Politics & Policy

Iraq as Vietnam

Disappointments on the homefront.

“I feel like we’re winning the war over here and we’re losing the war back home.” These were the words of a Marine corporal at Camp Fallujah, Iraq, just a few weeks ago. They were not constructed political rhetoric, the product of a leading question or an outright fabrication, tailored to the politically charged debate back home. Rather, they were a reflection of a common state of mind among troops in the war zones. Whether an accurate assessment or not, it does bring to mind a similar dichotomy during the Vietnam War.

About an hour before we spoke with this corporal, the Marine general in charge of logistics for the region gave a quick briefing before we left for Fallujah. We were waiting for gunship escorts at Base TQ (Al Taqqadum), leaving our C-130 cargo plane for helicopters. On the table in his office was an issue of Foreign Affairs with the prominent headline “Iraq and Vietnam.” In an earlier article from the same journal, John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale professor and respected critic of the Cold War, had written, “Historians now acknowledge that American counter-insurgency operations in Vietnam were succeeding during the final years of that conflict; the problem was that support for the war had long since crumbled at home.” In one sense, Iraq could become similar to Vietnam.

At Camp Fallujah, troops routinely called for “perseverance and patience.” They argued that “timetables can’t control the political process; the political process must control the timetable,” and they voiced the belief that “back home they don’t understand; you don’t understand unless you see it.” “What we see on TV is not what we see on the ground,” a Marine complained. “The news is just a commercial industry. The news system benefits the terrorists.” The dichotomy these troops lamented sounded like an Afghan saying we heard later in the trip from a village elder in Jalalabad: “What you see and what you hear arenever the same.”

Neither in its military aspects, nor in the structure of the international political system which surrounds it, is the Iraq War like Vietnam. Because of a bipolar system of two superpowers, the North Vietnamese ended up with the military sponsorship of a powerful outside nation-state. Moreover, the communist North Vietnamese had a unified internal party discipline and a popular ideology of domestic reform and nationalism, both of which the fragmented enemies in Iraq lack. The insurgents are split between radical Islamists and minority Sunni restorationists. Most Iraqis want neither a return to Sunni domination nor a new Islamic radicalism. Both nationalism and domestic reform favor the new Iraqi government.

Nevertheless, the corporal’s comment brings to mind the way in which the Iraq war (or any war, for that matter) can be made like the Vietnam War–not in the war zone itself, and not internationally, but in our domestic politics. If people in the United States come to believe, through misunderstanding or misinformation, spread inadvertently or deliberately, for political or partisan purposes, that the Iraq war is like the Vietnam War, then in domestic political terms the misunderstanding becomes the reality. This prophecy can be self-fulfilling.

In other words, even though the Iraq war in Iraq is nothing like the Vietnam War in Vietnam, the Iraq war in Washington is taking on some of the characteristics of the Vietnam War in Washington. There are many back home who want Iraq to become like Vietnam was back home, without regard to the reality of Iraq in the field. And they are trying hard to make it so.

The dominant precedent of the politics of the Vietnam War was the American choice to withdraw U.S. troops and then abandon our ally logistically and economically. This complete abandonment led to South Vietnam’s defeat by an outside conventional military attack (a mobile armored force, not insurgents) more than two years later, while the U.S. watched. Just as this choice was entirely in Washington’s hands during the Vietnam War, so too it is in Washington’s hands now with respect to the Iraq war–regardless of the reality in Iraq. The abandonment of an ally, rather than the way the war itself was fought, signaled a political weakness in the home front, among Washington elites, the media, and parts of the public. Among our enemies, this perceived lack of willpower is the lasting impression of the Vietnam War even to this day. This lasting impression has significantly impaired American foreign policy.

Accordingly, the American homefront is once again the target of our enemies. Radical Islamists define the American homefront as the center of gravity of the war–that is, the point of greatest weakness, where an otherwise strong military power can be defeated. The North Vietnamese did the same: Their military failure in the Tet Offensive of 1968 convinced them that America could not be defeated in the field, but must be defeated politically at home. The American home front became the center of gravity in the North Vietnamese effort.

In Iraq, if Washington can be cajoled into withdrawing forces and aid prematurely, then outside forces with outside aid are free to concentrate larger military units in more effective conventional attacks. The great theorist of war Carl von Clausewitz emphasized the trinity of war–the military, the government, and the people–and the overriding role of willpower. The enemy may not have read Clausewitz (they have their own excellent theorists of the ultimate political nature of war), but they are certainly proving him right.

So the legacy of Vietnam in Washington, Vietnam “back home,” hangs over a war with little similarity to Vietnam in the field. The Marine commander at Base TQ sees no similarity to Vietnam, yet on his entrance table sits a journal from back home comparing the two. Notwithstanding the actual situation, politicians and the media can turn Iraq (or any situation) into a “Vietnam” if they work at it long enough and hard enough. Then the fears and predictions of our troops in Iraq could come true–we could lose the war over here even while were winning it over there.

Dexter Lehtinen was severely wounded as a reconnaissance platoon leader in Vietnam. He later graduated first in his class from Stanford Law School and served as a Florida state senator and United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. He recently returned from a congressional trip to Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan (he is married to Florida congresswoman Illeana Ros-Lehtinen).

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