Vietnam, Iraq

I joined the Organization of American Historians earlier this year, mostly to get access to its online journal archives; besides, you don’t have to be a real historian to be a member. One of the unanticipated perks is the quarterly Journal of American History. The September issue has a sort of roundtable discussion–it was conducted in email–among a group of scholars who have focused on the history of the Vietnam War. The subject is legacies of the war, and among the questions the journal posed to the historians was this: “Why or why not is Vietnam an appropriate historical analogy for thinking about current U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq?”

[The question is in the news, too. The commander-in-chief was asked the other day whether there was some parallel between the Tet Offensive of 1968 and the current bloodbath in Iraq. He allowed there was, then quickly added that since we’ve succeeded in turning Iraq into what it was not before we invaded–a 365-day-a-year, hands-on, post-graduate level training camp for ambitious terrorists–there is no way–no way!–we’ll leave before “the job” is done.]

Back to the historians. They all have much to say about Vietnam/Iraq parallels. But the one who sums them up best (and most dispassionately) is Christian Appy of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He says:

“There is a danger that any effort to compare current events with historical antecedents will badly distort both past and present. I agree that Iraq and Vietnam are vastly different … but surely there are commonalities, at least in a general sense, in the way U.S. officials justified their policies in the two countries, and these analogies can serve public debate. After all … one important connection is that U.S. policy makers then, as now, believed detailed local knowledge was largely irrelevant except in narrowly tactical terms (that is, where are the “bad guys”?) because Washington clung to the hope (in spite of massive contrary evidence) that U.S. technology and military firepower could hold the line long enough for modernization (or nation building) to draw each country into a stable global system amenable to U.S. economic and political power.

“At the risk of gross oversimplification, I’d like to list a few linkages. Then as now, the president claims:

—We face a global threat (Communism/terrorism).

—The enemy we fight is part of that global threat.

—We fight far away from home so we won’t have to fight in our own streets.

—We want nothing for ourselves, only self-determination for them.

—We are doing everything possible to limit the loss of civilian lives.

—We are making great progress, but the media isn’t reporting it.

—Ultimately, the war must be won by them with less and less U.S. “help.”

—Immediate withdrawal would be an intolerable blow to U.S. credibility and would only embolden our enemy and produce a bloodbath.

—Antiwar activism must be allowed but demoralizes our troops and encourages our enemy.

“Then, as now, the president does not say:

—The enemy in Vietnam/Iraq actually does not pose a threat to U.S. security, but we’re fighting anyway.

—We do indeed have geopolitical and economic interests in the region and will never tolerate a Communist/radical Islamist government.

—We are using weapons and tactics that don’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.

—We will stretch and break the law to spy on and sabotage antiwar critics.

—We won’t ask the nation as a whole to make a major sacrifice but will continue to send the working class to do most of the fighting.

—The progress we report is contradicted by our own sources.

—Troop morale is going downhill.

—Most of the people over there don’t want us in their country.”

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