A Quagmire Primer: The Iraq and Vietnam
January 12, 2005
Bernard Weiner, The
When analysts refer to the quagmire in Iraq as analogous to Vietnam,
we assume that readers are well-acqainted with that earlier war.
The truth is that unless you're of a certain age, or are fairly
conversant with American history, you're liable to be mostly in
the dark as to the 'Nam references, and thus miss the lessons that
can be gleaned from that conflict.
So, it seems an appropriate time to look back at that south-east
Asia war; this history might be of especial interest to those parents
with youngsters who could wind up fighting in Iraq - or elsewhere
in the Middle East, given the imperial ambitions of Bush & Co.
In laying out the intersecting wars this way, I am not equating
Iraq and Vietnam; there are clear differences. But they are similar
enough - in how we got in, why we stayed so long, why we had to
get out, why both wars were so divisive politically - that it's
a story well worth retelling.
Obviously, I'll be talking in shorthand here, leaving out a lot
of detail, but the arc of the experience is what counts. Here goes:
POST-WAR POLITICAL TSUNAMIS
Major wars are like societal earthquakes; their impacts go much
wider - the social tsunamis, as it were, of major cataclysms - and
cause enormous dislocation and upheavals. The post-World War II
weakening of the European nations economically, socially and militarily
meant that the old colonial powers began to lose hold on their colonies.
National liberation movements sprang up in Africa and Asia. Indians
wanted independence, Ghanians wanted to rule themselves, Vietnamese
The colonial powers tried to hang on, but they no longer had the
wherewithall in terms of money, military power or united will to
totally dominate their former colonies. France, for example, clung
to its Southeast Asia empire, but the nationalists in Vietnam defeated
them badly again and again, and finally in the mid-1950s the French
pulled out, as they later had to do in North Africa.
In Vietnam, it looked as if the nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh
would take over the entire country. In another time perhaps, the
U.S. might have simply watched this happen; Ho, after all, admired
Jefferson and American revolutionary history. But the U.S. was locked
into a virulently anti-communist tunnel-vision.
Communism, from this viewpoint, was a monolithic beast that threatened
to overrun the world. The prevailing wisdom: Better to stop the
Commies in some out-of-the-way former colony like Vietnam than watch
them build momentum and eventually attack the United States mainland.
SLIP-SLIDING INTO THE FRENCH ROLE
There was precious little understanding of the dynamic power of
nationalism in many of these anti-colonialist movements. For example,
Americans were incapable of seeing Ho Chi Minh the way many Vietnamese
and other "third-world" countries saw him: as a patriotic hero fighting
to rid his society of Western colonialists, and trying to keep the
So, the wealthy, powerful U.S. found itself slipping seamlessly
into the old French role in Vietnam. Initially, the U.S. involvement
was carefully calibrated, just a few army "advisors" here, a few
planes there, training Vietnamese troops to assume a larger military
role, dealing diplomatically with a corrupt and brutal South Vietnamese
government, etc. But as the years wore on, the U.S. got more deeply
enmeshed in the Vietnam situation, all the while understanding little
of the complexities of that society, religion, politics, history,
and, perhaps equally as important, an ability to understand the
Five U.S. presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon)
secretly were told by their closest advisors and intelligence experts
that America would be unable to win in Vietnam - that the most it
could hope for was a stalemate - but those presidents, consumed
by hubris and blinded by their own anti-Communist mindset, thought
America's superpower status and technological superiority eventually
would prevail over the black-pajama-clad guerrillas.
Kennedy (and before him Truman and Eisenhower) had made sure to
keep U.S. involvement relatively low-key and at something of a distance.
But when JFK was assassinated in 1963, his successor, Johnson, used
an ambiguous "attack" on U.S. ships off the Vietnam coast as the
pretext for all-out war. He lied to the country about what had happened,
and a manipulated Congress passed blank-check resolutions that Johnson
used as a substitute for an actual Declaration of War.
Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were sent to Vietnam, and
then more hundreds of thousands, all with the continual promise
that they'd "be home by Christmas," that a sigificant military "corner"
had been turned, that the body count of the enemy indicated they
couldn't hold out much longer. Virtually none of that was true.
Years dragged by, with more than 50,000 U.S soldiers dead and an
estimated several million Vietnamese.
GUERRILLA INSURGENCIES BEDEVIL U.S.
