Friday, October 20, 2006

Iraq vs. Vietnam: A War-By-War Smackdown

Just when you thought that the people who say that there are many similarities between the Iraq and Vietnam wars had run out of wind along comes The Decider to sort of agree that there is a similarity between the ongoing collapse of Iraq and the 1968 Tết Offensive.

So, class, it's time for a history lesson to set the record straight. (You in the back! Stop reading that comic book!)
There are apt comparisons between all wars. People are killed. People are taken prisoner. There are winners. There are losers. And sooner or later, Hollywood gets into the act and profits from the bloodshed.
But the analogies between Iraq (a war that your teacher knows a whole lot about) and Vietnam (a war that he wishes he didn't know so much about) are relatively few. Here's why:

From the Vietnamese perspective, they were fighting a war of national liberation. First it was against the Chinese and later against the French. Then the Americans came big footing in to fight what, from Washington's perspective, was a war to halt the spread of Communism in South Asia.

The Iraq war could not be more different, at least at the outset. The Americans came big footing in, toppled the Saddam Hussein regime, thought they'd be greeted as liberators, hand each Iraqi a gift certificate to use at their local Wal-Mart, install a democratically elected government that would be a beacon of hope in the Mideast, and be home in time for dinner.
Vietnam was a war of insurgency from the outset with the National Liberation Front's Viet Minh guerrilla army and later the Viet Cong (VC) in the van, although North Vietnam's People's Army (NVA), bankrolled by Russia and China, played a dramatically larger role as the conflict dragged on. By the time it was over, the little guys wearing sandals made from tire treads had pretty much fought the mightiest military in the world to a stalemate.

In Iraq, it is only because of a botched occupation and shortage of Wal-Mart gift certificates that a rag-tag assortment of insurgents, including remnants of Saddam's army, former Feyadeen, Al Qaeda terrorists and assorted other Muslim fanatics, are now front and center. Bankrolled by Iran and Syria and flush with the Saddam era munitions that the U.S. never had the smarts to police up because it was so busy looking for non-existent WMDs, the insurgents have pretty much fought the mightiest military in the world to a stalemate and continue to grow smarter and deadlier by the month.
Vietnam and Iraq could not be more different socially, culturally and ecologically, but they share a common resource -- black gold.

An unspoken justification for U.S. involvement in Vietnam was to protect valuable South China Sea oil fields, and to a lesser extent rubber plantations.

Early on, Iraq's vast oil reserves were an unspoken justification for liberating its people, but as the primary rationales withered and died, the abudance of oil became a proxy reason.
The current orgy of analogizing was prompted by a (subscription only) column by Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times in which he compared the situation today in Iraq to Tết. The Decider, in an admission in response to a reporter's question, more or less agreed, but he is only half right.
The Iraq-Tết analogy works insofar that the Viet Cong and NVA scored a tremendous propoganda coup in the U.S. with their coordinated suprise offensives on Saigon and other South Vietnamese cities on Tết Nguyên Đán, the 1968 lunar new year.
Despite President Johnson's repeated assurances that the war was going well, opposition against it had been growing, January 1968 saw the highest number of U.S. dead in the three-year-old war, and Tết marked a turning point for the antiwar movement. By the end of March 1968, Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election, and that fall Richard Nixon rode to victory and the White House by promising to get the U.S. out of Vietnam. He just didn't say when.
Despite President Bush's repeated assurances that the war is going well, the Iraqi insurgency's successes have captured the U.S. public's attention at a crucial time. There is no antiwar movement to speak of, but the war has become the major issue in the run-up to November 7 midterm elections. Republicans are struck deaf and dumb, while Democrats are using the war as a cudgel, although like Nixon they're being vague about when they'll get the U.S. out.
But the analogy collapses in a second important respect.
While Tết was a propoganda triumph, it was a military defeat and none of the objectives of the VC and NVA were attained. The war raged on through 1968 and 1969 and then stopped and started through cycles of diplomacy, peace talks, bombing campaigns and bombing halts until the U.S. finally was worn down and quit South Vietnam in 1975. In the following weeks, South was reunified with North.
This, of course, begs a very big question: Will the Iraqi insurgency's apparent propoganda victory be coupled with a military victory?
It is too soon to tell. The Iraq war has been a series of stops and starts, not a linear progression, and U.S. commanders promise yet another strategy shift in the wake of the failure of a second major security sweep in Baghdad. So anyone willing to predict the future based on the past is . . . well, an ass.

But if you're rooting for the home team or alternately believe that it's time for the visitors to pack up and leave Iraq to the Iraqis, it looks pretty good for the insurgents.

It took the VC and NVA a decade to wear down the Americans. The insurgents may be able to do so in less than half that time.
This photograph, taken by the great Eddie Adams during the Tết offensive, is considered to be one of the two most famous images of the Vietnam war.

Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam's national police chief, wanted to make an example of a prisoner who was said to be a Viet Cong captain.
Adams, an Associated Press photographer, won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, which helped turn U.S. public opinion against the war.

I'll be blogging on my personal connection to the subject of the other most famous image of the Vietnam war on or about Veterans Day.


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