Iraq and Vietnam: Nine Big Differences - And One Crucial Similarity

Posted: Aug 22, 2005 12:00 AM

At the end of August the American Left wallowed joyously in 1960's nostalgia, taking comfort and joy in the alleged parallel between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Grey-haired folksinger Joan Baez, startling millions with the revelation that she is still alive, found her way to Crawford, Texas, where she delivered an impromptu protest concert (including the insufferable "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?") for several hundred supporters. At the same time, Senator (and Vietnam vet) Chuck Hagel curried favor with the mainstream media (cementing his claim to the coveted epithet "maverick") with his appearance on ABC TV's "This Week," in which he shamelessly pushed the Vietnam-Iraq analogy.

With all the misguided attempts to compare our current struggle in Iraq with America's most disastrous prior war, it's crucial for informed citizens to understand the profound contrasts and distinctions between Vietnam and Iraq - and to simultaneously come to terms with the one great and essential similarity.

Herewith, a quick list of the nine essential differences between the two wars - along with the single crucial resemblance.

- In Vietnam, we faced more than a rag-tag guerilla band: we confronted one of the world's most formidable military machines in the nation of North Vietnam, with more than a million men under arms. What's more, these troops and their officers had been hardened by some thirty years of fighting-first against the Japanese, then against the French, and finally against the South Vietnamese and the Americans. Ho Che Minh, dictator of North Vietnam, provided a potent symbol with a clearly articulated Communist agenda. In Iraq, on the other hand, we fight no nation, no organized army, no visible or unifying leader, but a collection of shadowy terrorist bands. These gangs occupy no territory, have announced no coherent program for the future, and command no economic or territorial base to replenish their cadres. They can certainly do damage to Americans and to the troops of democratic Iraq, but they can in no sense suggest a credible alternative-hence their very limited popular support.

2.THE ENEMY'S ALLIES - During the Vietnam struggle, the North Vietnamese and their guerilla allies in the south, the Viet Cong, received virtually unlimited support from two of the three most powerful nations on earth: the Soviet Union and Communist China. The two Communist superpowers disagreed on many issues, but they united in support of their Vietnamese colleagues - providing anti-aircraft surface-to-air (SAM) missile batteries, MIG jet fighters, artillery, ordnance, military vehicles, small arms, cash, food, encouragement and diplomatic support. The Iraqi insurgents, on the other hand, receive support from no government on earth. It's true that radical segments of Arab public opinion may wish for the insurgents to bloody the U.S., but none of the Islamic governments have in any way backed the insurgency; even Syria, which definitely could do more to stop the flow of men and weapons across its border, delivers ritualistic and official condemnation of the bloody, murderous terrorists (many of them non-Iraqis) who slaughter women and children, along with American fighting men.

3.OUR ARMY - Easily the most controversial aspect of the Vietnam war - and the main spur to the anti-war movement - involved the draft of literally millions of young Americans during the '60's and '70's. While a small majority of those who actually fought "in country" in Indochina turned out to be volunteers, the involuntary nature of the draft gave rise to the "Hell No, We Won't Go Slogan," to burned draft cards, flights to Canada, and numberless fantasies of martyrdom. In our current struggle, our highly-professional and expertly trained military includes no draftees whatever. Everyone fighting in Iraq - including National Guardsmen and reservists- at one time or another enlisted voluntarily in the military. Cindy Sheehan notwithstanding, all those who sign up for the U.S. military are clever enough to understand the very real possibility that at one point you might be required to use your expensive training in actual combat.

4.CASUALTY RATES - The human cost of the war in Iraq is genuinely horrifying, with more than 1,800 of our finest young people making the ultimate sacrifice. This carnage can hardly compare, however, to Vietnam - in which 58,000 Americans gave their lives for their country. The Iraq War has been going on for two and a half years - with a killed-in-action rate of approximately 800 per year. In Vietnam, the years of principal American I involvement (1965-72) saw deaths that averaged nearly 8,000 per year - in other words, a casualty rate some 10 TIMES as high. In fact, the differential is even greater in terms of the impact on the nation: in 1970, the census showed the U.S. population at 203 million; today, it stands above 290 million. In terms of a percentage of our total population, the death rate in Vietnam exceeded the death rate in Iraq by a ratio of 14 to 1. Even if the U.S. continued to struggle in Iraq for four more years with the current rate of killing (a worst case scenario our policy makers will move heaven and earth to avoid), the deaths will total some 5,000-less than a single year of Vietnam, and less than 10% of the total losses in that war. To keep casualty figures in perspective, it's important to remember that the combined human cost of Afghanistan and Iraq, after nearly three years of overall struggle, still involves fewer deaths than on a single dark day of recent history: September 11, 2001.

5.THE MEDIA - On the surface, the mainstream media (TV networks, newsmagazines, prestige newspapers) seem to offer the same perspective on two very different wars: emphasizing bad news, and downplaying every sing of progress. The difference in media coverage remains profound, however, since the emergence of new media (talk radio, Fox News, the Internet and the blogosphere) have changed the media landscape completely. When Walter Cronkite of CBS announced his disillusionment with the war in a special broadcast in 1968, no prominent media voices rose to contradict him: the public had to choose between believing "Uncle Walter" (the Most Trusted Man in America, according to polls) or Lyndon Johnson. Today, we enjoy far more diverse sources of information, and persuasive (sometimes raucous) voices on the right arise immediately to contradict all the TV network distortions and to provide perspective and balance.

