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'the US experience in Iraq and Vietnam' - 3

What does Saigon portend for Baghdad?

            In Vietnam, as Max Boot has written, the US fought a small war with big-war methods: Find the enemy, fix him in place and annihilate him with withering fire power’. Boot went on to suggest that a small-war approach, employing volunteers instead of conscripts, ‘might have retained popular support for a longer, low-intensity conflict…. Even if America had still lost the war, the defeat would have been considerably less costly and less painful’.[20] His prescription is essentially the one being followed by the US in Iraq; and the war, while unpopular, has thus far evoked much less in the way of opposition. The combat will certainly go on for another year or so—Bush in 2008 is stuck by the tar baby, just as LBJ was stuck in 1968. Whether it grinds on through another presidential term is less certain (perhaps so, if the next president is John McCain; probably not, if he is Barack Obama, who vows to bring the combat troops home within 16 months—i.e., by June 2010). And what it portends for the stability of the Middle East is most uncertain of all.

            ‘Conventional wisdom’, says Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, ‘saw the war in Vietnam as an unmitigated disaster’ for the US. ‘But that has been proved wrong. The war had collateral benefits, buying the time and creating the conditions that enabled noncommunist East Asia to follow Japan’s path’ and develop into economically strong and free societies.[21] 

Though most East Asian dominoes didn’t fall, as US presidents from Eisenhower onward had predicted they would—and whether or not America’s commitment to South Vietnam deserves the credit—still, the consequences of the American pullout were much more dire outside the region. The four years following the collapse of the Saigon regime brought a proliferation of Leninist states unequalled since the years immediately following Germany’s surrender in May 1945: South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos went communist in 1975, Angola in 1976, Mozambique and Ethiopia in 1977, South Yemen and Afghanistan in 1978, and Grenada and Nicaragua in 1979. The ‘correlation of forces’, the Soviets concluded,  ‘had magically and decisively shifted in their direction’, though that very success would eventually contribute to the collapse of the Soviet empire and the USSR itself.[22]

            It does seem, therefore, that what we get out of the Vietnam-Iraq analogy depends in large part on what we take into it. I’ve had occasion in this essay to quote both academics and op-ed writers, and more than once I have been struck by the fact that the editorialists seemed less shrill in their analysis than the professors—for example, the journalist Daniel Henninger as compared to the historian Marilyn Young.[23] So much of what passes for academic analysis, in the pages of Foreign Affairs and in those astonishingly expensive compilations from Routledge, reduces itself in the end to impassioned political advocacy.

            What is certain, it seems to me, is that the US Army will be altered for a generation by the war in Iraq. The army (more so than the marines) was broken by its debacle in Vietnam, and rebuilt itself over the course of twenty years into the superlative force that smashed the Iraqi army in a few weeks in 1991 and again in 2003. ‘Broken’ is a word often used today to describe the overstretched US military. Unlike in Vietnam, however, the US Army in Iraq (again, more so than the marines, who have traditionally been adept in fighting small wars) has rebuilt itself in the actual course of the conflict, as it often did in the past.[24] Counter-insurgency is the COIN of the realm in today’s army, enshrined in its new field manual (FM 3-24, which also succeeds the Marines’ hoary Small Wars Manual). Because of the way the Iraq war developed—from conventional battle to asymmetric warfare—the military has been granted the opportunity to evolve its responses in a way it failed to do in Vietnam.

            In May 1964, I found myself in the makeshift officers’ club in Can Tho, South Vietnam, drinking with an American adviser to the Vietnamese militia. ‘It’s a lousy war’, the captain confided with a wink, ‘but it’s the only war we’ve got’, meaning that he meant to exploit it by earning a Combat Infantryman’s Badge and otherwise getting the credentials he needed for promotion to major, colonel, and perhaps brigadier general. That steamy evening, drinking tall, sweaty glasses of vodka-tonic under a lamp powered by a generator out there in the darkness, came flooding back to me when I read Sir Michael Howard in the journal Survival. ‘The military may protest’, he wrote of the gritty deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, ‘that this is not the kind of war that they joined up to fight’, but ‘this is the only war we are likely to get’.[25] Just so! Iraq, like Vietnam forty-four years ago, is the only war we’ve got, and perhaps this time we’ll get it right.

[20] Boot 2002, pp. 283, 316-17

[21] Lee 2006

[22] Mueller 2006

[23] Henninger 2008, Young 2007

[24] Boot 2002, pp. 341-42

[25] Howard 2006; my emphasis


Atkinson, Rick (1996), ‘The Gulf War: an Oral History’ [online].

Biddle, Stephen (2006), ‘Seeing Baghdad, Thinking Saigon’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 2

Boot, Max (2002), The Savage Wars of Peace (New York: Basic Books)

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Dumbrell, John, and David Ryan (2007), Vietnam in Iraq: Tactics, lessons, legacies and ghosts (London: Routledge)

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Hanson, Victor (2005), A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War (New York: Random House)

Henninger, Daniel (2008), ‘Hearts and Minds, Again’, Wall Street Journal, 3.4.2008

Hewes, James (1975), From Root to McNamara: Army Organization and Administration (Washington DC: US Army Center of Military History) 

Howard, Sir Michael (2006), ‘A Long War?’, Survival, Vol 48, No 4

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Lock-Pullan, Richard (2007), ‘Iraq and Vietnam: Military lessons and legacies’, in Dumbrell & Ryan above

Mueller, John (2006), ‘Vietnam and Iraq: Strategy, exit and Syndrome’, in Drumbrell & Ryan above

Record, Jeffrey, and Andrew Terrill (2004), ‘Iraq And Vietnam: Differences, similarities, and insights’ [online].

Ryan, David (2007), ‘“Vietnam”, Victory Culture and Iraq: Struggling with lessons, constraints and credibility from Saigon to Falluja’, in Dumbrell & Ryan above

Young, Marilyn (2007), ‘The Vietnam Laugh Track’, in Dumbrell & Ryan above