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The Vietnam Obsession

It’s the analogy that won’t quit—and won’t fly, either. But could Iraq end up like Vietnam? We should be so lucky.


Illustration by Christopher Sleboda  

Our culture fixates on the sixties and early seventies. It’s our fetish, our tic, like a thrilling and doomed love affair we can’t quite get over. (Thus we have another much-anticipated Truman Capote biopic coming out this fall.) And so when it comes to thinking about Iraq, the Vietnam template inevitably hovers: Media memories of Saigon flicker like pentimento ghost images behind the dispatches and videos from Baghdad. IEDs are the new claymore mines, and the battle for Fallujah was the battle for Hue redux. A Google search for Iraq and quagmire results in several million returns—more than twice as many as Vietnam and quagmire.

Yet during the first couple of years of the war, respectable opinion considered any suggestions of real equivalency outré—glib and sloppy and, even more, tendentious: Because Vietnam is the shorthand for slow, mortifying national debacle, even mentioning parallels seemed defeatist. Tom Friedman brought up Vietnam analogies five times in his Times columns during the first two years of the Iraq war, always to dismiss the very idea—“this notion being peddled by Europeans, the Arab press and the antiwar left.”

But he hasn’t mentioned it at all for the past sixteen months. And since then, Chuck Hagel—not an Arab journalist or antiwar leftist but a Republican senator from Nebraska and a Vietnam veteran—pretty much single-handedly opened the Establishment closet and dragged the V-word out. “We are locked into a bogged-down problem not un-similar, dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam,” he said. “The longer we stay there, the more similarities are going to come together.”

Indeed so, at least rhetorically. The explanation for Haditha—a Marine squad’s hair-trigger rage over a comrade’s death and the blurry lines between insurgents and civilians—is entirely Vietnamesque. Just before Memorial Day, President Bush repeated his exit-strategy-in-a-can: “As the Iraqis stand up, we’ll stand down,” once again recalling Richard Nixon’s 1969 promise that “as South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater.”

But are we really headed for another Vietnam, with all that implies? I don’t think so. (And Saddam wasn’t another Hitler, either.) It’s a commonplace that “9/11 changed everything,” but Vietnam transformed America—our foreign policy, our politics, our culture—by at least an order of magnitude greater than we’ve experienced so far in this struggle. Call it grotesque baby-boomer one-upmanship if you want, but U2 and Coldplay aren’t the Beatles, Beck and Josh Ritter aren’t Dylan, and Iraq isn’t Vietnam. (And Zarqawi was no Ho Chi Minh.)

Yes: once again, following a decade of peace and prosperity and hopefulness, imperial panic has led us to fight a ruthless Third World counterinsurgency on behalf of dubious allies in order, finally, not to win but (as Robert McNamara’s aide wrote in a 1965 memo) “to avoid a humiliating defeat,” since (as the same guy wrote in 1966) “the reasons we went into [the war] to the present depth are . . . largely academic.” Now, as then, we have Seymour Hersh chronicling the demonic breakdowns of command, and Neil Young releasing antiwar songs. And if this war ends up more of a failure than a victory, it will be for many of the same reasons—our hubris and clumsiness, as well as the corruption and lack of political will on the part of our proxy regime—that we failed in Vietnam.

But the differences are profound. In Vietnam we were fighting on behalf of not-so-good-guys against not-so-bad-guys. In Iraq, we really are fighting on the side of the majority of the people (and their not-so-bad-guy leaders) against bad guys. Back then, we fought to prevent a regional domino effect of communist overthrow; in Iraq, we started fighting to provoke a regional domino effect of democratic overthrow. But the fact that this time we are fighting on morally high(er) ground—for bigger stakes against no remotely noble enemies—probably makes the hell-bent, largely avoidable Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld mismanagement of Iraq more egregious than the Johnson-McNamara-Nixon conduct of the war in Vietnam.

And the impact here at home? The one notable political parallel between then and now concerns the magnetic fields of partisan loyalty. And in an entirely counterintuitive way. For the first few years of large-scale U.S. fighting in Vietnam, Republicans were significantly more inclined than Democrats to say that sending troops had been wrong—in part, surely, because two Democratic presidents had done it. Only after Nixon became president in 1969 did a majority of Democrats start conceding that, yeah, the war was ill-conceived. Today, of course, the partisan polarity is reversed, and far more extreme: According to Pew, 73 percent of Democrats and an astonishing 14 percent of Republicans say that invading Iraq was a mistake.

So people have party-line opinions. But otherwise . . . how many of us care passionately about the war? How much does it color American life and culture? Compared with Vietnam, the fundamental apathy on all sides is remarkable. When Army Major General John Batiste retired and returned from Iraq last fall, he said, “It shocked me that the country was not mobilized for war. It was almost surreal” that Americans only “think about the war . . . when they decide what color magnet ribbon to put on the back of their car.” The shocking thing is that he was shocked.


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