The invasion of Iraq by the United States began with air strikes on Baghdad on March 20, 2003. Little more than a year later, on April 19 of 2004, Robert Freeman was already telling readers at Common Dreams that “a virtual cottage industry has sprung up comparing Iraq with Vietnam”.
The cottage industry still writes away. The comparisons are still there and the war is still there too: longer-lived than our involvement in World War II, longer certainly than Incurious George ever imagined when he decided that “shock and awe” was just the ticket to start setting things straight in the Middle East.
Are the U.S. misadventures in Vietnam and Iraq really alike? Will Iraq do to George W. Bush what Vietnam did to LBJ?
To answer the second question first, there’s one huge difference. Whereas the Vietnam War drove LBJ from office, the Iraq War kept Bush in office. He played the fear card in 2004, and the voters simply could not bring themselves to throw a wartime president out of office. His legacy will almost certainly be as tarred by Iraq as LBJ’s was by Vietnam, but in the short term Iraq prolonged rather than shortened the Bush presidency.
The similarities though are numerous and eerie:
Americans were misled into both wars by presidential lies and deception (Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin incident, Iraq’s WMD, the Iraq-Al Queda connection and the inferential if not direct linking of Saddam Hussein to 9/11); monumental policy errors were central to both wars (Vietnam’s “domino theory” and the neocon notion that Iraq represents the central front in the so-called “war on terror”); both wars were defended with the fiction that they were being fought for democracy; both wars quickly metamorphosed from conventional military wars into guerilla wars.
There are domestic political parallels as well. LBJ insisted all along that America could have “guns and butter”, that we could fight the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty at the same time. George W. Bush and the then-Republican-controlled Congress insisted that we could fight the Iraq War and have tax cuts, hugely tilted toward the wealthy and unprecedented in wartime, at the same time. LBJ eventually had to abandon the War on Poverty; Bush has given no ground on his tax cuts, but Congress has failed to make them permanent and seems likely to let the most egregious of them expire.
And in both wars we find not politicians leading the people, but people leading the politicians. It was at bottom the Vietnam antiwar movement that drove LBJ from office; it was at bottom the Iraq antiwar movement that enabled the Democrats to seize control of both Houses of Congress in 2006. In both wars the American people turned against the conflicts long before most politicians. Even now, far larger percentages of the people favor deadlines for an Iraq withdrawal than members of Congress.
Of course there are significant differences, chiefly the apparent and abysmal absence of any true patriots in Iraq. The Vietcong were at least fighting for their country; who can fathom what the jihadists, the suicide bombers and the various sectarian factions in Iraq are really fighting for?
But to my mind the similarities go to the heart of what’s gone wrong, and easily outweigh the differences. Terence Samuels at American Prospect recently pointed to what he called the key parallel, the way that both wars “profoundly eroded the American people’s trust in their government and leaders.” Over at the blog Headline Junky, Judah Grunstein unearthed a current comparison buried between the lines of a report on the building of a 23-classroom elementary school in Baghdad. The school will hold up to 900 students aged 6-12; it will also contain a 90-square-meter four-room guardhouse.
As Grunstein puts it, “One of the great failures of the Vietnam War was the use of metrics conceived not to accurately measure the war effort, but to register its every engagement as a "plus": Body counts, secured villages, controlled territory. All of them gave the illusion of progress, even while we were steadily losing any chance of victory in the theater of war itself.
“The same thing has happened in Iraq. Supporters of the war, the few that remain, aren’t wrong when they say that we often fail to appreciate the occupation’s many accomplishments. What they fail to realize, though, is that in a realistic appraisal of the war effort, a schoolhouse built with an integrated guardroom doesn’t go under the plus column.”
Back to Samuels for a closing similarity, the one that dooms the surge, the one that doomed both wars from the start: “Americans may not think that Iraq is Vietnam, but they are now convinced that it, too, is a political war”.
*Paraphrasing “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” the Pete Seeger folk song that became an unofficial anthem for the Vietnam antiwar movement. The lyrics actually referred not to Vietnam but to soldiers on a 1942 nighttime training maneuver through a Louisiana marsh. In listeners’ minds it was a command from the soldiers’ captain that made the song an unmistakable symbol: “And the big fool says to push on.” Shades of “stay the course.”