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Issue Date:  December 28, 2007

-- Getty Images/AFP/Ali Al-Saadi

A U.S. soldier speaks with a boy while on patrol in Baghdad's Dora district Nov. 21.
Not a second Vietnam

A different U.S. defeat looms in Iraq


As the Iraq war drags on with no end in sight, there are comparisons with the Vietnam War that ended in 1975 in the victory of the Vietnamese and the humiliating retreat of the Americans, lifted by helicopter from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.

However, there are major differences between the conflicts.

The first major difference between Vietnam and Iraq is the geopolitical context. When the Cold War ended late in the 20th century, the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the pressure to “contain” the Soviet Union disappeared. The United States became the world’s only superpower. The tragedy of the end of the last century was that the United States did not seize that moment to move the world toward a more rational and humane set of international institutional frameworks. Instead, under the first President Bush, it announced a “new world order” and marked it with the Gulf War, the first invasion of Iraq, in 1991.

The second difference is simply in the death toll. The Vietnam War cost the lives of 58,000 American military and estimates of between three and five million Vietnamese dead, including both military and civilian. Thus far, the U.S. death toll in Iraq is less than 4,000. The highest estimates of Iraqi dead, civilian and military, do not approach the Vietnam death toll. Leaving aside the moral revulsion at the U.S. involvement in the first place, the Vietnam peace movement grew out of two facts. One, this was the first war that brought battles into the homes of every American. Unlike the Korean War, when most homes didn’t have television and unlike Iraq, where American dead are never shown, the president has never attended a military funeral and the bodies are shipped home under cover of darkness, the Vietnam War was covered by journalists on the front lines. They filmed the violence, ranging from the burning of the huts of the Vietnamese villagers to the deaths of our own troops. It was bloody hell every night on the 7 o’clock news. In our front rooms!

Another difference, and the most important one, was the draft. The draft fell most heavily on the “underclass” of the United States, farm youth, urban minorities, the working poor -- all those who were not in college, or who did not have the money to hire a shrink to provide grounds for exemption. This led to massive unrest on the part not only of the youth, but of their parents. As the war dragged on and the death rate rose, whatever patriotic support had existed earlier vanished. Late in the war, President Nixon ended the draft and then withdrew American troops from combat. The last two years of U.S. military engagement were largely U.S. air strikes. Over the course of the war, the United States dropped more tons of explosives on Indochina than were used by all sides during all of World War II.

The origins of the Vietnam War

During World War II, the OSS (Office of Special Services, later, under President Truman, to become the CIA), had worked with Ho Chi Minh, found him the one effective force fighting the Japanese in Vietnam and urged President Roosevelt to support him. He did not. Moreover, Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, supported France’s effort to reestablish its Indochinese empire. Resistance, led by Ho Chi Minh, resulted in the stunning defeat of the French in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, a historic battle led by the Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap. President Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, had urged the atomic bomb be used to save the French from defeat. Fortunately, Eisenhower forbade that, and with the Geneva Accords of 1954, that war ended and the French withdrew.

The United States violated the spirit of the Geneva Accords by setting up the puppet government of Diem in Saigon, and violated the letter of the Geneva Accords by blocking a free election in all of Vietnam in 1956, since all expected Ho Chi Minh to win by a large majority. The United States found its puppet government confronting a deepening guerrilla war.

All of this was essentially an accidental collision in which Washington saw Ho Chi Minh as an extension of Soviet and Chinese power, the Vietnam conflict one of several localized wars of left-leaning national liberation (one of which, of course, was under Castro in Cuba). The United States had no economic interests in Vietnam, no historic ties to the area, and saw the war as an effort to “stop the spread of communism.” Clearer minds would have seen Ho Chi Minh’s movement as part of the postwar anticolonial movement throughout Africa and Asia, but clearer minds were in short supply in Washington, then as now.

When John Kennedy took office, the United States had only 500 military advisers in South Vietnam. Kennedy increased the number to 16,000. Eventually, under President Lyndon Johnson, the number of U.S. troops reached 500,000.

The United States became involved in Vietnam because it saw the war as part of the spread of communism and then stayed long after it was clear the United States had lost, simply because no one in Washington had the courage to accept defeat.

U.S. interests in Vietnam and Iraq

Contrast Vietnam to Iraq and you see a world of difference. The United States has always had an interest in the Middle East because of the oil. With the collapse of the British and French Empires after World War II, the United States moved into the vacuum. The United States followed the pattern of the British and French before them -- divide the Middle Eastern states in order to manage them.

-- UPI/Hugh Van Es

An Air America helicopter crew member helps evacuees up a ladder on the roof of 18 Gia Long Street April 29, 1975, shortly before Saigon fell to advancing North Vietnamese troops.

