A Vision So Noble

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

[A "long essay" submitted toward my master's degree in War Studies at King's College London, in a "programme" intended for mid-career officers in the British Army, though about half the students came from civilian life or other militaries. -- Daniel Ford

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?

Incident at Muc Wa

The other side of the COIN

A major distinction between Vietnam and Iraq is how the conflicts evolved. In Vietnam in 1965, the US joined a counter-insurgency effort that ten years later failed when ARVN troops were routed by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in division-sized tank battles. Iraq, by contrast, began with an all-out assault by American and British forces—‘hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle’[10]—and only afterward slipped into a grinding counter-insurgency of the sort that frustrated the US and its allies in Vietnam. In this respect (crucial, it seems to me), the two wars are actually mirror opposites. Indeed, the analogy that Iraq calls to my mind isn’t Vietnam but Germany’s invasion of France in May 1940, an astonishingly successful blitzkrieg that the victor couldn’t sustain over the long run. The Americans, like the Germans 63 years earlier, had as their goal ‘winning big, winning quick, and without casualties’[11], and were even more successful in the third regard.

Equally important, there is no strict equivalent of North Vietnam’s support for the insurrection in the south. Iran may seem to fill this role, or perhaps Syria, and both countries are certainly using Iraq as a means of bleeding the United States. Indeed, Kimberly Kagan argues that the Iranian Qods Force has been training, advising, and sending military equipment to the Shia militias since August 2003, as part of ‘a full-up proxy war’ against the US.[12]

The easy term for the chaos in Iraq is civil war. James Fearon, for example, writes that ‘there is a civil war in progress in Iraq, one comparable … to other civil wars … in post-colonial states with weak political institutions’.[13] That’s certainly a fair description of Vietnam in the 1960s, but does it apply to Iraq? Stephen Biddle points to a significant difference: ‘The current struggle is not a Maoist “people’s war” of national liberation; it is a communal civil war’.[14] Instead of insurgents and a government competing for the loyalty of a uncommitted pool of citizens, as was the case in Vietnam, most Iraqis already belong to one side or another. Most importantly, Sunni Muslims are struggling to maintain their position vis-à-vis the numerically stronger Shias, while Kurds hope to maintain a de facto independence in the north. The Sunnis (the originally basis of the Iraq insurgency) have little in common with the Shia Muslims of Iran. Indeed, to the extent that Iran supports militias in Iraq, it bleeds the Sunni insurgency as much as it does the Americans. Consequently the two wars have developed very differently, as Jeffrey Record and Andrew Terrill point out:

In Vietnam, the Communists waged a classic, peasant-based, centrally directed, three-stage, Maoist model insurgency, culminating in a conventional military victory. The Communists also had a clear and well-publicized political, economic, and social agenda. In Iraq, small, scattered, and disparate groups wage a much smaller-scale war of ambushes, assassinations, car bombings, and sabotage against U.S. and other coalition forces and reconstruction targets, including Iraqis collaborating with coalition forces. Nor do the insurgents have an explicit set of war aims.[15]

Stephen Biddle goes on to argue that, while Vietnamization was a sensible approach in 1969, it fails today because the insurgent Sunnis don’t regard the Americans as their primary oppressors; rather, they see their Shia countrymen in that light. Building up the Iraq army and police is therefore counterproductive because it can be done in only two ways: either Sunnis and Shias are integrated at the company level, thus importing mutual hostility, suspicion, and perhaps actual insurgents into the combined units; or alternatively they are segregated, thus institutionalising their antagonism. In Biddle’s view, the better policy is to keep the Iraqi forces weak and let the Americans do the policing: ‘as long as U.S. forces patrol Iraq, the country will not break up and the conflict will not descend into all-out chaos’.[16]

The US suffered 176,000 deaths in Vietnam; in Iraq, it has lost 4,000 in five years. A back-of the-envelope calculation suggests that it could sustain the effort for more than two centuries before experiencing unrest like that of 1968, when protestors battled police outside Chicago’s Democratic National Convention. Or even longer: Nixon essentially defused the antiwar movement when he abolished conscription. Today the US is entirely dependent upon volunteer warfighters, suggesting that voters ought to view the comparatively modest blood tariff of Iraq with sang froid. Yet the opposite seems to be true: Americans have a much more tender regard for their warfighters today than they did a generation ago, when the ‘grunts’ were regarded with contempt, and ‘criticism of the U.S. military’s performance was often leveled at … the conscript rifleman whose disaffection, alcohol consumption, and drug usage increased as the war dragged on’.[17] Today, by contrast, even the most passionate antiwar bumper sticker takes pains to salute the enlisted rifleman:


In 1970, troops returning from Vietnam were ordered to wear civilian clothes downtown, so as not to provoke anti-war protestors. Last winter [2012], in Denver airport, I heard scattered applause when cammie-clad soldiers passed through the terminal, returning from Iraq or en route to it. What’s that all about?