6.POLITICS - Despite recent polls suggesting an Iraq-related decline in the President's popularity, the balance of power in Washington bears no resemblance to the situation in the Vietnam era. In the '60's and '70?s, the Democrats remained the dominant party in the nation, enjoying uninterrupted control of both houses of Congress during both decades, despite two terms of the Nixon presidency. By 1970, that dominant party, the Democrats, had turned radically, overwhelmingly against the war, with "peace candidate" George McGovern nominated for president in 1972. Today, by contrast, the Republicans maintain control of both houses of Congress (and the majority of state governorships) and Republicans remain almost unanimously behind Bush. In the most recent Gallup poll, the President's "approval rating" among self-described Republicans reached a reassuring 88%. It's Democrats - not Republicans - who show their divisions, with the "Move On"-Michael Moore-Howard Dean wing of the party favoring immediate withdrawal, while the Joe Lieberman-Joe Biden-Hillary Clinton mainstream seems to understand the importance of finishing our work in Iraq. During Vietnam, a long series of majority Congressional votes (including the infamous McGovern-Hatfield Senate resolution cutting off our military) served to undermine the U.S. war effort. In Iraq, no comparable "surrender" resolution has drawn even 20% of either house of Congress.

7.SCANDAL - In the last analysis, it wasn't public opinion turning against the war that doomed our Vietnam policy: it was, rather, the self-destruction of the Nixon administration in the most devastating scandal in U.S. political history. After a triumphant re-election in 1972, both Vice President Agnew and President Nixon resigned their offices leaving a fatally weak chief executive (Gerald Ford) who had never even run for national office. In the Watergate-stained election of 1974, the Democrats added crushing weight to their already lop-sided majorities (gaining 49 seats in the House, 5 in the Senate) and preventing President Ford from re-supplying our South Vietnamese allies when the North broke its agreements under the Paris Accords and launched a massive invasion. Without the Watergate scandal, driving Nixon from office and temporarily emasculating the Republican Party, our government almost surely would have maintained the commitments made to resist Northern aggression. However seriously one takes the currently hysterical Democratic efforts to magnify the controversy surrounding the public identification of CIA desk-jockey Valerie Plame, no sane observer believes that the scandal will follow the Watergate example and lead to the resignation or impeachment of President Bush.

8.THE PAST - For millions of Vietnamese, the war against the United States represented the culmination of several centuries of struggle against colonialism and foreign domination, and followed by a mere twenty years their successful efforts to throw off the yoke of bumbling French imperialism. Iraq has experienced no comparable history of colonialism: for nearly 400 years (1533-1916) it functioned as part of the (Islamic) Ottoman Empire. The period of British "protectorate" lasted a mere sixteen years (from World War I occupation in 1916 to independence under Prime Minister Nuri-el Said in 1932), with only a brief English re-occupation (1941-45) during the height of World War II. Under thirty years of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, Iraq drew some support from the west but functioned for the most part as a military and economic client of the Soviet Union. Unlike Vietnam, where Communists could claim that they represented a nationalist reaction to French (and then American) colonialism, the population of Iraq maintains clear memories of the rabidly anti-American Hussein regime which brought about the nation's economic and cultural ruin.

9.THE STAKE - The best argument of the peace movement during the Vietnam war involved its insistence that even American defeat would bring little pain to most Americans. The anti-war forces argued (with considerable persuasiveness) that the Vietnamese only wanted to control Vietnam: they would never send their minions to invade California or Florida. America might lose prestige, might sacrifice credibility, to give up ground to the Soviets in the titanic and fateful Cold War struggle, but no one expected that our citizens here at home would sleep less soundly in their beds if the U.S. cleared out of Vietnam, on the other side of the world from our homeland. Today, however, we don't have to tax our imaginations to visualize Middle Eastern enemies invading our shores and massacring American civilians: we already experienced that nightmare on September 11, with Islamic fanatics killing more of us in that one day than the Iraqi insurgents have managed to kill in two and a half years. America's stake in defeating a ruthless enemy in Iraq isn't abstract or nebulous: it's real, immediate, urgent and palpable. Anti-war extremists may downplay the every day dangers of Islamic terrorism, but most Americans understand that it still represents a significant menace to both our lives and our way of life.

And this recognition brings me to the one great SIMILARITY in the two wars. In both conflicts, the American people understand the horrific dangers of unilateral, precipitous, unconditional withdrawal. By 1972, most voters had developed deep doubts about the struggle in Vietnam and yet when George McGovern gave them the chance to vote for immediate withdrawal (under the campaign slogan, "Come Home, America!"), a received an unprecedented shellacking. McGovern, the "Peace Candidate," lost 49 of 50 states, carrying only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, carrying a feeble 38% of the popular vote and trailing Richard Nixon by an astonishing 23%. The general public might not like the Vietnam war, with its truly appalling casualty figures, but they liked the option of ignominious surrender even less.

Today, a very similar mood prevails throughout most of the United States. Our citizens worry about the war, and long for our troops to come home, but only a very small percentage (about 20%, according to most polls) want us to run up the white flag, abandon our Iraqi allies, and strangle an infant democracy in its cradle. It took nearly ten bitter years (from the major U.S. escalation in the summer of '65 to the final North Vietnamese victory of April, 1975) of devastating sacrifice and nearly ceaseless protest before our exhausted nation felt ready to abandon the cause to which we had committed ourselves in Vietnam. With that time table in mind, even with the vastly lower casualty rates from Iraq, it would take us till 2013 before we betrayed our current efforts to establish democratic values in the heart of the Middle East. Long before that grim eventuality, we will see a constitutional republic (imperfect, like virtually all nation states) operating in place of the kleptocratic, genocidal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and contributing significantly to the safety and security of all Americans.