Vietnam's Shadow Lies Across Iraq

"By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome," President George H.W. Bush crowed after his swift triumph in the Gulf War in 1991. His effusive proclamation was meant to suggest that the U.S. public had finally shaken off the memory of the humiliating disaster in the Far East and would henceforth underwrite fresh engagements overseas, without guilt or anxiety.

But he was mistaken. His optimism notwithstanding, Americans remained haunted by the specter of a defeat in some distant realm, and their uneasiness continued as President George W. Bush made his plans to invade Iraq. The younger Bush excoriated pundits who cautioned that we faced a catastrophe there, and at first he seemed to have been proved correct, as Americans witnessed the amazing speed with which our battalions drove into Baghdad. But it has since become apparent that Iraq, if not exactly "another Vietnam," could degenerate into an equally calamitous debacle.

The experiences in Southeast Asia and the Iraq conflict have many differences but are analogous in some respects. As they oozed into the region, Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson each justified his commitment by expounding the "domino theory," the concept that Moscow and Beijing had chosen Vietnam as the key arena in which to pursue their grandiose scheme for world domination. Johnson averred that unless we held the line there, we would be compelled to fight the Communist hordes "on the beaches of Waikiki."

Similarly, Bush - permeated with evangelical fervor - has portrayed himself as a crusader and Saddam Hussein as the evil genius behind international terrorism whose influence reached from Indonesia to Algeria, and further insisted that Hussein was close to possessing a nuclear arsenal. But just as his precursors in the White House failed to prove their case that Vietnam was indispensable to U.S. security, Bush has produced no solid evidence to back his allegations.

We deployed a panoply of sophisticated weaponry in Vietnam - supersonic aircraft, high-tech artillery, napalm and devices that could detect a quivering leaf in the jungle. Yet we were unable to ferret the Viet Cong guerrillas out of their concealed village sanctuaries, and eventually we became frustrated, even paralyzed. In Iraq, our overwhelmingly superior firepower quickly crushed Hussein's legions, but now we are becoming bogged down as we endeavor to eliminate fedayeen and suicide bombers prepared to sacrifice themselves in a jihad against diabolical infidels seeking to eradicate Islam.

We were bewildered in Vietnam by our inability to distinguish between our friends and foes, both of whom looked like innocent peasants and fishermen. In Iraq, too, it is hard to separate allies from enemies. Our efforts to reconstruct Iraq's shattered institutions have deteriorated into a nightmare as the nation's profusion of rival political and religious factions compete to promote their sundry programs, thwarting attempts by our troops to impose law and order.

Perhaps the most striking similarity is this: Those of us who covered Vietnam were regularly inundated by civilian and military bureaucrats with piles of glowing details, charts and statistics devised to show progress. We spoofed their daily briefings in Saigon as the "Five O'Clock Follies" and learned from accompanying U.S. soldiers into battle that they were either distorting the truth or blatantly lying.

Today, as I listen to Bush and his spokesmen deliver euphoric accounts of the headway being made in Iraq, they remind me of the bulletins from Vietnam that reassured us that "victory is just around the corner" and that "we see the light at the end of the tunnel." As the war escalated in Vietnam, members of Congress privately began to oppose what increasingly seemed to be a futile enterprise. But they never failed to vote funds for the venture on the grounds that "we can't let down our boys." For the same reason, they will grant Bush the $87 billion he has requested.

Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, one of the prime architects of our involvement in Vietnam, confessed in a lachrymose book published in 1995 that "we were terribly wrong" - cold comfort for the families of the nearly 60,000 Americans and more than 1 million Vietnamese who lost their sons and daughters in the conflagration. If our casualties mount in Iraq, we may ultimately hear a similarly emotional mea culpa from a Bush administration official, perhaps even Donald Rumsfeld.


Stanley Karnow covered Vietnam from 1959 to 1975. He is the author of "Vietnam: A History" (Viking, 1983) and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history. His most recent book was "Paris in the Fifties"

Source: Los Angeles Times

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Older Comments:
I have my own "theory" regarding Islamic resurgence in Syria. It would only be so according to the will of Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala). Insha'Allah those who please Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) will be favored by Alaihim.

Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu.

--Yahya Bergum

Perhaps this time around America will get to play the part of the Soviet Union. Who knows?

So are the artificial colonial-boundaries, as were previously imposed on the Middle East, now no longer a problem? I haven't noticed anyone recently complaining about them. It is a small matter. Every nation has a set term - including mine. And the Lord of the worlds gives the result of the labor to those who please the Lord of the worlds.

Honestly said, I think that the Baath government in Syria is not acting irrationally in attempting to avert the rise of post-Baathist Iraq. No matter what comes of it all, I predict that the sponsors of insurgency, including America, shall in due course learn that Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) knows best.

Assalamu alaikum.