When I began this programme at King’s College, I happened to be reading Victor Davis Hanson’s history of the Peloponnesian wars, and I was struck by the similarities between the Athenian hoplites and the soldiers and marines who made the March Up to Baghdad, 2500 years later: few in number, heavily armoured, and highly valued by the society they represented. The death of a thousand was a blow from which the army—indeed the entire community—took a generation to recover.[18]

bien-pensant of 1998-99 expect to defeat Milosevic without sustaining friendly casualties, but they also—and this was the surreal part—hoped to do so without inflicting casualties on the other side, and especially on the civilian population. The expectation, Brown wrote, ‘is that it is possible to fight a war without accidents, errors or misjudgments and while preserving at all times the reality of non-combatant immunity.’[19] This mindset has carried over to Iraq. The astonishing consequence is that an insurgent is able to strike a blow against the United States by detonating herself in a marketplace populated only by her countrymen. That is, not only do we lose when an American dies; we also lose when a dozen Iraqis die.

The Only War We've Got

What does Saigon portend for Baghdad?

In Vietnam, as Max Boot has written, the US fought a small war with big-war methods: 'Find the enemy, fix him in place and annihilate him with withering fire power’. Boot went on to suggest that a small-war approach, employing volunteers instead of conscripts, ‘might have retained popular support for a longer, low-intensity conflict…. Even if America had still lost the war, the defeat would have been considerably less costly and less painful’.[20] His prescription is essentially the one being followed by the US in Iraq; and the war, while unpopular, has thus far evoked much less in the way of opposition. The combat will certainly go on for another year or so—Bush in 2008 is stuck by the tar baby, just as LBJ was stuck in 1968. Whether it grinds on through another presidential term is less certain (perhaps so, if the next president is John McCain; probably not, if he is Barack Obama, who vows to bring the combat troops home within 16 months—i.e., by June 2010). And what it portends for the stability of the Middle East is most uncertain of all. [21] 

Though most East Asian dominoes didn’t fall, as US presidents from Eisenhower onward had predicted they would—and whether or not America’s commitment to South Vietnam deserves the credit—still, the consequences of the American pullout were much more dire outside the region. The four years following the collapse of the Saigon regime brought a proliferation of Leninist states unequalled since the years immediately following Germany’s surrender in May 1945: South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos went communist in 1975, Angola in 1976, Mozambique and Ethiopia in 1977, South Yemen and Afghanistan in 1978, and Grenada and Nicaragua in 1979. The ‘correlation of forces’, the Soviets concluded,  ‘had magically and decisively shifted in their direction’, though that very success would eventually contribute to the collapse of the Soviet empire and the USSR itself.[22]

It does seem, therefore, that what we get out of the Vietnam-Iraq analogy depends in large part on what we take into it. I’ve had occasion in this essay to quote both academics and op-ed writers, and more than once I have been struck by the fact that the editorialists seemed less shrill in their analysis than the professors—for example, the journalist Daniel Henninger as compared to the historian Marilyn Young.[23] So much of what passes for academic analysis, in the pages of Foreign Affairs and in those astonishingly expensive compilations from Routledge, reduces itself in the end to impassioned political advocacy.

What is certain, it seems to me, is that the US Army will be altered for a generation by the war in Iraq. The army (more so than the marines) was broken by its debacle in Vietnam, and rebuilt itself over the course of twenty years into the superlative force that smashed the Iraqi army in a few weeks in 1991 and again in 2003. ‘Broken’ is a word often used today to describe the overstretched US military. Unlike in Vietnam, however, the US Army in Iraq (again, more so than the marines, who have traditionally been adept in fighting small wars) has rebuilt itself in the actual course of the conflict, as it often did in the past.[24] Counter-insurgency is the COIN of the realm in today’s army, enshrined in its new field manual (FM 3-24, which also succeeds the Marines’ hoary Small Wars Manual). Because of the way the Iraq war developed—from conventional battle to asymmetric warfare—the military has been granted the opportunity to evolve its responses in a way it failed to do in Vietnam.

