Why Iraq is not like Vietnam: A Primer for the Geopolitically Challenged

One of the many negative consequences of America’s defeat in The Vietnam War has been the uncontrolled proliferation of Vietnams since then. 

Nicaragua threatened to become another Vietnam.  Lebanon nearly became another Vietnam.  Had Grenada been only slightly larger than a manhole cover and lasted one more hour, it would have become a Caribbean-Style Vietnam.  The invasion of Panama was rapidly degenerating into a Narco-Vietnam, right up until we won.  Likewise, the First Gulf War was certainly developing into another Vietnam, but then sadly, it ended quickly and with few casualties.

For people of a certain age or political stripe, Vietnam is like Elvis: it’s everywhere.  For example, during a long wait at a Chinese Buffet in Georgetown in 1987, Ted Kennedy was reported to have exclaimed “QUAGMIRE!” and attempted to surrender to a Spanish-speaking busboy.

And that was probably the smart thing to do, because the lesson of Vietnam is: it is best to lose quickly, so as to avoid a quagmire.  It could be argued that the real lesson of Vietnam is that it badly damages a country’s reputation and character to lose at all.  But that is not at all supported by the evidence.  Nope, Vietnam taught us that winners know when to lose immediately.  Entire wars have been fought by countries that have failed to realize this.

No country was therefore more prepared to fight a long unconventional war against grimy little terrorists in strange distant places than America, who learned how to lose in Vietnam.

Thus, it is with considerable joy that those who are ready to teach the lesson of Vietnam (LOSE NOW BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!), find that they finally have another war that has lasted longer than John Kerry’s first position on it.  Obviously, they crow, we have stepped into some deep Vietnam in Iraq. 

The best course of action is to therefore withdraw from Iraq immediately, allow the country to become an oil-producing Al-Qaeda Super-state and retreat to within our secure borders –where no terrorist will ever touch us.  Oh, and begin the political positioning to win election in 2008 on an “I KNEW IT WAS VIETNAM RIGHT AWAY!” platform.

And I guess you could argue that might be the right thing to do, if only the Iraq conflict were actually like Vietnam in some way.  Disappointingly, other than smelly peacenik rallies and the American press preparing daily to report an Iraqi “Tet offensive,” the similarities are pretty meager.

The differences, by contrast, are obvious and glaring –but that’s no reason to interrupt a good “OH GOD! IT’S VIETNAM!” national flashback.  Unless, that is, you want America to win Iraq, rather than lose Vietnam again out of habit.  For that minority of the populace, I present a few tiny little differences between Iraq and Vietnam, ranging from the mundane and material, to the moral and philosophical.

1. The Iraqi insurgency has no universal philosophy capable of attracting Iraq’s entire populace.  The Viet Cong were, I’m told, Communists.  Communism was a worldwide movement preaching a fanciful utopian equality among man, and with a substantial following on every Continent.  It could appeal to intellectuals and peasants, workers and soldiers.  It was a philosophical movement proselytizing universal solidarity.  You never knew who might become a commie.  Every South Vietnamese could be an enemy sympathizer or agent.

The Iraqi insurgency is principally a Sunni Arab tribal affair.  Shiites and Sunnis are not converting one another at all, and have not for the last few hundred years.  The Iraqi Kurds are a nation within a nation and running their own affairs very well.  In this insurgency, the Sunni Arabs (20% of the population) are fighting for continued domination of the Kurds and Shiites (20% and 60% of the population respectively).  This is a cause that the Shiites and Kurds are unlikely to embrace with much enthusiasm.  Were there not a single other difference between the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts, this one would totally disqualify any comparison.  Anyone can become a Communist.  Black men do not join the Klan.  Likewise, the Iraqi insurgency cannot draw recruits from the Shiite and Kurdish majority while espousing a philosophy of Sunni Arab Supremacism.   The worst case, then, is that the population splits 4 to 1 in favor of the new government.  Thus, it can get ugly, but the issue is not really in doubt, long term.

2. The Iraqi insurgency has no inviolable state in which to openly organize the population; and we are not fighting for a tie with that inviolable state.  North Vietnam was a real country, with a border that we could not cross for geopolitical reasons.  Inside that country, the Communists trained and rested, worked in weapons factories on a par with any in Asia, controlled broadcasts, recruiting centers, schools, the police, the courts, the roads, and ports full of foreign supply ships.  We never invaded North Vietnam and so they could never, ever, lose the war.  Every week they sent troops and advisors out of their safe home base to invade South Vietnam in little waves.  Every week we sat outside the border and played goalie against the most recent wave.  Essentially, we fought from the outset of the Vietnam War for a tie: the continued existence of both a North and a South Vietnam.

The Sunni insurgents have no such luxury.  We are in their hometowns, their fields, their roads, their skies, their rivers.  They have no country.  We took it already. They have holes in the ground and basement bomb factories.  The North Vietnamese fielded a modern air force that could often shoot down our most advanced planes.  The Sunni insurgents strap bombs to donkey carts.  They cannot openly recruit or train, because “their” country is full of Shiites, Kurds and other Sunni Arabs that arrest, shoot, and bomb them constantly.

