A virtual cottage industry has sprung up comparing
Iraq with Vietnam. And well that it should. Vietnam
cost the lives of not only 58,000 Americans but of
three million Vietnamese. Neither the US nor the
Iraqi people nor the world need another such horror.
The similarities between Iraq and Vietnam run both
shallow and deep. The shallow similarities are
obvious and can serve to signal our attention. But it
is the deeper similarities, those that shape policy
and drive alternatives, that should signal our fears.
For they point to the possibility of an outcome
perhaps even more calamitous than in Vietnam.
Both Iraq and Vietnam were founded on lies. In
Vietnam, the original lie was that an impoverished
nation of pre-industrial age farmers posed a threat to
the mightiest empire the world had ever known. The
Gulf of Tonkin hoax was the manufactured excuse to
jump in with all guns blazing. And the Pentagon
Papers were the meticulous, irrefutable chronicle of
the litany of all the rest of the lies.
With Iraq, we don’t need to wait for a Pentagon Papers
to know the trigger or the extent of the lying. It is
already notorious. Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Connections to Al Qaeda. Complicity in 9/11. A
“cakewalk”. Being welcomed as “liberators”. A
“self-funding” war. “We’ve found the weapons of mass destruction.” Reducing global terror. Mission Accomplished. The real question in Iraq is not whether the Bush administration has told any lies but rather, almost literally, whether it has told any meaningful truths.
Both wars quickly became guerilla wars. In Vietnam,
the battlegrounds were jungles, rice paddies, and
small rural hamlets. It was the antithesis of the
set-piece battle style of warfare the U.S. military
had been built and trained for. In Iraq the
battlegrounds are city blocks with houses, apartments,
stores and schools. In both settings, the enemy
controls the timing, scale, and place of engagements.
They shoot opportunistically and quickly melt away
into their surroundings. Combatants are
indistinguishable from civilians with the result that
eight civilians are killed for every combatant. This understandably alienates the civilian population from its “liberators” while increasing its support for the resistance—an inescapable and fateful cycle. In Vietnam, this process became mockingly known as “winning the hearts and minds of the people.” It hasn’t been graced with a name yet in Iraq.
Both wars used the palpable fiction of “democracy” to
pacify the American public into quiescence. In
Vietnam, “democracy” took the form of a clique of
wealthy, urban, Catholic dictators running a country
of poor, rural, Buddhist peasants. After the US had
its puppet, Diem, assassinated in 1963, it took two
years and seven different governments before a
suitably brutal but still obeisant figurehead could be
In Iraq, a “governing council” of US-appointed stooges
pretends to represent Iraqi interests by handing over
almost all industries to large U.S. corporations—all
of which just happen to be munificent donors to the
Republican party. Commenting recently on the handover
of “sovereignty,” US proconsul Paul Bremmer noted in
seemingly oblivious irony that, “There’s not going to
be any difference in our military posture on July 1st
from what it is on June 30th.” This is democracy™ for
foreign subjects, American style.
But there are still deeper bases for comparing Iraq
with Vietnam. It is these that are most disquieting
for America’s prospects.
Both wars were against victim nations already deeply
scarred by colonial domination. It is this legacy
that poisons all U.S. sanctimony about installing
“democracy” in Iraq. Vietnam was dominated for over a
century by first the French, then the Japanese, then
the French again, and eventually the Americans. But
all the Vietnamese people ever wanted was to be free
of such domination, to craft for themselves their own
destiny, much as the American colonists had done in
their revolutionary war.
Iraq, too, bears the scars of a long and repressive
colonial legacy. It was created in the aftermath of
World War I, literally carved out of the sand by the
British for the sole purpose of controlling the
world’s oil supply. The US helped Saddam Hussein’s
Ba’ath party overthrow the uppity Karim Qasim in 1963
but its purposes were the same as the British’s: to
control the world’s supply of oil. The aggressively disinformed American public is unaware of this legacy and, therefore, the reason behind Iraq’s vociferous resistance to its would-be “liberation.”
Still deeper in meaning is the strategic context of
the two wars. Both wars were fought in the vanguard
of grand U.S. strategy. In Vietnam, the strategy was
“Containment,” George Kennan’s famous formula for
stopping the Soviet Union from expanding its empire.
Eisenhower’s overwrought and ultimately disproved
version had dominoes falling from Laos and Cambodia,
on to Thailand and Burma, all the way to India.
In Iraq, the grand strategy is global hegemony. It is
the neo-conservatives’ vision of the
once-in-a-millennium chance to dominate the world.
With the Cold War ended and no plausible military
challenger in sight, such a chance must not be let to
pass, certainly not for want of sufficient “manhood”.
Iraq is simply the first tactical step in this vision,
the basis for controlling the world’s oil and,
thereby, the US’s strategic competitors. This is the
reason the Pentagon plans to leave 14 military bases
in the country indefinitely—to project military power throughout the Persian Gulf, site of 55% of the
Finally, it is the ideological context that perhaps
most eerily presages (and dooms) the U.S. role in
Iraq—just as it did in Vietnam. The Vietnam quagmire
was formed in the toxic aftermath of World War II.
