A Bad Analogy
in Iraq is not another "Vietnam."
BY PETER R. KANN
September 8, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT
While it is far from clear that antiwar sentiment actually has been spreading this summer (after all, 60%
of Americans indicated continuing support in a recent AP poll), there's little doubt that antiwar rhetoric is on the rise.
Predictably, the most convenient comparison the doubters and doomsayers on Iraq can find is the Vietnam War
that ended over 30 years ago. We see that word--Vietnam--sprouting on the signs carried by still-small clusters of antiwar
protestors, as in "No More Vietnams." We hear it cited in superficial analogies by liberal pundits. More depressingly, we
hear it mouthed, however incongruously, by would-be leaders like Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who recently made televised
comments about America being "bogged down" like we were in Vietnam.
It is inevitable that every war leads to historical comparisons. Much as some of us would prefer to see the
current Iraq war through the lens of our own Revolutionary War and the framing of our Constitution that followed it, it cannot
be surprising that the antiwar--or perhaps just anti-Bush--Left chooses to latch on to a more recent and more painful comparison.
What is surprising, however, is how poorly considered that comparison is. There are innumerable differences between the Iraq
and Vietnam experiences. But there also are valid similarities--they just aren't the ones the critics cite.
The differences include the fact that America pursued the struggle in Vietnam for more than a decade against
a regular North Vietnamese army backed by the Soviet Union and China, and lost more than 58,000 American soldiers, many of
them draftees, before we decided to toss in the towel. By comparison, America, now the world's sole superpower, has been fighting
a collection of terrorists in Iraq for less than two years and has lost fewer than 2,000 troops--and these from a fully professional
and volunteer military. Nevertheless, significant elements of our elite are already beginning to sound retreat, even as Iraq
takes serious steps toward democracy. Such differences, one might argue, are a sad commentary on the softening sinews of our
That said, it is more illuminating and relevant to look at some of the genuine similarities.
First, during the wars in both Vietnam and Iraq, the American people have retained their common sense and
consequent sense of commitment far longer than the elites who claimed to lead or represent them. During Vietnam, the elites,
from the college campuses to the media to the halls of Congress, tired of fighting well before the larger American public
which, even by the early '70s, continued to show significant support for the war effort and rejected the cut-and-run calls
of the McGovernites. But eventually, the persistent pessimism of the elites took its toll on the public.
Today, as antiwar activists wave their placards, as media coverage from Iraq focuses almost entirely on the
several American soldiers killed each day, and as politicians begin distancing themselves from a war for which they voted,
there are clear signs of a similar but compressed syndrome.
Second, in the case of Vietnam, the war was lost less on the battlefield than on the home front. North Vietnamese
leaders themselves have frequently credited "the peace movement of the heroic American people" as important to the communist
victory. Few military authorities would any longer dispute that the vaunted Tet Offensive of 1968 was a significant military
defeat for the North Vietnamese, or that well into the early '70s the military balance on the ground had shifted in favor
of the Americans and South Vietnamese.
Covering the Tet Offensive, I, too, was stunned into initially seeing it as a communist triumph. Traveling
the Vietnamese countryside in the years that followed, I came to see the military progress we were making. But even as the
balance of power on the ground shifted in one direction, the balance of politics at home was shifting in the other.
And so, by the early '70s, with antiwar protests mounting in the streets and antiwar sentiment seething in
Washington, we accelerated our military withdrawals, Congress cut off military aid to a South Vietnamese government we had
committed to support, and the U.S. was left to negotiate a fig-leaf surrender. We then stood by to watch the 1975 collapse
of South Vietnam under a massive North Vietnamese assault. One need not argue that Vietnam was ever a fully winnable war to
suggest that political rather than military realities led most directly to that grim outcome. And, as today's senators complain
about casualties, begin to seek certain dates for troops withdrawals, and argue that the price of persistence is too high,
the similarities to the Vietnam era are all too recognizable.
Third, the clearest lesson of all from Vietnam is that commitments cannot be abdicated without consequence.
The costs of our eventual failure of will in Indochina included several million South Vietnamese--who had trusted us--suffering
in brutal re-education camps or risking, and often losing, their lives as boat people on the South China Sea. The consequences
in Cambodia were even more terrible, as several million Cambodians were beaten, starved or worked to death and then buried
in the mass graves of Pol Pot's killing fields. What fate might await the Iraqis if we withdraw is anyone's guess. But that
fate surely will not be the "peace and reconciliation" once promised by the victors in Indochina.
Then, too, there is a larger and
still more controversial set of consequences--and a fourth potential similarity. The war in Vietnam was not simply about Vietnam
but also about the future of Asia, just as the war in Iraq is not simply about that country's future. It is also about the
future of the larger Middle East.
With 30 years of hindsight, it seems unarguable that Asia in the wake of the Vietnam War turned out very well,
above all for Asians, but also for the U.S. The dominos we once worried would collapse not only held, but have since held
out the promise of free people and free markets to the rest of the Third World. From Korea and Taiwan down through the whole
arc of Southeast Asia, the political and economic systems we advocated have triumphed. This transformation did not take place
despite the Vietnam War but because of it. It happened precisely because America, for all the pain of those war years, had
the patience and persistence to buy the time the rest of Asia needed to change. In that sense, while we lost the battle for
Vietnam, we won the wider war for the future of Asia.
Today, you do not have to be a Bush partisan to understand that the current war is about more than Iraq
itself. It is also, and indeed above all, about the future of the Middle East, about the kind of change we recently have seen
glimmers of in Lebanon and Libya and possibly even Palestine, the kind of change we hope to see more of in Egypt and Saudi
Arabia and eventually in Syria and Iran. Whatever the hopes for larger transformative events across the region, they clearly
depend on America. At the very least, we need to buy time. Alternatively, to lose heart and retreat--after less than two years
and with fewer than 2,000 casualties--almost surely means losing not just the battle but also the war, a far worse outcome
than those who cite Vietnam similarities can seem to comprehend.
Mr. Kann, chairman of Dow Jones, covered the Vietnam War for The Wall Street Journal.
Col. John Ripley, Marine, Who Halted An Enemy Two
Hundred Tank, 20,000 Troop Attack, Dies
OPEN LETTERS TO VIETNAM
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