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Vietnam and Iraq: Similarities and Differences

By David McReynolds  Posted by Larry Sakin (about the submitter)     Permalink       (Page 1 of 1 pages)
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As the Iraq War drags on with no end in sight, there are comparisons with the Vietnam War which ended in 1975 with the victory of the Vietnamese and the humiliating retreat of the Americans, lifted by helicopter from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon. 1975 is more distant in time from us now than the Korean War was from us then (that war which ended in stalemate in 1951. Students should make time for reading about the Korean War, a bloody event which, because it occurred as the Cold War had gotten well under way, had little objective coverage in the press then, and has long since been swept into the "memory hole" of American consciousness. We may safely assume it remains in the memory of Koreans, North and South). Distant as the Korean and Vietnamese wars were, they both were a response of the "threat of Communism" which dominated US thinking (as the "threat of terrorism" dominates it today) and can only be understood in the context of that mind set. The Major Differences Between Vietnam and Iraq This is the first major difference between Vietnam and Iraq. The Cold War ended late in the 20th Century, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the pressure to "contain" the Soviet Union was gone. The US became the world's only Superpower. The tragedy of the late 20th century was that the US did not seize that moment to move the world toward a more rational and humane set of international institutions. Instead, under the first President Bush, it announced a "new world order", and marked it with the Gulf War, the first invasion of Iraq. The second difference is simply in the death toll. The Vietnam War cost the lives of 58,000 American military and estimates of between three and five million Vietnamese dead, including both military and civilian. Thus far the US death toll in Iraq is less than 4,000. The highest estimates of Iraqi dead, civilian and military do not approach the Vietnam death toll. The Vietnam Peace Movement grew out of two facts (leaving aside the moral revulsion at the US involvement in the first place). One, this was the first war which brought battles into the homes of every American. Unlike Korea, when most homes didn't have television, and unlike Iraq, where American dead are never shown, the President has never attended a military funeral, the bodies are shipped home under cover of darkness; the Vietnam War was covered by journalists in the front lines. They filmed the violence, ranging from the burning of the huts of the Vietnamese villagers to the deaths of our own troops. It was bloody hell every night on the 7 o'clock news in our front rooms. The third difference, and the most important one, was the draft. Every young American male faced the chance of seeing combat unless, like Dick Cheney (and most of Bush's neo-con supporters) they could get exemptions. The draft fell most heavily on the "underclass" of the US, farm youth, urban minorities, the working poor - all those who were not in college, or who did not have the money to hire a shrink to provide grounds for exemption. This led to massive unrest on the part not only of the youth, but of their parents. As the war dragged on and the death rate rose, whatever patriotic support had existed earlier vanished. Late in the war Nixon ended the draft, and then withdrew American troops from combat. The last two years of the war were largely US air strikes. Over the course of the war the US dropped more tons of explosives on Indochina than were used by all sides during the entire of World War II. The Accidental Origins of the Vietnam War Let's take a look at the origins of the Vietnam War, which were, unlike Iraq, rather accidental. During World War II the OSS (Office of Special Services, later, under Truman, to become the CIA), had worked with Ho Chi Minh, found him the one effective force fighting the Japanese in Vietnam, and urged Roosevelt to support him. But Roosevelt, feeling under obligation to France, endorsed French efforts to regain control of Indochina. (French Indochina included Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam). The resistance, led by Ho Chi Minh, resulted in the stunning defeat of the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, in an historic battle led by the Vietnamese General, Vo Nguyen Giap. Vice President Nixon had urged the atomic bomb be used to save the French from defeat - fortunately President Eisenhower blocked that, and with the Geneva Accords of 1954, the war ended and the French withdrew. The US violated the spirit of the Geneva Accords by setting up the puppet government of Diem in Saigon, and, violating the promise in the Geneva Accords for a free election in all of Vietnam in 1956, the US simply blocked the election. (so much for democracy). Colonel Lansdale was the CIA operative who provided the central character in Graham Greene's excellent novel, The Quiet American. Lansdale tried his hand at sabotage in Hanoi and in the South hoped to create a "third force". But against Ho Chi Minh's forces he never stood a chance. The US