A look at U.S. efforts in Iran and Iraq show what the United States had in mind. In Iran, in 1953 the CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq because he sought Iranian control over Iran’s oil. The CIA installed the shah of Iran, who ruled as a client of the United States until the Iranian Revolution of 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France and an Islamic Revolution took power. (There was an irony in the overthrow of the shah. The United States had provided him with abundant military supplies to help police the region but neglected to provide the most basic crowd control devices such as tear gas. When demonstrations began, the only weapons the shah had were machine guns, which inflamed the crowds and sent them into the streets by the tens of thousands. Ironically, the shah was overthrown by an almost entirely unarmed religious rebellion).

At the same time, the United States cultivated Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When the Islamic Revolution took power in Iran, it sent shock waves through the Arab world and caused deep concern in Washington. Saddam made the error of thinking that given the internal chaos in Iran, he could win a war. In 1980 he attacked, with the tacit support of the United States. The war lasted from 1980 to 1988 and cost as estimated million lives of young Iraqi and Iranian troops. At no time during that horrific war did Washington end its support for Saddam, or make any effort at negotiating a peace. What was important from Washington’s point of view was that the Iranians needed to be weakened. (I find it hard to believe the same people who supported that war and stood by while a million youth died are really worried about possible disasters following an American exit from Iraq.)

It was only later, after Saddam invaded Kuwait, another U.S. client state, that Washington turned against him for the first Gulf War. Thus, while the origins of the Vietnamese War were accidental, the origins of the current Iraq war were quite deliberate. It wasn’t simply that George W. Bush wanted to finish the fight he felt his father should have completed; the temptation of controlling the vast oil of Iraq was too great, and the neocons made the mistake of thinking it could be had on the cheap.

A costly defeat in Iraq

The differences between Vietnam and Iraq are clear when it comes to the cost of U.S. defeat. In Vietnam the problem, as seen by President Richard Nixon, was that a defeat while he was in office would harm the Republicans. From the standpoint of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, it was the danger that the United States would not be seen as a “serious power” if a guerrilla army could defeat it. But the loss of Vietnam did not mean the loss of any strategic resources. It merely confirmed the “status quo ante”: The United States was not a serious player on the Asian land mass and had never been.

In Iraq, however, defeat means not only the loss of face but the loss of control of the oil. It is for this reason the United States is finding it hard to accept the fact it has already been defeated.

In Vietnam, the United States confronted an “enemy” that was united, had the support of the clear majority of the people, and was prepared to take power throughout the country the moment the United States left. The Hanoi government was competent, and though not without fault, didn’t kill large numbers of civilians, didn’t chop off heads. The great tragedy of history for both the United States and Vietnam is that the United States could have negotiated an honorable peace with Hanoi years before it had to flee in defeat. In Iraq the situation is totally different. There is no united front opposing the United States. There have always been three main groups cobbled together under whatever government controlled Baghdad: the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds. Right now they are at least as eager to kill each other as to kill U.S. troops.

This is what makes the U.S. defeat in Iraq more troublesome. U.S. withdrawal may result in even greater unpleasantness. This did not occur in Vietnam. (There is no denying, however, the horrific development in Cambodia, where Pol Pot, who took power when the United States left, proceeded to murder more than a million of his own people, including all those with the remotest ties to Hanoi.

Historically, other withdrawals have been bloody. When the British left India, it is estimated that as many as a million Muslims and Hindus were killed in the communal riots following the partition in 1947 of India into Pakistan and India. Americans should keep in mind that our own Civil War saw more troops killed than were killed in the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined.

The reality is that outside forces cannot impose peace. What the United States has done is to destroy the relative internal peace Iraq had obtained at the cost of a brutal dictatorship. The Americans and the British have become the problem. They cannot provide a solution. Their withdrawal from Iraq will not bring peace, but it will create a situation where the Iraqis will have to accept responsibility for what happens.

‘Just walk away’

One of the arguments made by “responsible” Democrats and think-tank folks is that the United States “can’t simply walk away.” There is a struggle within Washington over what the United States should do, with establishment Democrats arguing U.S. forces may need to stay in Iraq “for the long term,” which means decades.

The “long term” will not look any better than the current mess. Things are already very touchy between Turkey and the Kurdish area of Iraq. What the United States must do is to make clear it is withdrawing, that it will close all its military bases and will engage in direct negotiations with Turkey, Syria and Iran. Turkey has a real interest in stabilization of the Kurdish area. Syria and Iran both face problems with the collapse of Iraq and have much to gain by trying to put things on an even course. But none of this is possible until the United States realizes it must leave Iraq, even if that means abandoning the magnificent new embassy complex it is building, larger than Vatican City, before it is forced to airlift its last diplomats from the roof of that embassy, as in Saigon.

David McReynolds worked for many years for the War Resisters League, was chair of the War Resisters International, and was twice the Socialist Party’s candidate for president. He is retired and lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2007

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