3. The Sunni insurgents have no Soviet or Chinese support.  A few truckloads of trouble from Syria and Iran cannot in any way compare to the massive material support that the Vietnamese Communists received from the Soviet Union and Red China.  Support to North Vietnam from “comrades abroad” was estimated by the CIA at $400 million in 1965.  That would be $2 billion per year adjusted for inflation.  There is no comparable aid for our enemies in Iraq.  Additionally, There is no KGB-like worldwide intelligence organization, with agents all over the US government, feeding information to the insurgents.  That is worth more than money, and it did us much harm in Vietnam.

4. North and South Vietnam had a combined population 22% of that of the United States in 1970.  Iraq has a population less than 9% of today’s United States.  The Sunni Arab population of Iraq is less than 2% that of the US.  The scale of today’s problem is in a whole different league than Vietnam –a much more minor league.

5. The Communist forces of Vietnam had 20 years of experience in guerilla combat against the Japanese and French before America ever sent one soldier into what we call “the” Vietnam War.  The Sunni insurgents had little established guerilla war capacity at start.  Their inexperience costs them greatly. 

6. There were no polling places in Hanoi during the war.  The effect of elections in Iraq has been remarkable.  In just a few months, since the first democratically elected government of Iraq took power, the whole war has changed character for the Iraqis.  The issue is no longer as simple as Sunni rebels fighting an infidel occupier.  It is now Iraqi majority vs. Iraqi minority.  The most effective propaganda weapon the insurgents had is gone, never to return.  The Sunni mainstream that boycotted the first elections has seen control of Iraq swept away from them by millions of other Iraqis.  Now most Sunni leaders are telling their people to vote in the upcoming referendum on the Constitution.  They dare not ignore an election again.  The Vietnamese Communists never faced this dilemma.

7. There was no oil in Vietnam.  Eventually, the money to be made from Iraq’s oil will give rise to a self-interested alliance of leaders with one common goal: profitable stability.  Revenue streams pave their own banks.

8. There is no military draft in today’s US army.  The insurgents know they are not fighting unwilling whiners freshly failed-out of the Communications Program at Kent State.  (OK, no one has ever failed out of a Communications Program, but still you get the point).  The morale of our soldiers is high and in the insurgents’ face.  It is only our civilians that threaten to go wobbly.

9. The Communists had never ruled South Vietnam.  By contrast, the Baathist have ruled Iraq.  The Iraqi people know who they are, and how they will really rule.  No one believes they fight for a worker’s paradise.  Saddam Hussein has been recruiting allies for us for the last twenty years, with his mass graves, prisons and rape rooms.

10. Who is Iraq’s Ho Chi Minh?  Iraq’s war is tribal and local.  The closest thing to a grand leader is Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, and he’s on Democracy’s side.  Majorities LOVE democracy.

11.  In Vietnam, it was obvious that American withdrawal would probably lead to South Vietnamese defeat.  No one can say that US withdrawal would lead to Shiite surrender or that the Kurds could even be kept within the nation of Iraq.  Our coalition is more than a match for the insurgents.  The insurgents can never defeat the new government in the sense of taking control of the whole country. Their only hope is to cause chaos and carve out local wartime autonomy.  By contrast, the new Iraqi government can totally defeat the insurgents and take control of the whole country.  The insurgents know they are fighting for only a part of the country, at best.

12.  The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army were not killing one another.  Zarqawi’s foreign Sunni terrorists and the native Sunni insurgents are shooting at each other, and more and more.  Imagine, for a moment, if the United States Military and the New Iraqi Army were ambushing each other between battles with the insurgents.  How much media attention would that produce?  What would it say about the alliance?  The two main forces of the insurgency actually have begun shooting at each other.  The locals think Zarqawi is mad.  Zarqawi thinks the locals are traitors to Islam and weak.

13.  Ho Chi Minh was not, at any point during the Vietnam War, sitting in a box with a French Lawyer while awaiting trial and execution by his vengeful former subjects.  Saddam Hussein is.  There is a certain demonstration of lost power in that.  And Zarqawi could join him any day.

But other than all that, Iraq is just Vietnam all over again –and in High Definition on Cable.  Now consider one last reason why the two wars are not alike, one that goes to the heart of the issue and should be more than enough to shore up even Chuck Hagel: A loss in Vietnam was not going to bring newly energized Viet Cong recruits into New York or San Francisco with truck-bombs or a suitcase nuke to finish us off.  A loss in Iraq–regardless of why the war was begun, or how bad we want to go home, or how little most Americans care about giving foreigners democracy or toiletries–will energize our enemies, as only a historic victory on the world stage can. 

If you liked what our quick, casualty-saving withdrawal from Somalia did for us at the Khobar Towers, at our embassies in East Africa, at the waterline of the USS Cole, and at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, then you’ll love what a quick “casualty-saving” withdrawal from Iraq will do for us for the next twenty years.  It’ll finally make you stop worrying about Vietnam.