Jonah Goldberg

The year is 2456. The human colonies on Mars have been invaded by giant, laser-visioned tree sloths bent on crushing humanity and forcing the survivors to work as slaves in the massive dung mines of the planet Slothnor. In a last ditch effort to save our species from extinction, the brave humans launch a counterattack on the Sloths' home world. Le New York Times (headquartered in Paris since 2018) blares in a bold holo-headline "Disturbing Echoes of Vietnam Conjured by Earth Aggression."

OK, I'm kidding. It would probably take a few weeks before the Times actually invoked Vietnam. Perhaps they'd wait until we got bogged down in the actual marshes of Slothnor to start bleating about "quagmire." Who knows?

All I can say for certain is that I am no longer capable of being shocked by the left's and the mainstream media's capacity to shove pegs of any shape into the round hole of Vietnam. A recent New York Times headline blared, "Flashback to the '60s: A Sinking Sensation of Parallels Between Iraq and Vietnam." A cursory search of the Nexis-Lexis database shows that the words Iraq and Vietnam have appeared together nearly 800 articles in the last year - and that's just in The New York Times. The Washington Post: 764. The LA Times: 683. The Chicago Tribune: 526. Time magazine, a weekly publication, ran more articles mentioning Vietnam and Iraq (70) than it put out issues in the last year, and that doesn't even include letters to the editor.

Now, granted, some - even many - of those articles didn't rehearse the media's usual mode of Vietnam fixation. Some were merely about the campaign of John Kerry, who boasted incessantly that his service in Vietnam made him more qualified to be commander in chief.

Even so, Kerry's Vietnam fixation shares this in common with the media's Vietnam obsession: They have more to do with liberal baby boomer myopia than with a war that ended thirty years ago (and that bears almost no resemblance to the conflict in Iraq).

Indeed, you can tell this fixation has little to do with Iraq because the war in Afghanistan prompted hundreds of comparisons to Vietnam as well. Between October 1, 2001, and October 1, 2002, the Times ran nearly 300 articles with the words Vietnam and Afghanistan in them. On day 24 of the Afghan campaign, Times' muckety-muck R.W. Apple revived the Q-word - which to liberals can only mean Vietnam - in a thumb-sucker titled "A Military Quagmire Remembered: Afghanistan as Vietnam."

"Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past, the ominous word 'quagmire' has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy, both here and abroad. Could Afghanistan become another Vietnam?" Apple pondered. "Echoes of Vietnam are unavoidable."

Perhaps, but those echoes were silenced when the war ended five days later.

It's tempting to compare this pseudo-analysis to the storied generals who are always "fighting the last war." At least the generals update their database to the last war. Since Vietnam, America has dispatched troops to Grenada, El Salvador, Lebanon, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. And, each time, liberals have considered it the height of insight and sophistication to worry that "this might be another Vietnam."

Such worries might have made sense when the Soviet Union was still around. But - and this is important news for many liberals - there is no Soviet Union anymore searching for proxy wars. There is no superpower funneling tons of military equipment to the "insurgents" in Iraq.

Nor is the "insurgency" another Vietcong. True, the Islamists we're fighting have an ideology, but the Saddam loyalists do not. We aren't fighting international communism; we're fighting thugs who are peeved their racket was taken away. The insurgents don't have a territory to defend anything like North Vietnam. They don't have a regular army either. They don't have jungles to hide in.

We're different, too. While our armed forces in Vietnam were better than many suggest, today's army is vastly more lethal when it needs to be and humane when it wants to be. It's all volunteer. It's equipped with technology that is orders of magnitude more sophisticated.

The list of differences goes on and on. See Christopher Hitchens' essay in Slate magazine, "Beating a Dead Parrot," for examples from a leftist who loathed the Vietnam war but supports this one. But as a conservative too young to have significant memories of the period, it seems to me the Vietnam analogy could just as easily work against liberals. Perhaps our experience in Southeast Asia shows the terrible consequences of abandoning our allies to the ravages of totalitarianism?

If Vietnam is the only looking glass, let's at least look through both ends.

The obvious reality, however, is that Iraq isn't "better" or "worse" than Vietnam. It's just different. That the media and liberals are so desperate for it to be the same tells us vastly more about them than it does about Vietnam or Iraq or, one day, the planet Slothnor.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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