found its puppet government confronting a deepening guerilla war. All of this was essentially an accidental collision in which Washington saw Ho Chi Minh as an extension of Soviet and Chinese power, the Vietnam conflict one of several localized wars of national liberation (one of which, of course, was under Castro in Cuba). The US had no economic interests in Vietnam, no historic ties to the area, and saw the war as an effort to "stop the spread of Communism". Better minds would have seen Ho Chi Minh as part of the post-war anti-colonial movement throughout Africa and Asia . . . but better minds were in short supply in Washington, then as now. When Kennedy took office the US had only 500 military advisers in South Vietnam. Kennedy increased the number to 16,000. When Johnson became President he used the charade of the Gulf of Tonkin incident (a false report of North Vietnamese attacks on US ships off the coast of North Vietnam) to get Senate approval for sending in more troops - which eventually reached 500,000. Thus, in Vietnam, the US became involved because it saw the war as part of the spread of Communism, and then stayed long after it was clear the US had lost, simply because no one in Washington had the courage to accept defeat. Contrast US Interests in Vietnam and Iraq Contrast Vietnam to Iraq and you see a world of difference. The US has always had an interest in the Middle East because of the oil. With the collapse of the British and French empires after World War II, the US moved into the vacuum. The US followed the pattern of the British and French before them - divide the Middle Eastern states in order to rule them. A look at US efforts in Iran and Iraq show what the US had in mind. In Iran in 1953 the CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Mosaddeq - because he sought Iranian control over Iran's oil. (so much for democracy). The CIA installed the Shah of Iran, who ruled as a client of the US until the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France and an Islamic Revolution took power. (There was an irony in the overthrow of the Shah - the US had provided him with abundant military supplies to help police the region, but neglected to provide the most basic crowd control devices, such as tear gas. So, when religious demonstrations began, the only weapons the Shah had were machine guns, which, far from controlling the crowds, inflamed them, and sent them into the streets by the tens of thousands, wearing the white robes signifying a willingness to die. Ironically the Shah was overthrown by an almost entirely unarmed religious rebellion). At the same time, the US cultivated Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When the Islamic Revolution took power in Iran it sent shock waves through the Arab world and caused deep concern in Washington. The revolution in Iran was bloody, as the Ayatollah wiped out elements of the old order (as well as communists and socialists). Saddam made the error of thinking that, given the internal chaos in Iran, he could win a war. In 1980 he attacked Iran, with the tacit support of the US. The war lasted from 1980 to 1988 and cost an estimated million lives of young Iraqi and Iranian troops. At no time during that horrific war did Washington end its support for Saddam, or make any effort at negotiating a peace. What was important from Washington's point of view was that the Iranians needed to be weakened. (I find it hard to believe the same people who supported that war and stood by while a million youth died are really worried about possible disasters following an American exit from Iraq). It was only later, after Saddam invaded Kuwait, another US client state, that Washington turned against him and we saw the first Gulf War. Thus, while the origins of the Vietnamese War were accidental, the origins of the current Iraq War were quite deliberate. It wasn't simply that George Bush wanted to finish the fight he felt his father should have completed, but the temptation of controlling the vast oil of Iraq was too great, and the Neo-cons made the mistake of thinking it could be had on the cheap. The Cost of US Defeat In Iraq The differences between Vietnam and Iraq are clear when it comes to the cost of US defeat. In Vietnam the problem, as seen by Nixon, was that a defeat while he was in office would harm the Republicans, would become a new version of the "Who Lost China" debate that haunted the Democrats after the Chinese took control of China in 1949. From the standpoint of Henry Kissinger, it was the danger that the US would not be seen as a "serious power" if a guerilla army could defeat it. But the loss of Vietnam did not mean the loss of any strategic resources - it merely confirmed the "status quo ante" - the US was not a serious player on the Asian land mass, and had never been. In Iraq, however, defeat means not only the loss of face, but the loss of control of the oil. It is for this reason the US is finding it hard to accept the fact it has already been defeated, that the government it has installed has no authority, that the surge is costing many more lives but will produce no favorable result. Vietnam and Iraq - The US Confronting Different Enemies In Vietnam the US confronted an "enemy" which was united, had the support of the clear majority of the