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A Quagmire Primer: The Iraq & Vietnam Debacles

A Quagmire Primer: The Iraq & Vietnam Debacles

By Bernard Weiner
The Crisis Papers

When analysts refer to the quagmire in Iraq as analogous to Vietnam, we assume that readers are well-acqainted with that earlier war. The truth is that unless you're of a certain age, or are fairly conversant with American history, you're liable to be mostly in the dark as to the 'Nam references, and thus miss the lessons that can be gleaned from that conflict.

So, it seems an appropriate time to look back at that Southeast Asia war; this history might be of especial interest to those parents with youngsters who could wind up fighting in Iraq -- or elsewhere in the Middle East, given the imperial ambitions of Bush&Co.

In laying out the intersecting wars this way, I am not equating Iraq and Vietnam; there are clear differences. But they are similar enough -- in how we got in, why we stayed so long, why we had to get out, why both wars were so divisive politically -- that it's a story well worth retelling. Obviously, I'll be talking in shorthand here, leaving out a lot of detail, but the arc of the experience is what counts. Here goes: Vietnam first.


Major wars are like societal earthquakes; their impacts go much wider -- the social tsunamis, as it were, of major cataclysms -- and cause enormous dislocation and upheavals. The post-World War II weakening of the European nations economically, socially and militarily meant that the old colonial powers began to lose their hold on "the colonies." National liberation movements sprang up in Africa and Asia. Indians wanted independence, Ghanians wanted to rule themselves, Vietnamese likewise, etc.

The colonial powers tried to hang on, but they no longer had the wherewithall in terms of money, military power or united will to totally dominate their former colonies. France, for example, clung to its Southeast Asia empire, but the nationalists in Vietnam defeated them badly again and again, and finally in the mid-1950s the French pulled out, as they later had to do in North Africa.

In Vietnam, it looked as if the nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh would take over the entire country. In another time perhaps, the U.S. might have simply watched this happen; Ho, after all, admired Jefferson and American revolutionary history. But the U.S. was locked into a virulently anti-communist tunnel-vision. Communism, from this viewpoint, was a monolithic beast that threatened to overrun the world. The prevailing wisdom: Better to stop the Commies in some out-of-the-way former colony like Vietnam than watch them build momentum and eventually attack the United States mainland. (Sound familiar?)


There was precious little understanding of the dynamic power of nationalism in many of these anti-colonialist movements. For example, Americans were incapable of seeing Ho Chi Minh the way many Vietnamese and other "third-world" countries saw him: as a patriotic hero fighting to rid his society of Western colonialists, and trying to keep the Chinese out.

So, the wealthy, powerful U.S. found itself slipping seamlessly into the old French role in Vietnam. Initially, the U.S. involvement was carefully calibrated, just a few army "advisors" here, a few planes there, training Vietnamese troops to assume a larger military role, dealing diplomatically with a corrupt and brutal South Vietnamese government, etc. But as the years wore on, the U.S. got more deeply enmeshed in the Vietnam situation, all the while understanding little of the complexities of that society, religion, politics, history, and, perhaps equally as important, an ability to understand the language.

Five U.S. presidents (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon) secretly were told by their closest advisors and intelligence experts that America would be unable to win in Vietnam -- that the most it could hope for was a stalemate -- but those presidents, consumed by hubris and blinded by their own anti-Communist mindset, thought America's superpower status and technological superiority eventually would prevail over the black-pajama clad guerrillas.

Kennedy (and before him Truman and Eisenhower) had made sure to keep U.S. involvement relatively low-key and at something of a distance. But when JFK was assassinated in 1963, his successor, Johnson, used an ambiguous "attack" on U.S. ships off the Vietnam coast as the pretext for all-out war. He lied to the country about what had happened, and a manipulated Congress passed blank-check resolutions that Johnson used as a substitute for an actual Declaration of War.

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were sent to Vietnam, and then more hundreds of thousands, all with the continual promise that they'd "be home by Christmas," that a sigificant military "corner" had been turned, that the body count of the enemy indicated they couldn't hold out much longer. Virtually none of that was true. Years dragged by, with more than 50,000 U.S soldiers dead and an estimated several million Vietnamese.