--Yahya Bergum

I don't think that one should compare Vietnam war with Iraq war. There were lot of casulaties on both sides in Vietnam. The number of casualties (at least on the US side) are quite low, and will never be allowed to reach Vietnam level because US does not have stomach for high causalties; US will withdraw long before it comes to that (whether dfeated or victorious is not the point of issue). However, the financial cost, at least to the US, of Iraq war will be equal or be even higher than Vietnam, which will really bankrupt US and will have tremendous effect on the value of the dollar; foreigners will refuse to accept this piece of paper (yes, it is a piece of paper; as long people accept it, it is good paper, otherwise it is just trash). Foreign policy consequences will be horrendous; Europe will take advantage of US troubles. China, Russia, and even India will take advantage of US troubles. The consequences will not be obvious immediately; but will become so over a longer period (say 20 years).

In any case, Middle East, especially the muslim part will stay in turmoil for a long time. US will have very little influence and even Europe will not have much influence. It may mean the end of Saudi/Kuwaiti family rule as well as that of Mubarak family rule in Egypt and Hashmite family rule in Jordan.

'well, they came out with Rambo I, II & III'

It seems conceivable that those states sponsoring resistance and insurgency in Iraq might become the targets of insurgency themselves (according to the will of Allah) - once the military forces of Iraq have been revitalized and remobilized. Presumably the military technology previously applied against the forces of Iraq might someday be placed at the disposal of the forces of Iraq.

I am confident that a completely remilitarized Iraq (with overwhelming air superiority) could make short work of at least half the governments on the neo-cons "to do" list. I apologize for the confrontational nature of my comment but it seems like someone ought to be expressing (among other Muslims) what seems to be a very real possibility for an outcome of America's own insurgency in Iraq.

Who knows what eventually might come of it all? No matter what comes, Allah (subhanahu wa ta'ala) knows best.

Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi.

--Yahya Bergum

Right On! Muzammil, you're just hitting the nail on the head. I love your comments, if you were a woman I would propose to marry you. (just kidding!)

I think the magnitude of the Iraq blunder committed by this U.S. administration, with the collusion of the American people will leave the memory of the Vietnam war as a mere footnote in history. By attacking the heartland of Islam under false pretexts, with stated goals of transforming the middle-east they have lit a little spark that will reap them an inferno.
The tragedy of September 11th was perpetrated by a small group of extremists, bent on provoking the greatest military and economic power in the world today. These people had minimal support in the Islamic world and the majority of the world's muslims were horrified and saddened by the monstrosity of the act, however much has happened since. America in its desire to seek revenge has targeted Islam, they have cast the blame of a few on the entire community, that my friends is racism. How is America's action any different from the what the Osama's of the world did? This war on terrorism has led to the capture of thousands and the death of untold number of civilians and soldiers. Why are the Guantanomo Bay prisoners held without charges, were all of them plotting to blow something up. The current occupation in Iraq, and the rumblings of the next war in Iran or Syria is causing an awakening that will not be remedied with an administration change. It is unfortunate that America a land of great potential has been led into an unending conflict by advisors who look at America's future through an Israeli prism.
Muslims will choose a side and I am sure like the brave brothers arrested for espionage in Guantanoma, most of us will choose the truth, justice and the shade of Allah's mercy and good pleasure.

I will keep this "mantra" till the message gets through:-

And call me anti-semitic! I don't give a damn! The way they treat my Palestine, I am willing to be anti-semitic 1001 times!

You the American tax payers will have to spend $87 billion so that Israel is safe among its neighbors. And ironically its so-called dangerous neighbors like Iraq, Saudi Arabia provide significant sum of your oil supply.

Israel dangerous neighbors provide you your oil, your life line! Get it? And what you decided to do to your life line providers? Correct! You want to forcefully transform them so that Israel is safe and sound!

Go figure if You, the American people should continue to blindly support Israel even at the expense of You, the American people!

You and only You, the American people can decide. We can't do it for you since you are so powerful and fierce.

You, American, can decide to crash your own economy and country so that Israel is safe.

Or You, American can decide enough is enough with this bull!

You and only you can decide! Even your president can't decide for you.

I agree with the author's comparisions of the unfolding nightmare in Iraq with America's past experience in Vietnam. Of particular interest in the article is the reference to the Vietnam administration's embelishment of achievements made during that military operation. I for one believe that the U.S. casualty figures in Iraq are much higher than has been reported, in fact, I think it is a policy to avoid reporting killed in action figures in the double digits for psychological reasons, it would impact public morale negatively. It is unfortunate that a war that was started by way of deception, using suspect intelligence and false pretexts should continue to deceive the public with an administration hiding behind the red, white and blue and the pretext of a war on terror and an inept media, all this while 18 and 20yr olds pay with their life and limbs.

I for one don't think this will end well. By picking an unjust course of action in the name of those victims of Sept 11, is first and foremost an insult to their memory, and secondly it proves America is really no different from anybody else who takes the lives of innocents. The attempt to forcibly change Islamic culture in the name of reshaping the Middle East, is in and of itself racist, because it lumps everybody together, and how is that any different than what the Osamas of this world do. America has lit a spark that will surely turn into a blazing fire, Allah is just, and the injustice committed by the powerful has sunk great civilizations of the past 'Hey George why don't you take that Bible out and read it.'It was a great mistake to attack the heartland of Islam and unfortunately for the oblivious American this won't be remedied with an administration change or a letter of apology.

P.S. we're also watching very closely what kind of justice you plan to use on those prisoners in guantanamo.