The U.S. military had come to fight a conventional war only to
be faced with an insurgency that, out of necessity, fought a guerrilla
war. The American troops found they could not tell the enemy from
the civilians, since attacks could come from anywhere and anyone,
even women and children. Much of Vietnam became, in essence, a free-fire
zone - more than one million civilians died as "collateral damage"
in the mass bombings and napalming - and atrocities and massacres
were common. Villages were torched and destroyed in order to "save"
them, in the famous words of a U.S. major.
American military bases were not safe havens, since so many Vietnamese
were employed by the U.S. military to do support work, and passed
on intelligence to the Viet Cong guerrillas.
Meanwhile, back in the States, the U.S. populace was bitterly
divided as to the wisdom, efficacy and morality of the Vietnam War.
Parents ("babykillers!") and children ("unpatriotic!") often became
estranged from each other as the political struggle over the war
intensified. Though virtually all of the anti-war protesters were
non-violent, a few used rioting and occasional bombings of government
buildings to express their rage. Among the non-violent protesters
were Vietnam vets who returned angry, feeling used and abused, never
having understood why they'd been sent to fight an unwinnable, immoral
war there in the first place.
In short, a kind of political civil war was tearing apart the
American social fabric. Perhaps the most symbolic event of that
period was when the vets, shamed by what they'd had to do in Vietnam,
turned in or threw away their war medals before the very government
that had lied to and manipulated them so cynically. (John Kerry
was a leading representative of this veteran anger.)
Eventually, even large segments of the pro-government American
middle class came to understand that the war was much too costly
in terms of lives and treasure, and that it was besmirching America's
sense of itself as a moral country. The war was seen to be a collossal
mistake that needed to be ended.
Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, could have made peace with
the North Vietnamese in the late-'60s, but chose instead to enlarge
the war to other countries and try to bomb North Vietnam into submission.
It didn't work, and Nixon negotiated pretty much the same peace
treaty in the mid-'70s that he had proposed years before, at the
cost of thousands of U.S. and Vietnamese lives in the interim. The
war was over, but it never fully went away, as the 2004 presidential
FORGETTING THE LESSONS OF HISTORY
For a time after the Vietnam debacle, the country was war-shy.
Yes, the U.S. did invade some countries, but they were largely incapable
of putting up any significant military resistance - Grenada, Panama,
et al. Few U.S. generals wanted to get into a major war on the ground
for fear of getting bogged down, a la Vietnam, when the inevitable
Law of Unintended Consequences kicked in.
If the U.S. was going to launch a war on the ground, it had to
be swift, well thought-out, and with a definitive exit strategy
- the so-called (Colin) Powell Doctrine. That was pretty much the
operative philosophy of war for decades.
Bush#1 continued to utilize the Powell Doctrine in the first Gulf
War: the troops got in quickly and decisively, and got out when
the limited goal of the war had been accomplished: to eject the
Iraqi army from Kuwait and to make sure Saddam Hussein would be
contained military and economically from trying something like that
But, in the '90s interim between Bush#1 and Bush#2, a small group
on the far right fringe of the Republican Party - led by Dick Cheney,
Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others - organized and lobbied
intensely, now that the Soviet Union was gone, for using American
muscle aggressively since there was no countervailing superpower
to stop America from assuming hegemony around the globe. (See "How
We Got Into This Imperial Pickle: A PNAC Primer.")
These so-called "neo-conservatives" tried to convince President
Clinton to invade Iraq, as the required first step to control that
region's energy resources, and to alter the geopolitical map of
the Middle East to favor the U.S. and its proxy Israel. Clinton,
however, having watched the deadly rise of Muslim extremism, was
more interested in going after Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida, especially
since Iraq was thoroughly weakened and safely contained.
When Bush#2 was installed in the White House, this group of PNAC
ideologues moved into positions of great power within the Administration,
and provided not only the driving engine of U.S. foreign/military
policy but an off-the-shelf plan for how to move in the world. First
step: Invade Iraq, topple Saddam Hussein's cruel and dictatorial
government, and set up a local government more amenable to America's
economic and geopolitical interests.