The U.S. military had come to fight a conventional war only to be faced with an insurgency that, out of necessity, fought a guerrilla war. The American troops found they could not tell the enemy from the civilians, since attacks could come from anywhere and anyone, even women and children. Much of Vietnam became, in essence, a free-fire zone -- more than one million civilians died as "collateral damage" in the mass bombings and napalming -- and atrocities and massacres were common. Villages were torched and destroyed in order to "save" them, in the famous words of a U.S. major.

American military bases were not safe havens, since so many Vietnamese were employed by the U.S. military to do support work, and passed on intelligence to the Viet Cong guerrillas.

Meanwhile, back in the States, the U.S. populace was bitterly divided as to the wisdom, efficacy and morality of the Vietnam War. Parents ("babykillers!") and children ("unpatriotic!") often became estranged from each other as the political struggle over the war intensified. Though virtually all of the anti-war protesters were non-violent, a few used rioting and occasional bombings of government buildings to express their rage. Among the non-violent protesters were Vietnam vets who returned angry, feeling used and abused, never having understood why they'd been sent to fight an unwinnable, immoral war there in the first place.

In short, a kind of political civil war was tearing apart the American social fabric. Perhaps the most symbolic event of that period was when the vets, shamed by what they'd had to do in Vietnam, turned in or threw away their war medals before the very government that had lied to and manipulated them so cynically. (John Kerry was a leading representative of this veteran anger.)

Eventually, even large segments of the pro-government American middle class came to understand that the war was much too costly in terms of lives and treasure, and that it was besmirching America's sense of itself as a moral country. The war was seen to be a collossal mistake that needed to be ended.

Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon, could have made peace with the North Vietnamese in the late-'60s, but chose instead to enlarge the war to other countries and try to bomb North Vietnam into submission. It didn't work, and Nixon negotiated pretty much the same peace treaty in the mid-'70s that he had proposed years before, at the cost of thousands of U.S. and Vietnamese lives in the interim. The war was over, but it never fully went away, as the 2004 presidential campaign attests.


For a time after the Vietnam debacle, the country was war-shy. Yes, the U.S. did invade some countries, but they were largely incapable of putting up any significant military resistance -- Grenada, Panama, et al. Few U.S. generals wanted to get into a major war on the ground for fear of getting bogged down, a la Vietnam, when the inevitable Law of Unintended Consequences kicked in.

If the U.S. was going to launch a war on the ground, it had to be swift, well thought-out, and with a definitive exit strategy -- the so-called (Colin) Powell Doctrine. That was pretty much the operative philosophy of war for decades.

Bush#1 continued to utilize the Powell Doctrine in the first Gulf War: the troops got in quickly and decisively, and got out when the limited goal of the war had been accomplished: to eject the Iraqi army from Kuwait and to make sure Saddam Hussein would be contained military and economically from trying something like that again.

But, in the '90s interim between Bush#1 and Bush#2, a small group on the far right fringe of the Republican Party -- led by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and others -- organized and lobbied intensely, now that the Soviet Union was gone, for using American muscle aggressively since there was no countervailing superpower to stop America from assuming hegemony around the globe. See "How We Got Into This Imperial Pickle: A PNAC Primer." ( )

These so-called "neo-conservatives" tried to convince President Clinton to invade Iraq, as the required first step to control that region's energy resources, and to alter the geopolitical map of the Middle East to favor the U.S. and its proxy Israel. Clinton, however, having watched the deadly rise of Muslim extremism, was more interested in going after Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida, especially since Iraq was thoroughly weakened and safely contained.

When Bush#2 was installed in the White House, this group of PNAC ideologues moved into positions of great power within the Administration, and provided not only the driving engine of U.S. foreign/military policy but an off-the-shelf plan for how to move in the world. First step: Invade Iraq, topple Saddam Hussein's cruel and dictatorial government, and set up a local government more amenable to America's economic and geopolitical interests.


