happens if they don’t meet them? Do we just simply leave? That would have disastrous consequences. And, though we seem to be talking a tougher game with Iran and Syria, getting a stranglehold on those two is long over due! Why we have allowed Iran to fund and supply suicide bombers who have killed our troops and not retaliated against them is beyond me. Iran and Syria represent the Laos and Cambodia of this war. Let’s not make the same mistake twice.

Sadly, we did not go into Iraq with enough troops, in my opinion, and we momentarily lost control of the situation in the days after Saddam’s regime fell, allowing foreign fighters (i.e. Viet Cong) to infiltrate into the public and wage a guerilla war against us, killing tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians as well. We seem to be engaged in a police action in Iraq, not a war, and we all know those never work. Iraqis must police themselves. If a “surge” is the answer, fine but let’s use our troops much more aggressively and wage war to completely destroy the insurgents and their foreign support nations, whoever they may be, not police a young nation that needs to stand on its own two feet. In addition, we should heavily pressure the Iraqi government to get with the program and to encourage the Iraqi people to rise up and fight for their own country, without which I do not see how the violence will ever end and we can finally come home with a complete victory.