MANUFACTURING THE "EVIDENCE"
As a result of 9/11, the U.S. was obliged to go after Osama bin
Laden and Al Qaida first, in Afghanistan, but it didn't take long
before the Bush Administration shifted its interest, and troops,
to Iraq. (We're still paying for that unwise decision to ignore
those who were an immediate threat to the U.S. in order to invade
a country that was no imminent threat to anyone.) Just a few hours
and days after 9/11, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz and their group
already were preparing the ground for "shock & awe" to be visited
upon Iraq. But they needed some ideological cover to convince the
Congress and American people to go along.
They figured, probably correctly, that if they revealed their
true motives, the country might be leery of going along with their
war. The Bush Administration's intelligence agencies were telling
them that there was no evidence that Iraq was linked in any way
to the events of 9/11, and no credible proof that Iraq had stockpiled
weapons of mass destruction to unleash on their neighbors or the
U.S. - so Bush & Co. devised a strategy to go around the experts.
Rumsfeld set up his own intelligence unit inside his Pentagon redoubt,
the Office of Special Plans, stocked it with political appointees
of the PNAC persuasion, and, surprise, got the "evidence" he wanted,
which the Bush Administration then used to fool the Congress, American
people and United Nations Security Council.
Worried that the U.N. and other international bodies might begin
asking embarrassing questions about this so-called proof - especially
since the U.N. weapons inspectors would be issuing their conclusions
shortly that Iraq possessed no stockpiles of WMD - Bush & Co. rushed
to war, even before their military plans and deployments were fully
OTHER CURIOUS PARALLELS WITH 'NAM
So, here we are, nearly into the third year of the U.S. occupation
of Iraq, mired deep in a struggle with mostly insurgent Iraqi forces.
The U.S. occupiers have little understanding of the history, politics,
religion, and do not speak the language.
They are convinced that their overwhelming firepower and technological
superiority will destroy a nationalist insurgency, a rebellion that
appears to be growing stronger each day. Formerly, the U.S. estimated
a few thousand insurgents, who could be wiped out fairly quickly.
Currently, the estimate is between 30,000 to 200,000.
Perhaps the most striking testament to how free the insurgents
feel these days: Recently, a group of them - significantly, not
wearing any masks - hauled three Iraqi election officials out of
their cars in broad daylight in downtown Baghdad and assassinated
them. The insurgents clearly were indicating by their brazen, undisguised
assault that they could swim like fishes in the sea of the people,
who either supported them or feared them enough to keep silent.
Incompentency dominated every major move of the U.S. occupation,
and continues to do so. They believed the self-serving falsehoods
of Iraqi exiles, misjudged the reception the Iraqi populace would
give them, did not supply enough troops to guard the huge ammo dumps,
provided the wrong vehicles, did not supply adequate body and vehicle
armor, ran out of food and replacement parts, passed on incorrect
intelligence, tortured, sexually assaulted and humiliated detainees
in their care, pretended not to see contractors' and governmental
corruption on a massive scale, did not provide infrastructure repair
in terms of water and electricity, destroyed cities and towns in
order to "save" them, etc. etc.
In short, the U.S. consistently was carrying out wrongheaded policies
that served only to alienate ordinary Iraqis, thus losing the all-important
"hearts and minds" battle. (According to recent Iraqi polls, most
see the U.S. as violent, bumbling occupiers and want the Americans
to leave their country.)
Many of America's military leaders and intelligence agencies have
been trying to tell the Administration that the U.S. cannot win
this war under its current policies, but Bush, in total denial of
reality, refuses to hear anything but good news about how swimmingly
things are going in Iraq. (Those who dissent too loudly are smeared
with the "soft-on-terrrorism" brush or, as in the Vietnam period,
called "unpatriotic," which attitude conflates support for the Administration
with support for the country.)
Bush & Co. believe that putting in more troops might do the job
(refusing to admit that there aren't the extra troops to spare),
or that the insurgent-riddled Iraqi police/guard forces will face
off bravely against their insurgent brethren, or that the upcoming
election in that country will turn the corner for the U.S., putting
an Iraqi face on the war, with America's man in control. They are
dreaming. The quicksand that is Iraq is likely to suck down the
U.S. even more, and split that society into civil and ethnic/religious
The true lesson is that the U.S. is fast running out of corners
to turn in Iraq, as was the case in Vietnam as well. Indeed, it's
more like a circular rathole, down which the U.S. pours its young
men and women and treasure until the citizenry finally rebels and
BEWARE OF WEAK FOUNDATIONS
There is talk of the U.S. having to stay in Iraq for from four
to ten more years until the situation is "stabilized" there. No
wonder desertions are way up, re-enlistments are way down, Army
and Reserve and National Guard recruiters are unable to meet their
quotas, and soldiers lucky enough to go home on leave to be with
their families are going to court or Canada or shooting themselves
in the leg in order to keep from being sent back to that senseless
When things got really bad in Vietnam, the U.S. unleashed its
Phoenix program - targeted assassinations of thousands of suspected
Viet Cong leaders. Now, Rumsfeld is considering a similar Vietnam/Salvadoran
option for Iraq, inserting death squads of assassins to try to decapitate
the leadership of the insurgency.
