Comparisons between the Iraq war and Vietnam abound, on both sides of the argument. Opponents of the war, and subsequent occupation and reconstruction of Iraq have been shouting “quagmire, just like Vietnam” since the first week of the war. Proponents have been bringing up the specter of “betrayal on the eve of victory, just like Vietnam”.
There are indeed some similarities between the two situations, which may yet bring us to another foreign policy disaster, and these deserve thoughtful consideration. But in almost all important respects Iraq is not Vietnam, and the differences may give cause for cautious optimism.
First we ought to consider how Iraq is like Vietnam. To begin with, the rationales, both for and against, were never well articulated. But in the absence of a strong and compelling argument for going to war, any argument against going to war carries more weight.
“Bush lied, thousands died.” the elusive weapons of mass destruction. Arguments continue about whether Saddam did or did not continue his program to obtain chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. It is certain that he did at one time have chemical weapons, which he used on the rebellious Kurds, and had been seeking biological and nuclear weapons, but no clear cut evidence has surfaced that he continued to pursue these programs after the cease fire following the first invasion of Iraq. The Iraqis certainly acted as if they were conducting hidden programs, but that may have been a bluff, in which case they have limited claim to sympathy for their plight. Or it may very well have been a case of the dictator demanding his people produce unbeatable secret weapons and being assured by his fearful subordinates, “Yes Boss, we’re right on it! Any day now.” (Note Hitler’s constant assurances that secret weapons would be fielded any day to reverse the tide of WWII.)
The salient fact remains that legally speaking we did not go to war with Iraq – because we had not been at peace with Iraq since the first Gulf War. There was a ceasefire in place, which Saddam was in violation of every single day. (By the way – this also apples to North Korea.) All arguments about the legality of the second invasion of Iraq must first address the first set of hostilities under George Bush Sr. There was never a lack of a cassus belli under the accepted standards of international law, just not very exciting ones to present to the public. Fine points of law are not very rousing when you are asking your citizens to commit to something as serious as a war.
Contrariwise the rational, well-considered argument that invading a country and dealing with the subsequent insurrection/ civil war was not in our national interest got lost in the hysterical America-hating rhetoric of the American and European Left and the overheated anti-statism of the isolationist libertarian Right. Like Vietnam, the voice of a patriotic and principled opposition to the war (which included a number of top military officers in both cases) was lost in the shouting of a movement whose hatred was of America, not war.
The movement whose basic motivation was America-hatred found the national interest argument unappealing, precisely because they care nothing for America’s national interest, and were therefore reduced to claiming that Iraq was a better place under Saddam and that American forces were responsible for more innocent deaths than Saddam’s evil regime a la Michael Moore.
Where the anti-war movement did succeed was in framing the debate as “pro-war” versus “anti-war”. Nobody but a Nietzschean lunatic is “for” war. The questions rational men must ask themselves are, “Do we have a choice and is war the worst alternative?”
Generations of post-World War II recriminations have lamented that the West failed to deal with Hitler until it was almost too late, and paid a terrible price in lives, treasure and a devil’s bargain with the Soviet Union that delivered another two generations of Eastern Europeans into serfdom.
Which brings us to the most obvious similarity between Iraq and Vietnam, or between any wars – the fact that they are expensive.
Iraq though, has been remarkably cheap in terms of lives lost. (If you can ever count lives lost as “cheap”. For every death, the world has ended for someone and is irretrievably damaged for others.) The insurrection has so far produced fewer American and coalition casualties than a good month or a bad day of any of our previous large-scale wars, while inflicting massive losses on the enemy. Ongoing civilians casualties (“collateral damage” in that detestable military euphemism) are arguably less than Saddam inflicted on his own people while in power – so far, and indeed more casualities are inflicted deliberately by Jihadist terrorists than accidentally by coalition forces. (Even the highly questionable John Hopkins study held that 2/3 of all deaths are Jihadists killing Iraqi civilians.)
However, the technological and training expertise that has produced this one-sided kill ratio must be paid for in other ways. To put it bluntly, the enemy spends lives they hold cheap while we spend money to preserve lives we hold dear – both ours and those of innocent civilians. That may look like a good trade but the legitimate question arises of how long we can keep this up before our economy suffers seriously, and with it our military capability? Particularly when the political realities are such that we cannot cut government services in other areas to compensate for military expenditures.
And there is disturbing evidence that Osama bin Ladin and his cohorts are well aware of this and counting on it.
Iraq is not like Vietnam
The most important difference is, there is no draft. Morally, this matters to those of us who believe passionately that our lives belong to us alone. Personally, it matters to those of us who are deeply insulted by the arrogant assumption by politicians of their right to arbitrarily dispose of our lives as they choose. Practically, it matters in that it deprives the America-hating movement of an army of foot soldiers.
Woven into the fabric of the very concept of consensual government is the principle that not only do we get to help choose it, we get to decide on a very personal level whether it’s worth dying to preserve. Those who made the war in Vietnam, in their arrogance forgot that part of the American national character described by Baron Von Steuben, who trained Washington’s army at the founding of our nation. In a moment of exasperation he exclaimed, “It’s not enough to give an American an order, you have to tell him why!”
