Revisiting Vietnam

As recently as last week, I wrote that I did not believe Iraq and Vietnam were the same war, and I have defended that proposition across the blogosphere, despite my intense opposition to getting into the invasion in the first place.

Today, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who lived through the Vietnam era and initially supported the invasion of Iraq, writes that he sees parallels emerging, particularly in President Bush’s speech Tuesday night. From Cohen’s column:

The similarity is most striking in the language the president used. First came the vast, insulting oversimplifications. The war in Iraq was tied over and over again to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, although that link was nonexistent. The Sept. 11 commission said in plain English that there was no connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Even a line such as we must “defeat them abroad before they attack us at home” had a musty, Vietnam-era sound to it. Whether it’s true or not, it is an updated version of the domino theory: if not Saigon then San Francisco.

And so on. I still don’t buy the theory that Iraq is the second coming of the Vietnam War, but Cohen makes me think that the parallels might be there again: the ill-defined mission objectives, the obfuscatory rhetoric, a potentially nationalist insurgency making trouble for American troops, the prospect of a long occupation.

Is Iraq becoming a new Vietnam?

I actually have a bifurcated answer to that.

First, Iraq does not seem to be a new Vietnam. While the word “terrorist” substitutes nicely for “communist” in wartime rhetoric, there are still greater differences. Chief among them is that the United States now has the benefit of fighting Vietnam, and has hopefully learned the lessons of that war. Second is that the mission is subtly different; the United States has made it clear, through action, that it is not merely trying to build a puppet regime in Iraq.

Indeed, the United States could have easily propped up a new strongman, handed him a revamped Iraqi military, and said, “Congratulations, Iraq, this is your new leader, make sure you send us plenty of oil.” But the United States didn’t choose to do that, instead embarking on the rather difficult task of midwifing an Iraqi democracy.

But, like I said, my answer is bifurcated. Even if this is America’s new Vietnam, what difference does that make? While the timetable-setters might not like it, the United States does have at least a moral obligation to try to leave Iraq in a better condition than it was at the end of the invasion.

The cost of this obligation — both in terms of American lives and American dollars — is certainly great. And this endeavor, if mismanaged, may ultimately prove unsuccessful. The insurgency might triumph, American political will might bend, and the U.S. military might depart Baghdad in a chopper while an American soldier and his Iraqi lover sing about suns and moons.

If the Iraqi venture fails, then it will fail. But it cannot be allowed to fail when America has put barely any energy into the endeavor. U.S. troops have been stationed in Iraq for a mere two years. Overcoming an insurgency and rebuilding a nation certainly take much longer than that. The true outcome of this operation — whether for good or for ill — cannot be assayed in as short a time as two years.

Those who favor immediate (or short-term) withdrawal from Iraq seem deathly afraid that Iraq will turn into another Vietnam, a political embarrassment for the United States. But if this feverish push for a withdrawal succeeds … then Iraq will certainly become another Vietnam.

I hold a somewhat unique position on the Iraq invasion. Early on, I strongly opposed it for a variety of reasons, among them my belief that the United States should not assume the long-term burden of occupying and rebuilding Iraq. But now that the United States is in Iraq, I strongly oppose calls for withdrawal because I do not believe the United States has made sufficient effort to meet those obligations.

It is a position that does not find favor with either side of the Iraq debate.

When Pennywit isn’t clubbing baby seals, he writes at

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