In May 1964, I found myself in the makeshift officers’ club in Can Tho, South Vietnam, drinking with an American adviser to the Vietnamese militia. ‘It’s a lousy war’, the captain confided with a wink, ‘but it’s the only war we’ve got’, meaning that he meant to exploit it by earning a Combat Infantryman’s Badge and otherwise getting the credentials he needed for promotion to major, colonel, and perhaps brigadier general. That steamy evening, drinking tall, sweaty glasses of vodka-tonic under a lamp powered by a generator out there in the darkness, came flooding back to me when I read Sir Michael Howard in the journal Survival. ‘The military may protest’, he wrote of the gritty deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, ‘that this is not the kind of war that they joined up to fight’, but ‘this is the only war we are likely to get’.[25] Just so! Iraq, like Vietnam forty-four years ago, is the only war we’ve got, and perhaps this time we’ll get it right.

Flying Tigers

[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

[10] Atkinson 1996, speaking of the 1991 Gulf War

[11] Lock-Pullan 2007, quoting Richard Helms on the 1991 Gulf War

[12] Kagan 2008

[13] Fearon 2007

[14] Biddle 2006; my emphasis

[15] Record & Terrill 2004

[16] Biddle 2006

[17] Dobbins 2007

[18] Hanson 2005, p. 146 e.g. Over the long course of the war, Athens lost about 200 hoplites a year

[19] Brown 1999

[20] Boot 2002, pp. 283, 316-17

[21] Lee 2006

[22] Mueller 2006

[23] Henninger 2008, Young 2007

[24] Boot 2002, pp. 341-42

[25] Howard 2006; my emphasis


Atkinson, Rick (1996), ‘The Gulf War: an Oral History’ [online].

Biddle, Stephen (2006), ‘Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 2

Boot, Max (2002), The Savage Wars of Peace (New York: Basic Books)

Brown, Chris (1999), ‘History ends, worlds collide,’ in Michael Cox et al, ed., The Interregnum: Controversies in World Politics 1989-1999 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Cheney, Richard (1994), C-SPAN interview 15.4.94 [online]. [accessed 13.3.08]

Desch, Michael (2007), ‘Bush and the Generals’,  Foreign Affairs, Vol. 86, No. 3

Dobbins, James (2007), ‘Who Lost Iraq?: Lessons from the debacle’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 86, No. 5, p. 61+

Dumbrell, John, and David Ryan (2007), Vietnam in Iraq: Tactics, lessons, legacies and ghosts (London: Routledge)

Fearon, James (2007), ‘Iraq’s Civil War’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 86, No. 2

Hanson, Victor (2005), A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War (New York: Random House)

Henninger, Daniel (2008), ‘Hearts and Minds, Again’, Wall Street Journal, 3.4.2008

Hewes, James (1975), From Root to McNamara: Army Organization and Administration (Washington DC: US Army Center of Military History) 

Howard, Sir Michael (2006), ‘A Long War?’, Survival, Vol 48, No 4

Howell, William, & Jon Pevehouse (2007), ‘When Congress Stops Wars: Partisan Politics and Presidential Power’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 86, No. 5

Kagan, Kimberly (2008), ‘The Second Iran-Iraq War’, Wall Street Journal, 3.4.2008

Lee Kuan Yew (2007), ‘The United States, Iraq, and the War on Terror’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 86, No. 1

Lock-Pullan, Richard (2007), ‘Iraq and Vietnam: Military lessons and legacies’, in Dumbrell & Ryan above

Mueller, John (2006), ‘Vietnam and Iraq: Strategy, exit and Syndrome’, in Drumbrell & Ryan above

Record, Jeffrey, and Andrew Terrill (2004), ‘Iraq And Vietnam: Differences, similarities, and insights’ [online].

Ryan, David (2007), ‘“Vietnam”, Victory Culture and Iraq: Struggling with lessons, constraints and credibility from Saigon to Falluja’, in Dumbrell & Ryan above

Young, Marilyn (2007), ‘The Vietnam Laugh Track’, in Dumbrell & Ryan above

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Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

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