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Monday, October 20, 2003

Why Any Comparison Between Iraq Now and the Vietnam War Is Blatantly Misleading

Last night on MSNBC's Meet the Press --- a weekly interview by the gifted Tim Russert --- two of his guests paired off against each other were Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat of Florida and an intelligent and informed critic of the Bush handling of Iraqi reconstruction and transformation, and Senator John McCain of Arizona who supports the administration over Iraq without being happy with the Bush economic and environmental policies at home. It was a testimony to the knowledge and reasoning powers of the two Senators --- plus the predictable skill as an interviewer of Tim Russert --- that you couldn't but be more enlightened on what's at stake in our occupation of Iraq and the strengths and weaknesses of the Bush administration's policies there . . . this, no matter what you own substantive views happen to be. Mine are much closer to McCain's. Graham proved to be a highly informed and thoughtful critic of the administration all the same.

The Vietnam Quagmire?

At one point in the interview-debate --- to bring us to today's buggy theme --- Senator Graham raised the analogy between what's unfolding in Iraq and the Vietnam war, along with the usual metaphor of a quagmire. It's common currency, that analogy, in the circles critical of the Bush administration; and very quickly Senator McCain --- who was an aviator in the Vietnam war, only to be shot down and held captive for more than 5 years by the North Vietnamese --- disputed the analogy. After a few seconds, Russert intervened in order to move the debate back to the Bush administration today and the forthcoming electoral season in 2004. As a result, the reasons why the comparison between Vietnam and Iraq today are or aren't sound weren't elaborated on.

An elaboration is what this buggy article seeks to do. It strikes the buggy prof as noticeably misleading, and on several counts . . . all of which will be singled out here in a few moments.

First things first though. Note that the criticism of the Vietnam analogy as wrongheaded and badly thought through appears originally in the previous buggy article on Iraq --- Progress and Problems in Iraq II, the second of a three-part series on the US campaign to reconstruct and transform that country; what follows here isn't the promised third article in that series. It's a stand-alone article, nothing less.
Why the need?

For two reasons: because of the analogy's topical importance, and because it is widely mentioned in the media --- witness Meet the Press yesterday. Another thing to note here by way of preliminary analysis. Decades ago, for what it's worth, the buggy prof broke with some very influential policymakers over Vietnam, emerging as a moderate critic of our policies --- not for moral reasons, but because he was convinced that the war couldn't be won with the kind of military strategy we were employing. On his view, only the creation of an effective government and military in South Vietnam that could reliably tap the anti-Communist sentiments of its vast population would have likely worked. (For more on the buggy views, see the article published on the Vietnam war this last summer.)


Earlier US Efforts at Nation-Building

In effect, to make sense of the enormous, multi-faceted challenge the US confronts in post-Saddamite Iraq --- economic, political, security-laden --- you need to understand earlier American efforts at nation-building and democratic transformation in other defeated or occupied countries where we've been successful in the past: Germany and Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, and --- in the cold war era, without of course occupying them --- the promotion of democracy in Central and Latin America, a goal of the US government since the Alliance for Progress was publicly revealed by the John F. Kennedy administration in the early 1960s. Despite some ups-and-downs in pursuing that goal --- especially in the Nixon era --- by the end of the 1980s, even before the cold war melted into history, all of Latin America save for Communist Cuba and Mexico became democratic, and since 2000 Mexico has had its first fair and democratic election in its long history. In the Balkans too, American policies along with the energetic support of our NATO allies have been successful in promoting democracy, directly or indirectly, in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, and the Kosovo area of Yugoslavia. The same is true throughout almost all of Pacific Asia, save for Communist North Korea, Communist China, and Communist Vietnam and the rest of Indochina, plus Singapore and Malaysia. More striking still, since the 1997 financial meltdown in Pacific Asia -- north and south-east --- not only has Indonesia moved toward electoral democracy, but the Philippines and Thailand forced out of office corrupt governments; Taiwan has elected two Opposition leaders; and South Korea two as well.

Those who want clarification of our successes on these scores --- and some earlier failures as well as a more thorough evaluation of Latin American progress and problems in democratic transformation --- should consult the first part of the previous buggy article. In the meantime, we begin here with the contrasts between Iraq, and what we faced in Germany and Japan almost six decades ago by way of comparison.


Contrasts with Germany and Japan

After several years of total warfare, Germany and Japan in 1945 were wholly beaten and destroyed when we occupied them --- with the British, French, and Soviets in Germany, alone in Japan. Small wonder that there was little organized violence against the US-UK occupiers in Germany, and none against the US in Japan. Similarly, these were ethnically homogeneous countries whose people --- for all their political failures --- were technologically and economically advanced and had unusual abilities to cooperate spontaneously for nation-wide tasks. They were also among the best educated populations in the world.

Iraq, by contrast, was and remains economically and technologically backward --- its small technocratic class and vibrant intellectual life of the pre- and early Baathist periods crushed and bureaucratized and thoroughly controlled and censored. As for literacy --- despite claims to the contrary that it was one of the better educated Arab countries --- it is actually one of the worse: the CIA finds it was around 40% of the population at the start of this year. Egypt, for instance, boasts a literacy rate of around 57%; and its female literacy rate is about double that of the Iraqis. (For the Arab world as a whole, the literacy levels are the worse on the globe: worse even than in Tropical Africa, far poorer in per capita income.) The challenges the US face in Iraq shoot up and multiply in other directions too. Its 25 million people are divided into three traditionally hostile ethnic populations --- Shiites in the south (about 60%), Kurds in the north (about 15-20%), Sunni in the center (15%), plus tiny numbers of Assyrian Christians and Turkmen. The country itself was artificially created by the British Colonial Office in 1922 out of the collapsed remnants of the Ottoman empire, with the boundaries and the rule of a Sunni royal family (a Saudi tribal-clan) similarly decided by the British for their own convenience.