As a result of 9/11, the U.S. was obliged to go after Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida first, in Afghanistan, but it didn't take long before Bush Administration shifted its interest, and troops, to Iraq. (We're still paying for that unwise decision to ignore those who were an immediate threat to the U.S. in order to invade a country that was no imminent threat to anyone.) Just a few hours and days after 9/11, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Wolfowitz and their group already were preparing the ground for "shock&awe" visited upon Iraq. But they needed some ideological "cover" to convince the Congress and American people to go along.

They figured, probably correctly, that if they revealed their true motives, the country might be leery of going along with their war. The Bush Administration's intelligence agencies were telling them that there was no evidence that Iraq was linked in any way to the events of 9/11, and no credible proof that Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to unleash on their neighbors or the U.S. -- so Bush&Co. devised a strategy to go around the experts. Rumsfeld set up his own "intelligence" unit inside his Pentagon redoubt, the Office of Special Plans, stocked it with political appointees of the PNAC persuasion, and, surprise, got the "evidence" he wanted, which the Bush Administration then used to fool the Congress, American people and United Nations Security Council.

Worried that the U.N. and other international bodies might begin asking embarrassing questions about this so-called "proof" -- especially since the U.N. weapons inspectors would be issuing their conclusions shortly that Iraq possessed no stockpiles of WMD -- Bush&Co. rushed to war, even before their military plans and deployments were fully operational.


So, here we are, nearly into the third year of the U.S. Occupation of Iraq, mired deep in a struggle with mostly insurgent Iraqi forces. The U.S. occupiers have little understanding of the history, politics, religion, and do not speak the language.

They are convinced that their overwhelming firepower and technological superiority will destroy a nationalist insurgency, a rebellion that appears to be growing stronger each day. Formerly, the U.S. estimated a "few thousand" insurgents, who could be wiped out fairly quickly. Currently, the estimate is between 30,000 to 200,000.

Perhaps the most striking testament to how free the insurgents feel these days: Recently, a group of them -- significantly, not wearing any masks -- hauled three Iraqi election officials out of their cars in broad daylight in downtown Baghdad and assassinated them. The insurgents clearly were indicating by their brazen, undisguised assault that they could swim like fishes in the sea of the people, who either supported them or feared them enough to keep silent.

Incompentency dominated every major move of the U.S. Occupation, and continues to do so. They believed the self-serving falsehoods of Iraqi exiles, misjudged the reception the Iraqi populace would give them, did not supply enough troops to guard the huge ammo dumps, provided the wrong vehicles, did not supply adequate body and vehicle armor, ran out of food and replacement parts, passed on incorrect intelligence, tortured and sexually assaulted and humiliated detainees in their care, pretended not to see contractors' and governmental corruption on a massive scale, did not provide infrastructure repair in terms of water and electricity, destroyed cities and towns in order to "save" them, etc. etc. In short, the U.S. consistently was carrying out wrongheaded policies that served only to alienate ordinary Iraqis, thus losing the all-important "hearts and minds" battle. (According to recent Iraqi polls, most see the U.S. as violent, bumbling Occupiers and want the Americans to leave their country.)

Many of America's military leaders and intelligence agencies have been trying to tell the Administration that the U.S. cannot win this war under its current policies, but Bush, in total denial of reality, refuses to hear anything but good news about how swimmingly things are going in Iraq. (Those who dissent too loudly are smeared with the "soft-on-terrrorism" brush or, as in the Vietnam period, called "unpatriotic," which attitude conflates support for the Administration with support for the country.)

Bush&Co. believe that putting in more troops might do the job (refusing to admit that there aren't the extra troops to spare), or that the insurgent-riddled Iraqi police/guard forces will face off bravely against their insurgent brethren, or that the upcoming election in that country will turn the corner for the U.S., putting an Iraqi face on the war, with America's man in control. They are dreaming. The quicksand that is Iraq is likely to suck down the U.S. even more, and split that society into civil and ethnic/religious civil war.

The true lesson is that the U.S. is fast running out of "corners" to turn in Iraq, as was the case in Vietnam as well. Indeed, it's more like a circular rathole, down which the U.S. pours its young men and women and treasure until the citizenry finally rebels and says enough.


