President Bush’s recent attempt to draw an analogy between Vietnam and Iraq has prompted a huge response. Since the timing of this article makes me a late-comer to the discussion, I thought I would gather together several different takes on the President’s recent foray into history.
Political analogies have always been tricky, sometimes misleading to the point of being dangerous, sometimes positively destructive and tragic. Tricky in that comparing this event or that era of yesterday to some movement or event of today runs the risk of apples to oranges: just not useful or meaningful. It was, for example, misleading in comparing the dominoes of Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe during 1945-50 to what would happen in the Far East if communist North Vietnam had been permitted to unify all of Vietnam. The theory was that, like dominoes, Laos, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, would have all fallen. The so-called Domino Theory led to the needless and, ultimately, futile loss of 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians.
Perhaps someone told Mr. Bush six years ago that the Vietnam analogy would not be in his best interests, so he has consistently disavowed it. He said that Iraq was not Vietnam! One can imagine his advisors explaining to him that the USA didn’t exactly win the hearts and minds of the ultimate Vietnamese victors by invading and bombing their country. “Shock and awe” wasn’t going to find a useful analogic referent to Vietnam. So, Mr. Bush has publicly argued the two wars were not comparable.
Recently, however (August 22, 2007), he changed his tune. He found, or so he thought, a useful comparison: that if we were to pull out of Iraq (or, as he put it, succumb to the “allure of retreat”), we would allow for the death and suffering of the sort not seen since the Vietnam War.
So some responses to this notion:
1. Yes, the American pullout of Vietnam – actually our defeat – did cause problems, particularly in facilitating the Khymer Rouge coming to power in Cambodia. But our pullout of Vietnam was not abrupt. We began cutting troops in 1968 and withdrew completely in 1975.
2. The Domino Theory as applied to Vietnam was wrong-headed. The North Vietnamese triumphed, but a Communist take-over of neighboring countries did not occur. We were in Vietnam for 15 years and still failed to meet our single objective – preventing a Communist take-over. Yet we now visit Vietnam as tourists and trade with that nation.
3. We have been in Iraq longer than in World War II, and a military victory is impossible. This is the analogy Bush, et al. should have made before even launching their ill-fated invasion.
4. Undoubtedly, there will be killing after we leave, as leave inevitably we must. But our presence has already caused mass killing and refugee problems: somewhere between 100,000-600,000 innocent Iraqis have died and more than two million have been displaced – meaning they have lost their homes and fled the country (except to America where we prevent them from immigrating). So our continued presence does not prevent death. In fact, as we now know, our presence in Iraq is a magnet for terrorism and a great recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.
5. Mr. Bush’s comparison of our post- WWII rebuilding of Japan and Germany is another absurd analogy. The Allies defeated those countries militarily. Iraq is enmeshed in a civil war which “we,” the USA, cannot win. We have not even been able to rebuild the damage we have caused there because of the terrorism we have spawned and the hideous mismanagement and corrupt use of American taxpayer dollars earmarked for Iraq.
6. The “Killing Fields” of Cambodia that Mr. Bush warns about are already visible in Iraq. The “Boat People” President Bush alluded to are already suffering: they are the two million refugees created by the US invasion. Our withdrawal will not miraculously restore them to their homes.
What is the case in both Vietnam and Iraq is that two tragic and immense blunders by the USA caused millions of deaths and displaced persons in both countries. Having committed the Iraq blunder, there is now no good or happy solution. Since we cannot “win” a military victory, there is no good reason to allow more American young soldiers to die. What Vietnam did show us was that intervening in a civil war led to the needless deaths of many Americans and that we could have stayed there another 10 years and still not have changed the ultimate result. But false analogies muddy our thinking even further. If Vietnam offers us any lessons, it is this: you don’t solve a problem by refusing to acknowledge your initial misjudgment and by persisting in your failed policies.