The Vietnam Obsession

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.

The only big-deal U.S. protest rallies happened before the invasion, and even though approval of the war and Bush have sunk about as low as they can go, no angry masses are taking to the streets, as they did in growing numbers from 1967 through 1970. When Ted Koppel read the names of all the dead U.S. troops on Nightline, people hardly would have noticed if not for the right-wing kerfuffle—nothing like when Walter Cronkite said on the air in 1968 that “we are mired in stalemate,” or the extraordinary 1969 issue of Life with a photo of each of the 241 Americans killed during one week in Vietnam, which made my Republican mother sob at our kitchen table.

The scale of death is crucially different. Twenty-four Iraqis died in Haditha, while at My Lai several hundred civilians were murdered. In Iraq, between eight and nineteen Americans are dying each week; the very deadliest weeks are equivalent to only one bad day in Vietnam. We had 543,000 troops in Vietnam at the war’s peak, four times as many as we have in Iraq now. And, of course, during Vietnam, 2 million Americans were conscripted. Rumsfeld and Cheney may have believed sincerely we could do the job in Iraq with a small American force, but both worked under Nixon and surely brought to this war their own strain of phobic Vietnam Syndrome: If you keep it all-volunteer and the casualties low, and never increase troop levels, public opinion won’t get crazily out of hand.

And in a way that the sixties were precisely not, this is also an Age of Whatever. Thus the Iraq war, even if it ends badly, will cause no great disillusionment about America’s heroic white-hat nobility—you can’t lose your virginity twice. For the past 30 or 35 years, Americans have adjusted their regard for government (and every other institution) to discount for mixed motives, moral ambiguity, dissembling, necessary dirty deeds. I do think this administration’s blinkered incompetence is shocking and will be punished. But unless I’m missing something, the war has energized no youthquake or countercultural awakening.

Iraq is showing us that Vietnam and its ramifications, like so much that happened during the sixties and early seventies, were an anomaly. Instead, the present war is going down more or less like our other biggish, elective, imperial wars in the Third World, which occur every half-century pretty much on the dot—in Mexico, the Philippines, Korea, and now Iraq. About 2,500 Americans have been killed in Iraq, and 8,400 seriously wounded. During the Mexican War, 1,733 were killed in action, and 4,152 wounded; in the Philippines, 4,234 died and 2,818 were wounded. Although the casualty rates in Korea were worse than the worst of Vietnam, neither Korea nor those two earlier wars dramatically mobilized the home front, traumatized the nation, or transformed our culture and politics. All three have slipped down the memory hole of our ahistorical popular imagination.

Like Iraq, Mexico was a preemptive invasion with national economic interests at stake. The Philippines was a counterinsurgency. And the Korean War was our first massive military counterpunch of the Cold War—just as the invasion of Iraq came at the commencement of our new twilight struggle against an aggressive, ascendant ideology inimical to our own. And for much of the Korean War, more Americans than not thought U.S. involvement had been a mistake. Korea is cautionary as well, since although we didn’t lose—as we might not in Iraq—53 years later we’re in a standoff against a nuclear-armed Kim Jong Il. These twilight struggles last a long, long time.

When the Pew pollsters ask Americans if “Iraq will turn out to be another Vietnam,” people split evenly—that is, half of independents but most Democrats and nearly no Republicans say yes. But I’ll bet if a Democrat is elected president, and Iraq is still going badly, a lot of those Republicans will find their pro-war faith and this-isn’t-Vietnam optimism evaporating. So, if today’s Democrats are right, is 2006 the equivalent of early 1966, when 2,500 Americans had been killed in Vietnam—and 56,000 more were still to die? No way. Or is it now 1968, with half of Americans (or more) having decided the war was misbegotten and lost faith in a president from Texas—and the American fighting and dying still only half done? Surely it’s much later than that, with the cut-and-walk phase imminent: 2008 will be like 1972, when we had only 24,000 troops left in Vietnam, and the Republican presidential candidate won.

Another Vietnam? If only. In fact, if during the next three decades Iraq itself follows a course something like that of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam—that is, if it becomes an authoritarian country run by our nominal enemies yet stable, peaceful, prosperous, and apparently happy—we should count ourselves extremely fortunate indeed.


The Vietnam Obsession