Has the Bush Administration learned nothing from capturing and
killing Al Qaida leaders? Terrorism, especially that fueled by religious
zealotry or nationalistic patriotism, is a multi-headed monster;
lop off one head, and two more grow to take its place.
Iraq is a catastrophe of immense proportions, largely because
the foundations upon which it rests - the lies that got the U.S.
in there, the ideological reasons for invading and occupying Iraq
that have little to do with Iraq - are incorrectly designed by a
neo-con Administration that seems incapable of facing up to the
facts on the ground. Bush & Co. are like bulldogs on a pantleg;
they will hang on, and attempt to get to their goal no matter what
reality is hitting the fan.
It took many years, and millions of dead, before the American
people finally realized the immensity of the U.S. error in Vietnam
- the dogmatic fantasies and wishful thinking that were getting
their husbands and sons and innocent Vietnamese slaughtered - and
forced the government to get out of that hellhole.
If Bush & Co. have their way, we're in for years and years and
hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded on both sides before the
U.S. populace accepts the inevitable conclusion: This was the wrong
war at the wrong place at the wrong time, fomented and led by incompetents
and ideologues with an agenda all their own, one that endangers
our national security and is incompatibile with the long-term interests
of the United States.
DECLARE A WIN AND EXIT GRACEFULLY
Even mainstream military and political thinkers are starting to
voice the obvious: the U.S. needs to get out of Iraq sooner rather
than later. One idea being floated is to declare "victory" after
the January 30 Iraqi elections, no matter what the result, and arrange
for a graceful American withdrawal. Bush could say that America
liberated Iraqi citizens from Saddam's brutal dictatorship, helped
them establish a democratic system of government, set up massive
reconstruction projects, and now it's time for U.S. troops to depart.
Similar declare-victory suggestions were offerred (and ignored)
years before the U.S. left Vietnam in embarrassing haste; such an
approach for Iraq makes eminent sense, which is why Bush & Co. will
reject it. They don't want to give up on their superpower fixation
of controlling that area of the world (and its plentiful gas and
oil), of changing the geopolitical map of the Middle East, of abandoning
the 14 major military bases they've established in Iraq, of putting
at risk the billions of dollars that their corporate supporters
like Bechtel and Halliburton are raking in, of being able to use
fear and rally-round-the-president-in-wartime slogans to aid in
getting their domestic agenda passed.
And so Bush & Co. probably will continue to force the square peg
into the round hole, the result of which is that we will have to
watch more and more coffins (and more and more maimed soldiers)
returning to these shores, and maybe another 100,000 Iraqi civilians
dying. Utterly sad and unnecessary - and criminally insane.
Robert McNamara, who presided over the Vietnam War for a long
time as Secretary of Defense, admitted later that he knew as early
as 1967 that the war was a lost cause, but he could not dissuade
the President from continuing to wage it. Seven more years of catastrophe
ensued. McNamara now repents his role in that slaughter, and urges
America's leaders not to repeat a similar history in Iraq.
In this Administration, one suspects that Colin Powell realizes
the truth, but that PNACer Donald Rumsfeld and PNACer Dick Cheney
join with Bush (who seems to know little but buzzwords) in denying
what is staring them in the face.
Let us not forget the lessons of Vietnam; compounding a monstrous
policy mistake by making even larger policy mistakes. Real peoples'
lives are involved here, our national interests are at issue, our
country's economy and social institutions are at risk.
Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld: Bring the troops home ASAP.
Or go down in history as reckless, greedy, power-hungry warmongers
Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations,
has taught at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with
the San Francisco Chronicle for 19 years, and currently co-edits