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HOME > WAR IN THE MODERN WORLD > IRAQ & VIETNAM

'the US experience in Iraq and Vietnam' - 2

The other side of the COIN

            A major distinction between Vietnam and Iraq is how the conflicts evolved. In Vietnam in 1965, the US joined a counter-insurgency effort that ten years later failed when ARVN troops were routed by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in division-sized tank battles. Iraq, by contrast, began with an all-out assault by American and British forces—‘hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle’[10]—and only afterward slipped into a grinding counter-insurgency of the sort that frustrated the US and its allies in Vietnam. In this respect (crucial, it seems to me), the two wars are actually mirror opposites. Indeed, the analogy that Iraq calls to my mind isn’t Vietnam but Germany’s invasion of France in May 1940, an astonishingly successful blitzkrieg that the victor couldn’t sustain over the long run. The Americans, like the Germans 63 years earlier, had as their goal ‘winning big, winning quick, and without casualties’[11], and were even more successful in the third regard.

            Equally important, there is no strict equivalent of North Vietnam’s support for the insurrection in the south. Iran may seem to fill this role, or perhaps Syria, and both countries are certainly using Iraq as a means of bleeding the United States. Indeed, Kimberly Kagan argues that the Iranian Qods Force has been training, advising, and sending military equipment to the Shia militias since August 2003, as part of ‘a full-up proxy war’ against the US.[12]

The easy term for the chaos in Iraq is civil war. James Fearon, for example, writes that ‘there is a civil war in progress in Iraq, one comparable … to other civil wars … in post-colonial states with weak political institutions’.[13] That’s certainly a fair description of Vietnam in the 1960s, but does it apply to Iraq? Stephen Biddle points to a significant difference: ‘The current struggle is not a Maoist “people’s war” of national liberation; it is a communal civil war’.[14] Instead of insurgents and a government competing for the loyalty of a uncommitted pool of citizens, as was the case in Vietnam, most Iraqis already belong to one side or another. Most importantly, Sunni Muslims are struggling to maintain their position vis-à-vis the numerically stronger Shias, while Kurds hope to maintain a de facto independence in the north. The Sunnis (the originally basis of the Iraq insurgency) have little in common with the Shia Muslims of Iran. Indeed, to the extent that Iran supports militias in Iraq, it bleeds the Sunni insurgency as much as it does the Americans. Consequently the two wars have developed very differently, as Jeffrey Record and Andrew Terrill point out:

In Vietnam, the Communists waged a classic, peasant-based, centrally directed, three-stage, Maoist model insurgency, culminating in a conventional military victory. The Communists also had a clear and well-publicized political, economic, and social agenda. In Iraq, small, scattered, and disparate groups wage a much smaller-scale war of ambushes, assassinations, car bombings, and sabotage against U.S. and other coalition forces and reconstruction targets, including Iraqis collaborating with coalition forces. Nor do the insurgents have an explicit set of war aims.[15]

Stephen Biddle goes on to argue that, while Vietnamization was a sensible approach in 1969, it fails today because the insurgent Sunnis don’t regard the Americans as their primary oppressors; rather, they see their Shia countrymen in that light. Building up the Iraq army and police is therefore counterproductive because it can be done in only two ways: either Sunnis and Shias are integrated at the company level, thus importing mutual hostility, suspicion, and perhaps actual insurgents into the combined units; or alternatively they are segregated, thus institutionalising their antagonism. In Biddle’s view, the better policy is to keep the Iraqi forces weak and let the Americans do the policing: ‘as long as U.S. forces patrol Iraq, the country will not break up and the conflict will not descend into all-out chaos’.[16]

Conscription and the blood tariff

            The US suffered 176,000 deaths in Vietnam; in Iraq, it has lost 4,000 in five years. A back-of the-envelope calculation suggests that it could sustain the effort for more than two centuries before experiencing unrest like that of 1968, when protestors battled police outside Chicago’s Democratic National Convention. Or even longer: Nixon essentially defused the antiwar movement when he abolished conscription. Today the US is entirely dependent upon volunteer warfighters, suggesting that voters ought to view the comparatively modest blood tariff of Iraq with sang froid. Yet the opposite seems to be true: Americans have a much more tender regard for their warfighters today than they did a generation ago, when the ‘grunts’ were regarded with contempt, and ‘criticism of the U.S. military’s performance was often leveled at … the conscript rifleman whose disaffection, alcohol consumption, and drug usage increased as the war dragged on’.[17] Today, by contrast, even the most passionate antiwar bumper sticker takes pains to salute the enlisted rifleman:

support the troops

end the war

In 1970, troops returning from Vietnam were ordered to wear civilian clothes downtown, so as not to provoke anti-war protestors. Last winter, in Denver airport, I heard scattered applause when cammie-clad soldiers passed through the terminal, returning from Iraq or en route to it. What’s that all about?

When I began this programme at King’s College, I happened to be reading Victor Davis Hanson’s history of the Peloponnesian wars, and I was struck by the similarities between the Athenian hoplites and the soldiers and marines who made the March Up to Baghdad, 2500 years later: few in number, heavily armoured, and highly valued by the society they represented. The death of a thousand was a blow from which the army—indeed the entire community—took a generation to recover.[18]

Reflecting upon NATO’s intervention in Yugoslavia, Chris Brown was struck by ‘the surreally inappropriate understanding of the nature of warfare … by most contemporary liberals.’ Not only did politicians, the media, and the bien-pensant of 1998-99 expect to defeat Milosevic without sustaining friendly casualties, but they also—and this was the surreal part—hoped to do so without inflicting casualties on the other side, and especially on the civilian population. The expectation, Brown wrote, ‘is that it is possible to fight a war without accidents, errors or misjudgments and while preserving at all times the reality of non-combatant immunity.’[19] This mindset has carried over to Iraq. The astonishing consequence is that an insurgent is able to strike a blow against the United States by detonating herself in a marketplace populated only by her countrymen. That is, not only do we lose when an American dies; we also lose when a dozen Iraqis die.

continued in part 3



[10] Atkinson 1996, speaking of the 1991 Gulf War

[11] Lock-Pullan 2007, quoting Richard Helms on the 1991 Gulf War

[12] Kagan 2008

[13] Fearon 2007

[14] Biddle 2006; my emphasis

[15] Record & Terrill 2004

[16] Biddle 2006

[17] Dobbins 2007

[18] Hanson 2005, p. 146 e.g. Over the long course of the war, Athens lost about 200 hoplites a year

[19] Brown 1999

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