A Primer in Quagmires:
The Iraq & Vietnam Debacles
By Bernard Weiner
Co-Editor, "The Crisis Papers."
January 11, 2005
When analysts refer to the quagmire in Iraq as analogous to Vietnam, we
assume that readers are well-acquainted 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 Southeast 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: Vietnam first.
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 their hold on "the colonies." National liberation
movements sprang up in Africa and Asia. Indians wanted independence,
Ghanians wanted to rule themselves, Vietnamese likewise, etc.
The colonial powers tried to hang on, but they no longer had the wherewithal
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
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. (Sound familiar?)
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 Chinese out.
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 language.
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
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 significant 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" t hem, 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
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 colossal 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 campaign attests.
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
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 again.
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
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 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"
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 operational.
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.
Incompetency 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 and
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-terrorism" 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 civil war.
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 says enough.
BEWARE OF WEAK FOUNDATIONS
There is talk of the U.S. "having to stay" in Iraq for from 4-to-10 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
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 its 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 pant-leg; 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
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 incompatible
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 offered (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
Let us not forget the lessons of Vietnam by 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 and war-criminals.
Copyright 2005, by Bernard Weiner