Dissent in this war is tolerated to an extraordinary degree. During the Vietnam War, anti-war dissenters were spied on and harassed by all legal and many illegal means. Today their opinions are taken seriously, as dissenting opinions should be in a free society. On university campuses the opposition is not against the Establishment, nowadays they are the establishment and have no fear for their jobs in expressing anti-government opinions, often quite the opposite. Today students and faculty with pro-administration opinions are harassed, ridiculed, rejected for tenure, and increasingly, threatened with physical assault.
In this war, it is consensual government our soldiers are being asked to fight for. Those of us who came of military age during Vietnam remember watching power change hands in a coup and assassinations, followed by almost half a dozen coups before a military strongman emerged, who held power unopposed until the fall of Vietnam. Does anyone seriously wonder why American youths were less than enthusiastic about being told, not asked, to risk death to support that regime?
In Iraq the first order of business was to get an elected government with a written constitution in place. There are many perceived flaws in the process and it could still go horribly wrong, but Vietnam taught us the cost of waiting until “later” to get that job done. The sight of all those dyed fingers lifted defiantly in the air was inspiring to all who sincerely love liberty and wish the people of Iraq well. By now even those Iraqis who quite understandably resent the occupation of their country by a foreign power, must begin to realize that instead of fighting to eject American forces from their country, they can work to establish a stable government of their own choosing, and tell them to leave – if they still want them to.
A plebiscite held to ask them if they want the coalition to stay or leave, may (and I stress may) satisfy Arab conceptions of honor – as well as providng us with a graceful exit that is nor perceived as a rout.
Critics argue that the administration is making the unfounded assumption that everyone actually wants a democratic government, and this is a serious consideration. Our free institutions are based on legal and cultural traditions thousands of years old, which flat do not exist in most of the world. However while many have no strong desire for, or even understanding of free, consensual government it does not follow that they prefer living under one that terrorizes, tortures and murders its citizens at will.
In terms of geopolitics, the situation in Iraq is far different from Vietnam. Vietnam was a minor client state of a rival superpower that the U.S. could not afford to confront directly. Iraq was a major player among hostile Arab nations who resent and fear American world hegemony but cannot confront it directly and can only work covertly against American interests. Vietnam’s patron superpower had less interest in outright victory than they had in keeping the United States engaged in a protracted and expensive war that sapped its strength, created domestic chaos and distracted it from their main interest in Europe.
Iraq is in the geographical center of the struggle against Jihadism. The patrons of fanatical Jihadism are vitally concerned with Iraq and rightfully fearful that a stable, even semi-democratic Iraq would be the beginning of the end of their tyranny and autocracy throughout the Middle East.
Once France was chased out of Vietnam, the European powers could express moral disdain for America’s presence there, but had no financial interest threatened by it. Their realistic concern was that America would be distracted in a theater peripheral to Europe and our will to resist the Soviet’s plans to eventually absorb Western Europe into their empire destroyed.
With Iraq the situation is more complicated. France and Germany’s ox certainly got gored when their cozy financial arrangements with Saddam were trashed. However, in the long-term, a nuclear Iraq or Iran would be a greater threat to them than to America and they are in a far worse position to deal with the threat without the U.S.
Organized opposition to the Vietnam War in America was early on co-opted by a Hard Left cadre who made common cause with Soviet/ Vietnamese communism, which was portrayed as being on the side of workers, women, freethinkers, minorities, homosexuals and whoever else’s cause it was convenient for them to espouse. To this day, the survivors often remain visibly nostalgic about their days in the Movement, which were the most meaningful of their lives. As opposed to the foot soldiers of the Movement who basically just breathed a sigh of relief and got on with their lives once the draft was discontinued.
Today, the Hard Left opposition has made common cause with the Islamists who openly advocate and practice: chattel slavery, the brutal subjection of women, religious persecution, the murder of homosexuals, the extermination of Jews and who despise the multiculturalism of Western intellectuals. To say the least, this casts doubts on the sincerity of their patriotism and concern for human rights and seriously damages their credibility in the eyes of ordinary people with common sense – and even many intellectuals.
The Vietnam War was inarticulately justified, strategically confused and fought by soldiers who, though as valiant as any America ever fielded, could be compelled to serve no more than a one-year tour of duty, which forced the military to fight with a large percentage of inexperienced troops at any given time.
However, the loss of Vietnam forced the military into a radical rethinking of the way free nations conduct warfare. And the evidence indicates that the learning curve is even steeper than before. The modern all-volunteer military is highly competent, flexible, adaptive, forward thinking, and in spite of well-publicized abuses, far less likely to take out rage and frustration on civilians. The My Lai massacre took years of dedicated effort by a few brave individuals to bring to light. The far less serious abuses at Abu Ghraib were brought to light almost immediately by the Army itself and the individuals responsible tried and punished.
All of this justifies cautious optimism, but there are also reasons to be concerned. Precisely because the hysterical anti-American faction of the opposition has drowned out rational voices concerned about Iraq, these serious concerns may not be given the hearing they deserve.
Next: Iraq could be worse than Vietnam.