WASHINGTON - The mounting death toll and rising cost of war in Iraq are prompting comparisons with another faraway conflict that tested America's resolve.
"This may not be Vietnam," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told his Senate colleagues recently, "but, boy, it sure smells like it."
He's not alone in detecting a whiff of the past hanging over the Middle East. Critics of President Bush's Iraq policy say they are becoming concerned that the nation is headed for another quagmire, with equally disastrous consequences.
I haven't seen such a spectacular or breathtaking set of miscalculations since LBJ was bringing us into Vietnam deeper and deeper.
Rep. David Obey
In their worst-case scenario, U.S. troops will be bogged down for years in a war they can't win, while terrorists continue their deadly attacks against U.S. interests around the world. War spending will drain billions of dollars from the federal budget and drive the government deep into debt. Americans will be torn apart by conflicting feelings about the war and grief over the loss of life.
None of that has happened yet, and it may never happen, but some Vietnam veterans, and others who lived through that era, see some troubling parallels.
"The losses are small compared to Vietnam, but don't forget that the losses were small in Vietnam in the beginning," said Stanley Karnow, a leading historian of the Vietnam War. "Vietnam was just grinding on with no apparent solution. That's what this situation looks like."
Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was wounded in Vietnam, evoked memories of those times in a recent speech blasting Bush's policy in Iraq.
"Our feelings and sensitivities were forged on the battlefields of Vietnam, where we heard the garbage and the lies, and we saw the sacrifice," Zinni told an audience filled with war veterans. "I ask you, is it happening again?"
Of course, there are some big differences.
More than 3 million U.S. troops served in Vietnam, with 543,000 there at the height of the war. They died at a rate of more than 3,000 a month at the 1968-69 peak. Major fighting dragged on for eight years, from 1965 until 1973. The war killed 58,235 Americans and many more Vietnamese.
The war in Iraq started March 19 - six months ago - and it's being fought by about 140,000 American troops. As of Wednesday, 295 had died.
The Vietnam War cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $500 billion in today's dollars. So far Bush has asked Congress for $166 billion this year for operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq; it's not clear what the final price tag will be.
Bush's defenders contend that comparing the two wars is absurd.
"We ought to stop with these rather bizarre historical illusions," Secretary of State Colin Powell, a Vietnam veteran, told CNN. "Let's deal with the facts on the ground and where we are now."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., another Vietnam vet, said talk that Iraq could be another Vietnam was "extremely premature."
"There are a lot of things that have to happen before I could draw some parallels: casualties mounting, lack of progress, and the loss of the heart and souls of the soldiers and American public," he said.
But some aspects of the current conflict mirror the earlier war. Then, as now, U.S. troops were confronted with terrorist attacks and guerrilla warfare in a bewildering foreign culture where friend and foe were indistinguishable.
Then, the enemy was global communism. Now, it's terrorism, but the arguments for war are strikingly similar. The domino theory - that the fall of Vietnam to communism would trigger the fall of other countries - is finding new application in the war on terrorism.
"If we quit Vietnam," President Lyndon Johnson warned, "tomorrow we'll be fighting in Hawaii, and next week we'll have to fight in San Francisco."
"We are fighting that enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan today," Bush said in his televised speech Sept. 7, "so that we do not meet him again on our own streets, in our own cities."
Most Americans supported the war in Vietnam initially, but public opinion shifted as it dragged on. Today polls show that majority support for U.S. involvement in Iraq remains, but doubts are growing. More than half of Americans now think Bush didn't have a clear plan for postwar Iraq, think things are going badly there and oppose his request for another $87 billion for the effort.
Thirty years ago, the goal was "Vietnamization," turning the war over to South Vietnam. Now it's "Iraqization."
Some of Bush's critics also see parallels in the administration's efforts to build the case for war and its rosy scenarios for postwar Iraq. Top administration officials predicted before the war that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops as liberators. War planners also overestimated their ability to pay for Iraq's reconstruction with revenue from the country's oil.
"I haven't seen such a spectacular or breathtaking set of miscalculations since LBJ was bringing us into Vietnam deeper and deeper," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis.
Bush says he's determined to avoid the mistakes of the past. In his view, U.S. officials erred in Vietnam because "we could not explain the mission, had no exit strategy and did not seem to be fighting to win."
Less than two weeks before he ordered the invasion of Iraq, Bush seemed eager to explain why this war would be different.
"That's a great question," he said March 6 when asked if Iraq could turn into another Vietnam. "Should we have to go in, our mission is very clear: disarmament. And in order to disarm, it would mean regime change. ... It's very clear what we intend to do. And our mission won't change."
Since then, the Iraqi regime has been ousted and its army disbanded, but U.S. troops remain as an occupation army in an increasingly hostile land with no timetable for getting out.
Sumana Chatterjee contributed to this article.
Copyright 2003 Knight-Ridder