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Why Vietnam Analogies Don’t Matter

Yesterday’s question concerning the war in Iraq – “Are we winning or losing?” – has given way to today’s question – “Is Iraq Vietnam?”

The question arose because President George Bush in a recent speech at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention hinted that a retreat from Iraq would be attended by consequences similar to the retreat from Vietnam. "One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam,” Bush said, “is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens.”

This has prompted a “discussion” – really, more like a bar room brawl – that Bush cannot win. A quick glance at the discussion on the weekend following Bush’s analogy will show why.

The Hartford Courant and one of its lead commentators – Bill Curry, once an advisor to former President Bill Clinton, once a student anti-Vietnam war protestor – were very quickly out of the gate.

Mr. Curry has told us that in writing his columns he often consults with name Carolyn Lumsden, now the Editorial page editor of the Courant, and so we ought not to be surprised that that the substance of his column and the Sunday Courant editorial fit each other as neatly as a key fits a lock.

The lede to the Courant editorial is: “Until last week, President Bush dismissed direct comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam. White House operatives had admonished critics of the U.S. invasion of Iraq for saying there were similarities between the two wars. But Mr. Bush has changed his tune.”

And the lede to Curry’s Sunday column is: “We waited a long, bloody time for George Bush to change his mind about Iraq. This week he did, but it wasn't much of an epiphany. He merely rethought a historical point. Iraq, it turns out, is a lot like Vietnam after all.”

A laundry list of similarities between the two wars follow.

The Courant likens the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, based on what the paper calls “a faux incident,” the attack on American war ships by the Vietnamese, to the claim made by the United States that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction: “As in Vietnam, the war in Iraq is not driven by existential necessity. The faux incident in the Gulf of Tonkin should be aptly compared with claims that (1) Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and (2) was partially responsible for 9/11. Having raised the temperature of fear of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the administration herded Congress into giving the president the right of way to Baghdad.”

The clear message of the comparison is that in both cases we were lied into wars that might easily have been avoided.

Despite these lies, the Courant argues in its editorial, the war in Vietnam raged on anyway “in the name of ‘containing’ communism.” During the Vietnam War, policy makers here in the United States “ridiculed those who said we were in the middle of a north-south civil war rooted in nationalism. In fact, the dominoes didn't fall after we left Indochina. Hanoi subsequently fought wars against China and Cambodia.”

In Vietnam we had “Vietnamization;” now “there is talk of Iraqization. Having totally dismantled Iraq's institutions, we are trying to reinvent them with as little success as in South Vietnam. Casualties and Iraqis fleeing the country have numbered in the millions since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Yet Mr. Bush contends it would be worse if we leave.”

One may quibble with some of the Courant’s grosser exaggerations. Interviews with some of the survivors of the prisoner of war and re-education camps in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand might just convince the opinion editors at the Courant that an uncontained communism spread beyond Vietnam after the war had been lost by conniving Americans. But there is no question that the two cases are similar. Backers of the war in Iraq have made just parallels between the war in Iraq and World War II.

The war in Vietnam and Iraq are also different, but neither the Courant editorial nor Curry’s column dwell on the differences.

Curry also occupies himself with drawing analogies between Vietnam and Iraq. But Curry is more practiced in the art of journalistic demonization than his editor at the Courant, Lumsden.

This riff is typical of Curry: “We waited a long, bloody time for George Bush to change his mind about Iraq. This week he did, but it wasn't much of an epiphany. He merely rethought a historical point. Iraq, it turns out, is a lot like Vietnam after all.

“That it's not was a key prewar talking point. Someone say quagmire? We'd be to Iraq and back in a jiffy, with hearty thanks from a grateful people. Democracy would rise in the East and supertankers brimming with crude would trail us home. To the victor goes the oil.

“Doubters lived in a "pre-9/11 world," their brains addled by "Vietnam Syndrome." The key distinction, it seems, was terrain. Iraq had less foliage, more sand. And the Viet Cong had North Vietnam's big army helping them. Saddam's army would be gone in a fortnight. Bottom line: piece of cake.”

Allowing that there is a place in political commentary for hyperbole, some of Mr. Curry’s statements are comically untrue. For instance, the “key distinction” between Vietnam and Iraq is not terrain. The key distinction lies in the nature of the enemy and his objectives. According to Curry, “In a way, Bush is right about politics defeating us in Vietnam - he just doesn't know how. The political genius we lost to was Ho Chi Minh, not Tom Hayden. Ho knew battlefield victories mean less in wars of resistance, where the nature of the conflict is political. We were beaten in Vietnamese politics before American politics even cranked up.”

There is some truth to this. But however capable a war leader Ho Chi Minh may have been, he never contemplated the destruction of Israel or the spread his ideology to Spain, the outer boundary of victorious Islam from its beginning to the Reconquista in the reign of Isabella and Ferdinand. Communism – which began, if we are to believe Lenin, with Karl Marx’s ponderings in a London library – does not have the historical depth of militant Islam. But these are matters that do not loom large in the current liberal attack on those prosecuting the war on jihadists.

Mr. Curry would be very hard pressed to find a line in any speech given by Bush that addresses the larger struggle between Western civilization and the jihadists in which the president has said that the struggle would be a snap. Bush’s critics are interested in pressing their claim that what the president has called “the war against terror” has involved us in yet another Vietnam. And the stark differences between Vietnam and the current struggle against jihadists do not strengthen their case.

However, one does not expect defense lawyers to dwell on the savage behavior of their clients. Better to attack the prosecution’s rational. The Curry column and the Courant editorial may best be viewed as an attempt to prescind the truth from their analysis.

This is not Vietnam. The architects of jihad are not communists. The war we are engaged in is not a civil war; it is a transnational religious war. Osama binLandin is not Ho Chi Minh. Mideast oil is not a luxury the Western world can do without. The consequences of a withdrawal from a lost war in Iraq – however desirable such an event may be to present and former war protestors – will not be the same as the consequences that attended the withdrawal from the lost war in Vietnam.

That is the truth.


Anonymous said…
The President's comparison of Vietnam and Iraq was solely to the effect of a premature American withdrawal. Not the cause of the war. Not its prosecution.

The U.S. Congress of 1974 bears much of the blame for the Cambodian genocide, Vietnamese re-education camps, and the plight of the boat people. Had the US lived up to its obligations under the Treaty of Paris much of that misery would have been averted.

We can't roll back the clock to 2003 (or 1991). President Ford could not roll the clock back from 1974 to 1963.

We can only decide how to act today on the facts as we understand them today.
Anonymous said…
Trouncing civilians back in ´Nam,
Napalm and strafing, fire and bomb,
They took the best that we could give
Yet they survived superlative
(Except for all the many dead
But don´t let that go to your head).

Today in economics they
Proceed apace--and gladly say
Residual effects of war
Although horrendous, leave no scar
Or none as so superlative
It is too great for to forgive.

(This in despite--nor let us thus
Minimize horror as it was,
Horror and trauma--in despite
Of repercussion as nor quite
Have rectified, resolved: the curse
Of consequences bad to worse.)

Forgiving and forgetting so
They move ahead and forward go--
But I suggest the parallel
There finishes: Iraq will spell
A vengeance cry of long duration
Against the perpetrating nation.


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