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Vietnam and Iraq, Has the US Learned Anything?


There are great cultural, political, and physical differences between Vietnam and Iraq that cannot be minimized, and the geopolitical situation is entirely different. After all, the U.S. encouraged and materially supported Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran throughout the 1980s because it feared a militantly Shiite Iran would dominate the Gulf region. It still does, and if the Shia majority takes over the Iraqi government next June–the date Washington has promised to transfer nominal power to Iraqi authority–Iran is more likely than ever to attain its regional geopolitical ambitions. But putting this fundamental paradox in the American position aside, which makes the transfer of power to the Iraqi Shias and real democracy highly unlikely, the U.S. has ignored the lessons of the traumatic Vietnam experience and is today repeating many of the errors that produced defeat.

In both places successive American administrations slighted the advice of its most knowledgeable intelligence experts. In Vietnam they told Washington’s decision-makers not to tread where France had failed and to endorse the 1955 Geneva Accords provisos on reunification. They also warned against underestimating the Communists’ numbers, motivation, or their independent relationship to China and the Soviet Union. But America’s leaders have time and again believed what they wanted, not what their intelligence told them.

The Pentagon in the 1960s had an uncritical faith in its overwhelming firepower, its modern equipment, mobility, and mastery of the skies. It still does, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believes the military has the technology to “shock and awe” all adversaries. But war in Vietnam, as in Iraq, was highly decentralized and the number of troops required only increased even as the firepower became greater. When they reached a half-million Americans in Vietnam the public turned against the President and defeated his party.

Wars are ultimately won politically or not at all. This is true in every place and at all times. Leaders in Washington thought this interpretation of events in Vietnam was bizarre, and they ignored its experts whenever they frequently reminded them of the limits of military power. The importance of Vietnamese politics was slighted, escalations followed, and the “credibility” of American military power–the willingness to use it and win no matter how long it took–became their primary concern.

In both Vietnam and Iraq the public was mobilized on the basis of cynical falsehoods which ultimately backfired, causing a “credibility gap.” People eventually ceased to believe anything Washington told them. The Tonkin Gulf crisis of August 1964 was manufactured, as the CIA’s leading analyst later admitted in his memoir, because “the administration was seeking a pretext for a major escalation.” Countless lies were told during the Vietnam War but eventually many of the men who counted most were themselves unable separate truth from fiction. Many American leaders really believed that if the Communists won in Vietnam the “dominoes” would fall and the Chinese and Soviets would dominate all Southeast Asia. The Iraq War was initially justified because Hussein was purported to have weapons of mass destruction and ties to the Al-Quaeda; no evidence whatsoever for either allegation has been found.

There are 130,000 American troops in Iraq now–twice the number that Bush predicted would remain by this month–but, as in Vietnam, their morale is already low and sinking. Bush’s ratings in the polls have fallen dramatically–especially as he has run up huge budget deficits and ignored domestic issues, such as health insurance, which may ultimately determine how people vote in the 2004 election. He needs many more soldiers in Iraq desperately and foreign nations will not provide them. The Army is already planning for 100,000 troops in Iraq until 2006 but, depending on the resistance, the number may be larger and they may remain even longer. In Vietnam, President Nixon tried to “Vietnamize” the land war and transfer the burdens of soldiering to Nguyen Van Thieu’s huge army. But it was demoralized and organized to maintain Thieu in power, not win the victory that American forces failed to attain. “Iraqization” of the military required to put down dissidents will not accomplish what has eluded the Americans, and in both Vietnam and Iraq the U.S. underestimated the length of time it would have to remain and cultivated illusions about the strength of its friends.

The Iraqi army was initially disbanded but now is being partially reconstituted by utilizing Hussein’s officers and enlisted men. The idea that it will be loyal to America’s nominal goals or be militarily effective is quixotic. As in Vietnam, where the Buddhists opposed the Catholics who comprised the leaders America endorsed, Iraq is a divided nation regionally and religiously, and Washington has the unenviable choice between the risks of disorder which its own lack of troops make likely and civil war if it arms Iraqis. Elections are likely to exacerbate these differences, not resolve them. The Shias make up three-fifths of the Iraqi population and their leaders have their own political agendas, and their taking over the army or politics will also strengthen Iranian influence and its power in the region. Despite plenty of expert opinion to warn it, the Bush Administration has scant perception of the complexity of the political problems it confronts in Iraq. Afghanistan looms as a reminder of how military success depends ultimately on politics, and how things go wrong.

Rumsfeld’s admission in his confidential memo last October 16th that “we lack the metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror” was an indication that key members of the Bush Administration are far less confident of what they are doing than they were early in 2003. But as in Vietnam, when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara ceased to believe that victory was inevitable, it is too late to reverse course and now the credibility of America’s military power is at stake.

Eventually, domestic politics takes precedence over everything else. It did in Vietnam War and it is very likely in the case Iraq also. By 1968 the polls were turning against the Democrats and the Tet Offensive in February caught President Lyndon Johnson by surprise because he and his generals refused to believe the CIA’s estimates that there were really 600,000 rather than 300,000 people in the Communist forces. Nixon won because he promised a war-weary public he would bring peace with honor. Bush declared last October 28 that “we’re not leaving” Iraq soon, but his party and political advisers will probably have the last word as American casualties mount and his poll ratings continue to decline. Vietnam proved that the American public has limited patience. That is probably still true.

The real lessons of Vietnam have yet to be learned.

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He can be reached at:


GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience

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