Two Similarities Between Iraq and Vietnam

Of course the US war in Iraq differs from the one in Vietnam in many ways, as the President's supporters claim. But the wars are similar in two respects.


The first one is the attitude and preparedness of the US government. In both cases the President wanted the war, so he created from thin air the provocation that allowed him to launch one. We marched into a quagmire we knew nearly nothing about, and our inept and high-handed methods of dealing with the people who lived there made it worse.

However, in Vietnam there was an active insurgency when we arrived. In Iraq, we've had to create one. But, hey, we're Americans, so we just went ahead and created two.

There's been talk for some time that the war planners in Washington were particularly worried about a “second front” against the Shiites being added to the first, the Sunni resistance in the so-called Triangle. And apparently that fear was not misplaced:

"No Sunnis, no Shiites, yes for Islamic unity," the marchers chanted. "We are Sunni and Shiite brothers and will never sell our country."

They carried portraits of Shiite radical leader Moqtada Sadr, as well as pictures of Sunni icon, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the Palestinian Hamas group who was assassinated in an Israeli air raid last month.

"Our families in Fallujah, remember that our dead go to heaven and theirs to hell," read a banner held aloft by the crowd.

That last quote might sound a little extreme, but it takes a fundamentalist country to know one. This, after all, is a country infatuated with Gibson's “Passion”, but too often ignorant of the machinations of government.

The recent history of Iraq is such that its citizens are more aware of government than we are. They are, I suggest, especially concerned about Washington's plans for creating a government of Iraq; but if Americans generally were aware of the tricks being played in Baghdad, a lot of them would be angry too. The administration's proposals—from the hand-picked Governing Council, which doesn't govern, through the obviously collaborationist caucuses, dissed and forgotten, to the current coupling of massive force with promises of sovereignty—are not just obvious invocations of the right of might, they are politically inept ones.

Might has many rights, lots of which it shouldn't have; but it has neither the right nor the ability to eliminate resistance. Imperial troops may kill all the resistors, but that must often include all their families and most of their friends, which leaves a bunch of angry people centered around the same idea as before the purge.

Power can marginalize resistance in many ways, and from the point of view of stability and longevity of empire, this is probably the best choice. When Rome was well-governed (there were times), it did its ruthless, bloodthirsty, and effective best to marginalize dissent. If you felt strongly about something, you could often just go to one of the great cities of the Roman world and live out your life undisturbed, continuing to believe what you chose, as long as you didn't organize a rebellion or write too popular a book. If you were stuck on your principles and you'd left your heart in Rome, then you had a problem.

But in the end, resistance that's organized around an idea which excites people deeply, like nationality or religion, is often impossible to destroy. As a recent AP report said,

Milt Bearden, who retired after 30 years with the CIA's directorate of operations, notes that in the last 100 years any insurgency that has taken on a nationalist character -- for instance, a shared goal of getting rid of Americans -- has succeeded.

I was sufficiently wowed by that statistic to look up the original text:

There were two stark lessons in the history of the 20th century: no nation that launched a war against another sovereign nation ever won. And every nationalist-based insurgency against a foreign occupation ultimately succeeded. This is not to say anything about whether or not the United States should have gone into Iraq or whether the insurgency there is a lasting one. But it indicates how difficult the situation may become.


The second similarity between Vietnam and Iraq is from the point of view of the average American watching television. It's one of those scary moments of disconnection from the sense of understanding reality, watching the news these days. You keep hearing people talking about how well things are going, then you see the pictures and the casualty counts, and these two don't match up—serious cognitive dissonance.

It's true that what Billmon calls the VRWC (the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy) is so sensitive to anything that might pull at the curtain hiding their man that to them every casualty report proves liberal bias. And it's surely true that the media reports on the bad stuff with a certain glee. But realistically, things aren't looking good even to an eternal optimist.

As Tish Durkin says in Bitter Baghdad Seeing Disaster As Rebels Rise:

In response to all this, the White House will not respond. Both with and through its Iraqi district office, the Coalition Provisional Authority, it will rationalize, pinning the spike in hostilities on the usual suspects: imported terrorists, the dark but fading forces of Saddam, a few wormy Iraqi apples that would not look so big in the barrel if it were not for the distorting lens of the liberal media.

Such an attitude in the face of undeniable facts recalls Candide and Pollyanna, and seems eerily familiar if you lived during the war in Vietnam. “Peace is at hand” morphed into “Mission Accomplished” or thereabouts, but the same disconnect is visible: what they tell you is happening doesn't fit the pictures you're seeing or the first-hand reports that come back. If everything's going so well, why are the casualty rates so high? Why is there unrest across Iraq?

"I know if you just report on those few places, it does look chaotic," Bremer said on CNN's "American Morning." But if you travel around the country, what you find is a bustling economy, people opening businesses right and left, unemployment has dropped."

Spin. Christopher Allbritton replies to Bremer:

...Baghdad, Fallujah, Basra, Amarah, Nasiriyah and now Najaf are seeing heavy fighting, you should know that that's most of the country.

...Almost 77 percent of the population lives in those cities.

Intentional inaccuracy in the run-up to war, idiotic implementation of the post-war plan: it's not surprising that these things lead to disaster and quagmire. And put it this way, if you'd been warned about planes flying into buildings, and you paid little or no attention because you were focused on Iraq, then planes flew into buildings, and you screwed up in Iraq, you'd probably be spinning too.

All quite similar to Vietnam. What factor is common to both situations? The hubris of the US government.

You're welcome to use this form for private as well as public comments; but if you don't want your comments posted to this site, please say so explicitly. As far as I know, this form works in every case, unless you're running XP (and if so, why?). If you have problems with this form, send your comment to

All fields are optional.