There is talk of the U.S. "having to stay" in Iraq for from 4-to-10 more years until the situation is "stabilized" there. No wonder desertions are way up, re-enlistments are way down, Army and Reserve and National Guard recruiters are unable to meet their quotas, and soldiers lucky enough to go home on leave to be with their families are going to court or Canada or shooting themselves in the leg in order to keep from being sent back to that senseless slaughterhouse.

When things got really bad in Vietnam, the U.S. unleashed its Phoenix program -- targeted assassinations of thousands of suspected Viet Cong leaders. Now, Rumsfeld is considering a similar Vietnam/"Salvadoran" option for Iraq, inserting death squads of assassins to try to decapitate the leadership of the insurgency. Has the Bush Administration learned nothing from its capturing and killing Al Qaida leaders? Terrorism, especially that fueled by religious zealotry or nationalistic patriotism, is a multi-headed monster; lop off one head, and two more grow to take its place.

Iraq is a catastrophe of immense proportions, largely because the foundations upon which it rests -- the lies that got the U.S. in there, the ideological reasons for invading and occupying Iraq that have little to do with Iraq -- are incorrectly designed by a neo-con Administration that seems incapable of facing up to the facts on the ground. Bush&Co. are like bulldogs on a pantleg; they will hang on, and attempt to get to their goal no matter what reality is hitting the fan.

It took many years, and millions of dead, before the American people finally realized the immensity of the U.S. error in Vietnam -- the dogmatic fantasies and wishful thinking that were getting their husbands and sons and innocent Vietnamese slaughtered -- and forced the government to get out of that hellhole.

If Bush&Co. have their way, we're in for years and years, and hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded on both sides before the U.S. populace accepts the inevitable conclusion: This was the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time, fomented and led by incompetents and ideologues with an agenda all their own, one that endangers our national security and is incompatibile with the long-term interests of the United States.


Even mainstream military and political thinkers are starting to voice the obvious: the U.S. needs to get out of Iraq sooner rather than later. One idea being floated is to declare "victory" after the January 30 Iraqi elections, no matter what the result, and arrange for a graceful American withdrawal. Bush could say that America liberated Iraqi citizens from Saddam's brutal dictatorship, helped them establish a democratic system of government, set up massive reconstruction projects, and now it's time for U.S. troops to depart.

Similar declare-victory suggestions were offerred (and ignored) years before the U.S. left Vietnam in embarrassing haste; such an approach for Iraq makes eminent sense, which is why Bush&Co. will reject it. They don't want to give up on their superpower fixation of controlling that area of the world (and its plentiful gas and oil), of changing the geopolitical map of the Middle East, of abandoning the 14 major military bases they've established in Iraq, of putting at risk the billions of dollars that their corporate supporters like Bechtel and Halliburton are raking in, of being able to use fear and rally-round-the-president-in-wartime slogans to aid in getting their domestic agenda passed.

And so Bush&Co. probably will continue to force the square peg into the round hole, the result of which is that we will have to watch more and more coffins (and more and more maimed soldiers) returning to these shores, and maybe another 100,000 Iraqi civilians dying. Utterly sad and unnecessary -- and criminally insane.

Robert McNamara, who presided over the Vietnam War for a long time as Secretary of Defense, admitted later that he knew as early as 1967 that the war was a lost cause, but he could not dissuade the President from continuing to wage it. Seven more years of catastrophe ensued. McNamara now repents his role in that slaughter, and urges America's leaders not to repeat a similar history in Iraq.

In this Administration, one suspects that Colin Powell realizes the truth, but that PNACer Donald Rumsfeld, and PNACer Dick Cheney join with Bush (who seems to know little but buzzwords) in denying what is staring them in the face.

Let us not forget the lessons of Vietnam by compounding a monstrous policy mistake by making even larger policy mistakes. Real peoples' lives are involved here, our national interests are at issue, our country's economy and social institutions are at risk.

Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rumsfeld: Bring the troops home ASAP. Or go down in history as reckless, greedy, power-hungry warmongers and war-criminals.


Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at various universities, worked as a writer/editor with the San Francisco Chronicle for 19 years, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers (

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