And yet, to return to the post WWII era, it took 4 years to create an effective, independent and democratic West Germany and Japan. Four years! Compare that with Iraq today, the war over only six months ago. Do the media reporters on Iraq care about these comparisons? Who knows? Even in the US and UK, the reports were and have been until recently single-mindedly fixated on the problems and setbacks of the US occupying forces, as though a total calamity had overtaken American and British policies and the whole enterprise quickly judged a failure . . . with the usual and fatuous quagmire metaphor and analogy with the Vietnam war repeatedly dredged up and splashed prominently across the front-page.


Why the Vietnam analogy is badly misleading:

1) The number of US combat troops killed in Vietnam averaged around 200 a week: so far, in three weeks of war and six months of occupation, the total US killed in action or in related accidents are less than two weeks of that earlier war.

2) The US military wasn't just fighting an anti-guerrilla war in Vietnam. After 1968, almost all the major battles fought between US and Communist forces --- the war escalating in 1965, when US troops swelled in number from 30,000 advisers to 500,000 --- involved regular North Vietnamese regiments and divisions, not Viet Cong guerrillas. As a good film like Platoon showed clearly --- Oliver Stone, its director, a former combat soldier there --- these were disciplined, crack troops, heavily armed. There are no equivalents anywhere in Iraq today. We are fighting a very low-level urban guerrilla war, plus some suicidal terrorists, and not as in Vietnam against simultaneously tens of thousands of guerrilla armed from the north and a major war against North Vietnamese regulars.

3) The North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces in the south had a huge supplier in North Vietnam, itself heavily armed and restocked by the Soviets and Chinese --- the latter then stopping around 1971-1972 when the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy worked out a tacit alliance with Beijing aimed at the Soviet Union. There is nothing equivalent in the Middle East to supply the remnants of Saddamite forces and terrorists, save for limited leakage through the Syria-Iraqi border.

4) The jungle-mountain terrain in Vietnam was ideal for guerrilla warfare and the sorts of regiment-level North Vietnamese fighting. Urban guerrilla tactics, especially suicide bombing, are a big challenge, but the comparison is still misleading. In more than three years of suicide bombing in Israel that has targeted Israeli citizens deliberately, the Israelis have suffered about 650 dead.

5) The North Vietnamese government and its Viet Cong allies in the south had captured effectively the nationalist sentiments of the North Vietnamese people and the active Viet Cong recruits in the south, producing unusually well-motivated fighting forces. Their officers were recruited for merit, not family-clan contacts like those in Saddam's army and Revolutionary Guards. The result? Despite inflicting enormous casualties on the Communist forces --- far higher than those on the German and Japanese militaries in WWII --- the US military couldn't prevail; the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong continued to fight with high morale right until our withdrawal in 1973 and then in their conquest of the South in 1975. Whether the US military could have prevailed here whatever our fighting strategy is doubtful; the only way to have won in South Vietnam was to help foster an effective South Vietnamese government and military that could tap with skill the anti-Communist sentiments of most South Vietnamese.

And so?

So any analogy with Iraq is doubly misguided here. Saddam's army and the Republican Guards who melted away into the area between Baghdad and Tikrit at the end of the war were led by tribal-clan cronies of his, and even then there had been repeated purges of the army and Republican Guard officer corps for political reasons. Similarly, aside from family-clan members in the Sunni belt between Baghdad and Tikrit, there's no evidence that the die-hard Saddamites are effectively motivated the way the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces were. Essentially, they seem to be animated mainly by a desire for revenge. If anything, the nationalist cause now belongs to the anti-Saddam population in Iraq . . . something brought out in both the Zogby and Gallup polls published last month, the first scientifically valid surveys of Iraqi opinion in four decades. They showed that around 70% of the Iraqis are delighted that Saddam is gone, toppled by the US and UK, and believe that their lives will be better in the future.

Replies: 2 comments

I think at one level the comparison of Iraq to Vietnam is constructive , i.e. the ability or inability of the US military to adapt to the situation and terain.

Nam started for the US in the late 1950's as counter insurgency committing squad and platoon size units to patrol from improvised base camps. This tactic was based on the success of the British troops in Malaysia and was the basis for US military training and R&D up until the very early 1960's when the VC with the help of their neighbors from the North upped the anty. During the mid 60's the military adapted to the change and assured American politicians they could win using conventional ( European ) style tactics. These assurances were given despite history to the contray .

Iraq starts with coventional style warfare and well won success forces the US military to adapt to counter insurgency. If democracy is to eventually come to Iraq , and it has to, the US military has to successfully adapt to the new situation. At best it will be a long tough fight.

Posted by Steve Shea @ 10/21/2003 03:12 PM PST

The message seems not to have been passed to Newsweek's Martha Brant. She would like to have more and more bodybag pictures...


The link was provided (and commented on) by Steven Denbeste (http://denbeste.nu/cd_log_entri/BiasedreportingfromIraq.shtml )

On the other hand (and yes I guess I could make a separate post on your previous article) some parts of the US media are most definitely coming around to the "Iraq is OK" point of view. For example this look at this CSM article (http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/1020/p09s01-coop.html ) as well as some of the Friedman NYT commentary you mentioned.

Finally - this blog from baghdad describes an eyewitness account of an attack against the US Army and the (Arab) media coverage of it: http://healingiraq.blogspot.com/archives/2003_10_01_healingiraq_archive.html#106656106711032484

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Posted by Francis @ 10/21/2003 04:59 AM PST