people, and was prepared to take power throughout the country the moment the US left. Whatever one thought of the Hanoi government (and I thought pretty highly of it), it was competent, it didn't kill large numbers of civilians, it didn't chop off heads. The great tragedy of history, for both the US and Vietnamese, is that the US could have negotiated an honorable peace with Hanoi years before it had to flee in defeat. In Iraq the situation is totally different. There is no united front opposing the US. There have always been three main groups cobbled together under whatever government controlled Baghdad - the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds. Right now they are at least as eager to kill each other (and in remarkably nasty ways) as to kill US troops. This is what makes the US defeat in Iraq more troublesome - US withdrawal may result in even greater unpleasantness. This did not occur in Vietnam. (No denying, however, there was an horrific development in Cambodia, where Pol Pot, who took power when the US left, proceeded to murder over a million of his own people - including all those with the remotest ties to Hanoi. No one had expected this. It is still hard to understand what the Khmer Rouge had in mind. And, of course, by 1979 Pol Pot attacked Vietnam itself, resulting in the odd end of the Indochina War, in which Vietnam invaded and occupied Cambodia - from which it has since withdrawn). Historically other withdrawals have been bloody. When the British left India it is estimated that as many as a million Muslims and Hindus were killed in the communal riots following the partition in 1947 of India into Pakistan and India. Americans should keep in mind that our own Civil War saw more troops killed than were killed in the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined. The reality is that outside forces cannot impose peace. What the US has done is to destroy the relative internal peace Iraq had (obtained at the cost of a nasty dictatorship). The US and British have become the problem - they cannot provide a solution. Their withdrawal from Iraq will not bring peace, but it will create a situation where the Iraqis will have to accept responsibility for what happens. We Can and Must "Just Walk Away" One of the arguments made by "responsible" Democrats and think tank folks is that the US "can't simply walk away". There is a struggle within Washington over what the US should do, with establishment Democrats arguing US forces may need to stay in Iraq "for the long term", which means decades. This isn't going to work. The "long term" will not look any better than the current mess. Things are already very touchy between Turkey and the Kurdish area of Iraq. What the US must do is make clear it is withdrawing, that it will close all its military bases, and will engage in direct negotiations with Turkey, Syria and Iran. (I leave Israel out of this equation since, in the Middle East; Israel is part of the problem). Turkey has a real interest in stabilization of the Kurdish area. Syria and Iran both face problems with the collapse of Iraq and have much to gain by trying to put things on an even course. But none of this is possible until the US realizes it must leave Iraq, even if that means abandoning the magnificent new Embassy it is building, just as, long ago, the US had to airlift its last diplomats from the roof of its Embassy in Saigon. Two final comments- One, whatever else capitalism may be, it seems inherently irrational in foreign policy. Nothing the Soviet Union did equals the insanity of the US efforts to project power onto the Asian continent, or to think it could establish control of the Middle Eastern oil. (The US has never had any interest in establishing democracy there). The Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan, at terrible cost - but at least Afghanistan was on its border, the Soviet goal wasn't the resources of Afghanistan but the fear of destabilization and its impact on Muslim areas in the Soviet Union bordering Afghanistan. Nor is it just capitalism - in fairness, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia flowed from some perverse reading of Marx. Finally, I think a quiet examination of US foreign policy, both in Vietnam and in Iraq, will show that great nations, can behave in deeply irrational ways, contrary to their self interest. The best example came before the rise of Communism. It was the First World War, the war which all the experts at the time agreed could not happen because it would destroy Europe, but which did occur, and which did destroy the Europe of that time, laying the basis for the Russian Revolution, for the rise of Hitler, and World War Two. Before any of you believe the experts in Washington know what they are talking about, I strongly suggest reading Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. Sometimes I think that "those whom the Gods would destroy, they first send teams of the best and brightest to advise them". David McReynolds was on the staff of the War Resisters League for many years, and, as the Socialist Party candidate in 1980 and 2000, the first openly gay person to run for the U.S. presidency. He lives with two cats on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

 

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