When China fell to the communists in 1949, Republicans
mounted an ideological dragnet to purge the government
of those who had “lost China.” This morphed into Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts of the 1950s that targeted supposed “communist sympathizers” throughout the country.
It was close personal knowledge of these
ideologically-driven purges that drove Eisenhower,
Kennedy, Johnson and even Nixon to aver that they
would never allow the U.S. to fail in Vietnam for fear
of being portrayed as “soft on communism.” Despite
the fact that all of these presidents were warned—repeatedly—that Vietnam was unwinnable, all “soldiered on”, dooming ever more soldiers and civilians to death and destruction.
For years, the public rationale for U.S. involvement
in Vietnam had been to keep Vietnam out of the hands
of communists. But in March 1965, before the massive
escalation that would make the war irreversible,
Pentagon briefers told President Johnson that the true
U.S. goals in Vietnam were, “70% to avoid a
humiliating U.S. defeat; 20% to keep South Vietnam
(and adjacent territories) from Chinese hands; 10% to
permit the people of Vietnam a better, freer way of
life.” This is the smoking gun of the ideological
aversion to withdrawal.
And so, because of the strategic imperatives of
containment and the ideological pressures of
McCarthyism, the U.S. couldn’t stay out of Vietnam.
But because of the colonialist taint, the nature of
guerilla war, the ludicrous fiction of “democracy”,
and the foundation of lies that undergirded the entire
venture, it could never win either. This was the
essential, inescapable, tragic dilemma for America in
Vietnam: it could not manage to stay out; but it
could never manage to win.
Much the same can already be said of Iraq. Bush’s
latest post-hoc rationale, that “we’re changing the
world,” betrays a near-messianic obsession to stay.
Such compulsion is impervious to mere logic or facts.
Steadily increasing violence and chaos are cheerily
parried with ideological divinations that these are
actually proof we are winning! In psychiatric wards,
this would be dismissed for what it actually is:
But as was the case with successive presidents in
Vietnam, the necessity “to avoid a humiliating U.S.
defeat” now drives Bush policy more than anything
else. And we should be clear: this goes far beyond
the need to simply maintain appearances until
November. If the U.S. is driven from Iraq, the
credibility of U.S. force and the potency of U.S.
power in the world will be irreparably damaged, far
more than it was by the loss in Vietnam. This is why
Iraq may actually become worse than Vietnam.
The reason is that military force has increasingly
become the principal tool of persuasion for the U.S.
in the world. Unlike the 1960s when its economy was
still the envy of the world and its ideals were still
the model for many nations, the U.S. economy is now a
wreck and U.S. ideals are in tatters.
The private U.S. economy is so uncompetitive it runs a
half trillion dollar a year trade deficit with the
rest of the world. And the U.S. lives so far beyond
its means it runs a half trillion dollar a year
federal budget deficit. It must go, hat in hand, to
the rest of the world to borrow these sums, well more
than two billion dollars a day. This is hardly a
model of economic vibrancy. And the U.S.’s civic
culture—what the neo-cons once lauded as “the soft
power of ideas”—is now feared and mocked by much of
the world, including former allies. And herein lies
What is the point of spending more on the military
than all of the rest of the world combined if it
cannot deliver when called upon? In Vietnam, General
Curtis LeMay answered this question with his famous
dictum: “We’ll bomb them back into the stone age.”
And Nixon tried, mightily. During one twelve-day
period in December 1972 (the “Christmas Bombings”),
the U.S. dropped more tons of bombs on North Vietnam
than it had dropped during the entire period from 1969
to 1971, the military height of the war. When the
only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to
look like a nail.
This is now the danger for both Iraq and the U.S.
Because of Bush’s strategic commitment to global
hegemony and his messianic ideological persuasions,
the U.S. cannot get out of Iraq; but because of the
realities of colonialism, guerilla war, phony
democracy, and the foundation of lies to justify it
all, it will not be able to win either. Does this
Worse, the forces for moderation in Vietnam (such as
they were) are nowhere in sight in Iraq. There is no independent media capable of calling out the emperor’s nakedness. There is no China next door to threaten another Asian land war should U.S. aggression become too heinous. There are no allies the U.S. needs to heed for its Cold War against the Soviet Union. In fact, without the Soviet Union, the U.S.’s former allies look more and more like its future competitors. Hence its public derision for their counsel of restraint.
Finally, if Iraq falls, Bush’s cabal of
neo-conservative policy makers, never so much
concerned with American interests as they are with
their own, will be decisively, publicly,
embarrassingly repudiated. All of this is a formula
for potential catastrophe.
The damage to U.S. prestige in the world for its
illegal invasion of Iraq is already done. The danger
now is that in his desperation to “avoid a humiliating
U.S. defeat,” the repudiation of his entire
presidency, and a generation-long disdain for U.S.
military power, Bush will resort to apocalyptic
barbarism. This is exactly what Nixon did trying to
salvage “peace with honor” in Vietnam. It is this
temptation that only the American public can force
Bush to resist.
Robert Freeman writes about economics, history, and
education. He can be reached at