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'To what extent is the US experience in Iraq comparable to their experience in Vietnam?'

Surely the most delicious irony of the long-running mess in Iraq is that one of its principal architects was also one of the first to call it a ‘quagmire’—generally accepted code for declaring that it is a debacle on the scale of the Vietnam war. In 1994, Dick Cheney argued that the G.H.W. Bush administration (in which he served as defence secretary) was correct not to pursue Saddam Hussein to Baghdad.  ‘[I]it’s a quagmire, if you do that’, Cheney said, and in quick strokes laid out many of the problems that actually did follow upon the 2003 invasion.[1]

            By the time of that invasion, Cheney was vice-president to George W. Bush, and the defence secretary was Donald Rumsfeld, who came into office determined to ‘transform’ the US military and assert civilian control over the generals. ‘Rumsfeld’s meddling approach’, argues Michael Desch, ‘contributed in significant measure to the [subsequent] problems in Iraq and elsewhere.’ The micromanagement extended even to ‘the number of troops required and the phasing of their deployments.’[2]—words strikingly reminiscent of the Kennedy-Johnson defence secretary from 1961 to 1968. Robert McNamara similarly micromanaged the military, even to the extent of decreeing that the army and navy adopt the same nomenclature for their aircraft. (Supposedly he couldn’t fathom the traditional designations.) A US Army study termed his years ‘The McNamara Revolution’, as if prefiguring Don Rumsfeld’s 21st century Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). Wrote the army historian: ‘What was unique was the rapidity with which [McNamara] absorbed information and made decisions’[3]—words that could have been applied equally to Rumsfeld.

            It was much the same with the decision to go to war. Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) and George W. Bush (GWB) both brought personal baggage to the Oval Office: LBJ’s freedom of action was limited by the national adulation for the martyred President Kennedy, who had invested 16,000 US advisors and 200 combat deaths in the survival of the Saigon regime; GWB had the memory of his father’s failure to chase Saddam Hussein to Baghdad, only to become the target of an evident Saddam assassination attempt. And both presidents favoured a management model of leading from the top, emphasizing ‘inspiration and guidance from above and loyalty and compliance from below’.[4]

            The Nixon administration changed course in Vietnam by building up the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and reducing the American role. ‘Vietnamization’ led in four years to the withdrawal of US combat troops—and in six years to a North Vietnamese invasion across the 17th Parallel. Today, the Bush administration is equally determined to build up the Iraqi army and police in hopes of extricating American forces, and his successor is likely to continue or speed that withdrawal. Even the rhetoric is the same. Nixon: ‘as the South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater’. Bush: ‘as the Iraqi security forces stand up, coalition forces can stand down’.[5]

            In the case of Vietnam, the result was disaster for the Saigon regime, humiliation for the US, and a sharp curtailment of president powers. In the words of William Howell and Jon Pevehouse:

As the Vietnam War dragged on and casualties mounted, Congress and the public grew increasingly wary of the conflict and of the power delegated to the president in the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution. In 1970 … Congress formally repealed that resolution. And over the next several years, legislators enacted a series of appropriations bills intended to restrict the war's scope and duration. Then, in June 1973, after the Paris peace accords had been signed, Congress enacted a supplemental appropriations act that cut off all funding for additional military involvement in Southeast Asia…. Finally, when South Vietnam fell in 1975, Congress took the extraordinary step of formally forbidding U.S. troops from enforcing the Paris peace accords, despite the opposition of President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.[6]

            A similar path is being followed by many Congressional Democrats today, including the party’s contending candidates for president. As the conservative editorial writer Daniel Henninger observes of the recent Iraqi government setbacks, ‘It was hard not to miss the antiwar spin coming off reports of the fighting’, in the evident hope that Basra might prove to be the Tet Offensive of the Iraq war. ‘An historic line … runs from South Vietnam to Baghdad.’[7] Marilyn Young, in her extended screech against the war, would agree:

Vietnam haunts the war in Iraq … because it has begun to smell like defeat but more significantly … because the task the US has taken upon itself is similar: to bend a country about which it knows little, whose language and history are unknown to its soldiers, to its will.[8]

            This would seem to complete the analogy of Vietnam to Iraq, while begging the question of whether within a few years helicopters will have to extricate the remaining US personnel from the roof of the embassy in Baghdad, as in the iconic footage of the fall of Saigon in April 1975. (Even serious historians present that evacuation as a military defeat, though the last American warfighter had left the country two years before: ‘the ignominious, catastrophic, confused retreat off the rooftops of US buildings in Saigon’ is how David Ryan remembers it.[9]) How much truth is there in this persistent analogy?

continued in part 2

[1] Cheney 1994. For ‘quagmire’ as code for Vietnam, see Desch 2007, Young 2007

[2] Desch 2007

[3] Hewes 1975, pp. 299, 304

[4] Dobbins 2006, speaking of the Bush administration. Perhaps indicative of his bias, Dobbins titled his article ‘Who Lost Iraq?’

[5] Biddle 2006

[6] Howell & Pevehouse 2007

[7] Henninger 2008

[8] Young 2007. She perhaps does not remember that the US undertook a similar task in December 1941

[9] Ryan 2007