THE GLIB comparison one reads and hears everywhere these days is between the mess in Iraq today and America's disastrous war in Vietnam. There are so many reasons why the two conflicts are not equational, yet the trauma of that long-ago conflict still haunts the American psyche. George Bush senior declared the Vietnam syndrome dead after the first Iraq war more than a decade ago, and according to Bob Woodward, Donald Rumsfeld got a laugh after the fall of Kabul by mocking the Cassandras: " 'All together now -- quagmire!' "
What constitutes a quagmire? In Vietnam it meant marching in full of confidence and military superiority but after considerable loss of life and treasure finding that we could not achieve the political outcome we wanted. We won every battle but lost the war.
It is way too early to say this will happen again either in Iraq or Afghanistan, and it would not be entirely accurate to say that the current uprising in Iraq is this war's Tet offensive. But a newspaper photograph of US Marines in the shattered city of Fallujah recently brought back a vivid memory of being with that same battalion, moving through the smoke and ruin of Hue in central Vietnam -- bodies in the streets, bullet-pocked walls, and the broken crockery and gutted houses of urban warfare at its worst.
Few of the Marines in Fallujah today were even born when Marines fought for the city of Hue, but the civilians who sent them into Iraq were in many ways Washington's "Best and the Brightest," as author David Halberstam called those architects of Lyndon Johnson's war. Men such as Donald Rumsfeld; his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz; and Douglas Feith are said to be brilliant, decisive, action-oriented men, confident of America's power and longing to project it.
America got into Vietnam slowly, Iraq in a rush, but the assumption in both cases was that democracy could be brought forth in foreign soil that had had little acquaintance with democracy's concepts. Opposing communism, like fighting terrorism today, was the right thing to do, but Vietnam proved to be the wrong battlefield, and Al Qaeda was not in Iraq when the Americans invaded.
Robert McNamara, also brilliant and decisive, later confessed to hubris and arrogance. He said that he had never really understood the culture of Vietnam or its people. There were, of course, many who tried to tell him, but he was not interested in hearing it, any more than our leaders in the Pentagon today wanted to hear about the realities of Iraq. Rumsfeld entered the Pentagon determined to challenge all the previous assumptions, but in Iraq almost all his own assumptions have been wrong.
As Lyndon Johnson got Congress to commit major ground troops to Vietnam by falsifying the Tonkin Gulf incident, so did George Bush's brightest and best persuade Americans that there were weapons in Iraq that did not exist. Yes, there was an intelligence failure, but most intelligence failures turn out to be policy failures.
In Vietnam, American firepower was a thousand times that of our enemies, but too often it was used indiscriminately, too heavy-handedly, and our British allies often say this is a problem for American forces today.
But perhaps our greatest problem in Vietnam was that America was always viewed as a foreign power trying to take control, unable to get on the right side of nationalism. And the Vietnamese leaders we picked to lead the nation could never appear as anything other than self-serving American puppets. Real power was always perceived to reside in the American Embassy and in American military headquarters, no matter that the South Vietnamese had political sovereignty and elections.
There were many Vietnamese who wanted what the United States wanted, supported our efforts, and hoped desperately for America to succeed. But it was never enough.
Historical parallels are never truly exact, and it would be overly pessimistic to say that the failure of 30 years ago need repeat itself. It should be easier in Iraq, as there is no safe sanctuary for enemies across the border. But little that has happened in the year since President Bush announced the end of major combat operations gives cause for optimism.
I have another memory that haunts me more than any comparison with Vietnam. Sitting on a hillside with an Israeli artillery company 22 years ago, I watched the shelling of Beirut. Smoke and dust rose from the city as if it were a rug being beaten. The soldiers spoke of how the Shia of Lebanon had welcomed them when they invaded. Israel had great hopes of transforming Lebanon into an ally, and Israel's army could not be defeated in open battle. But 18 years later the Israelis left Lebanon, harassed to the last by those same Shia whom the Israelis had thought they had liberated.
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