As the violence in Iraq drones on, people around the world are reminded of a similar seemingly endless insurgence. Is the war in Iraq simply another Vietnam?
Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, comparisons have consistently been made with the Vietnam War. This was an analogy that had long been rejected in Washington. It was therefore remarkable to find President Bush using such references in his speech delivered to the annual convention for the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) group in August 2007. This sudden U-turn made by the American President left many questioning the credibility of Mr. Bush’s speech. By urging us to open our history books and remember the impact a US withdrawal had in Vietnam, he is asking us to consider the thought that a US withdrawal in Iraq now would have similar implications. However, Mr. Bush’s interpretation of history does not tell the full story.
The recent failures of the US military in Iraq have evoked painful memories of the Vietnam War in America: of a war in which the US army failed to achieve its objectives, leaving the pride of many Americans wounded and many in the country questioning the value of the war they were fighting. George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as part of his ‘War on Terror’ began to sound distinctly similar to the policy of former US President Harry Truman’s fight against communism, which was followed by subsequent US Presidents. One of the primary reasons for the invasion of Iraq was the claim coming out of Washington that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). When no evidence began to emerge to support this piece of US intelligence, Americans were reminded of the false intelligence used to justify an attack on North Vietnam. Faulty US intelligence was also used in the Vietnam War by US President Lyndon B. Johnson, who claimed two American Naval Vessels had been attacked by North Vietnam (The Gulf of Tokin incident). This provided the justification for Johnson to order air strikes against North Vietnam. To this very day, many Americans still doubt the attack on the American Naval Vessels and like the propaganda which surrounded the WMD’s in Iraq, feel both wars were founded on lies.
The wars in Iraq and Vietnam say more about US foreign policy than they do about the history of the two countries. Both nations have fought against foreign domination in the past: Iraq against the British and Vietnam’s struggle against the French. However, the make-up of the two countries during their respective wars was entirely different. Vietnam was divided between the communist North and the non-communist South. In Iraq, on the other hand, you have a number of different ethnic and religious groups inclusive of Kurds, Shia and Sunni Muslims fighting for control of the country. However, both wars involved a US army with the finest modern weapons and professional military that it relied on to overcome its enemies. This involved the heavy bombing which took place in the Vietnam War and Iraq today; nevertheless, the US’s superior weaponry failed to overcome the resistance on the ground in both wars. As such, the US military struggled to contain the Guerrilla tactics used by the North Vietnamese and the same is true nowadays of insurgents in Iraq. During the Vietnam Warm over 5 million Vietnamese people lost their lives in the North and the South of the country, while there were up to 58,000 American deaths. Comparatively, in the first year of the Iraq War alone, it has been estimated that the number of dead Iraqis ranges any where from between 5,000 and 100,000 people. However, the accuracy of this figure is disputed in different circles as many Iraqis who were killed in the first year of occupation are thought not to have been counted. The number of dead in both wars has lead many to question the value of the wars the US is fighting.
Anti-war protests were carried out around the world in opposition to the War in Iraq. This too was a strong feature of the Vietnam War; demonstrations against the war took place throughout the US in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Many Americans who opposed the Vietnam War criticized or ignored returning veterans. There is a strong desire from Americans to see their troops return from Iraq, sending the message they are supportive of their troops but oppose the war itself. Such opposition in both wars was intensified by the images of innocent civilian deaths broadcasted into the homes of millions of people worldwide. However, it is the pleas of the civilian population which are more telling. Today 6 in 10 Iraqis say their lives are going badly, whilst only one-third expect things to improve in the next year (BBC and USA Today Poll 2007). Furthermore, according to Brookings, the independent US research institute, 75% of recorded attacks are directed at occupation forces, and a further 17% at Iraqi government forces. This tells a similar story to Vietnam where much of the violence was directed at occupying forces. The ultimate goal of the North Vietnamese was a war of national liberation, to unify the country. They saw their struggle against the US as another attempt by a foreign power to rule Vietnam, which they fought against. This serves to support the argument that the presence of the US military in Iraq is adding fuel to the fire as opposed to putting the flames out.
As the cost of the war in Iraq (at $5.6bn (£3.1bn) a month) continues to escalate beyond that of even the Vietnam War ($5.1bn (£2.8bn) a month), Bush faces growing pressure from Congress to pull out of Iraq. He stubbornly believes, “we’ll succeed unless we quit,” eerily echoing the sentiments of Johnson and Nixon during the Vietnam War, as they too poured scorn on any anti-war feeling. However, Bush feels he will succeed where his predecessors failed in Vietnam, arguing that withdrawal in Vietnam caused the emigration of Vietnamese “boat people” refugees and the huge loss of life in Cambodia. Bush paints a similarly bleak picture for the future of Iraq, which would entail similar chaos and loss of innocent life, if US troops were to withdraw. Factually, President Bush’s claims about the Vietnam War are correct. However, he omitted to provide any answer as to how America would have succeeded in Vietnam and failed to acknowledge the fact that withdrawal in Vietnam was not immediate. The presence of a foreign power in Vietnam came to be seen as an extension of the struggle of occupation that was experienced against the French. As such, in Vietnam, traditional enemies in the country began to unite against the US military, which came to be seen as occupiers. The same can be said to be true of Iraq, where resistance is a response to the brutality of occupation in the form of arrests, humiliating searches, and torture. To this extent, Sunni insurgent groups have agreed to join forces in a concentrated effort to end occupation. A BBC poll casts doubt on Bush’s view that chaos would ensue once the US withdrew; in fact, 72% of Iraqis believe the presence of the US is making the security situation worse.
Bush’s resistance to withdrawing from Iraq concerns a fear for the damage it may cause to the international credibility of the US: a fear which plagued Johnson and Nixon, causing them to procrastinate on pulling out of Vietnam, rather than accepting they were fighting a battle they could not win. Today, Vietnam is a unified country that does not present a threat to the US. The Bush Administration may do well to learn from the Vietnam War, rather than using it as a justification for prolonging the war in Iraq.
1st December 2007