TCS Daily

Iraq Is Not Vietnam

By Michael Totten - November 18, 2003 12:00 AM

It has become fashionable among the anti-war crowd to say Iraq is the new Vietnam. "Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam," is a popular bumper sticker.


Former Senator Max Cleland recently went on record as well: "Welcome to Vietnam, Mr. President. Sorry you didn't go when you had the chance."


The war in Iraq really only has one thing in common with the Vietnam War. They're both wars. The differences are significant and worth outlining.


Iraq Is Analogous to... Iraq


First of all, Iraq is a lot less violent. More than 58,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam. Since the March 19th invasion of Iraq, we've lost fewer than 400. At the rate this is going it will take more than one hundred years before the two wars are comparable.


It's not just a question of scale. Vietnam and Iraq are categorically different animals.


Consider terrain. Not all of Vietnam is covered in triple-canopy jungle. But much of it is, and there is no better place for insurgents to hide.


Most of Iraq is arid and flat. We can track people and movement from outer space. Our satellites can read license plates. We can see in the dark and strike bunkers from hundreds of miles away.

Guerillas and terrorists can hide in cities, but they are widely despised almost everywhere. They are not fish swimming among the people, to use Mao's formulation, as Communist revolutionaries sometimes could. They are more like a snake that eats its own tail.


Consider what an Iraqi dentist in Baghdad named Zeyad has to say about them:


Someone has been writing graffiti all over Baghdad threatening to kill children who accept the new schoolbags that are to be gifted to them by UNESCO for the new school season. Also warning that any hand waving to the infidel Americans will be cut.


Are these people sane? I mean what are they thinking? Is this our latest form of 'resistance'? Threatening our own children for getting some shiny new schoolbags. I am trying very hard to understand. This so called resistance is getting hated more and more by Iraqis everywhere. I'm sure this will only add to that scorn exponentially. They are losing any sympathy they may have had earlier.


Throughout the entire Vietnam War the North Vietnamese Army held its territory under the cover of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. And the Vietcong used the North as a base for insurgency in the South.


There is no Iraqi equivalent. Coalition forces hold 100 percent of the ground. That ground was taken easily in less than two months. Jihadists may find limited sanctuary in neighboring states like Syria. But Syria is not North Vietnam. It is not a client state of a superpower. Regime-change in Moscow was unthinkable during the Cold War. If Syria pushes too hard, regime-change in Damascus is viable.


From a strategic perspective, Vietnam during the Cold War was more like World War II Spain than it was like Iraq. Spain, like Vietnam, was aligned with an enemy state. Franco's thugs, and later his regime, were backed by Nazi Germany. But the Spanish army stayed inside its borders.

Iraq's army did not.


Saddam Hussein invaded Iran and Kuwait. He threatened to attack Saudi Arabia. He promised to "burn" Israel. He was the patron of international terrorists. He was a sworn enemy of America. And he is unique among dictators for producing weapons of genocide and then deploying them for that purpose.


We could have used high-tech weapons to turn Iraq into a crater. But the Pentagon and the Department of Defense took a tremendous amount of the 1960s New Left's criticism seriously. Technology made that possible. Saddam's regime wasn't carpet-bombed; it was excised with a scalpel in the cleanest and most precise large-scale military operation in history. No "bombs away" campaign ever materialized. Villages were not destroyed in order to "save" them. Civilian casualties were as close to zero as possible. The Vietnam analogy doesn't consider this.


Even if the so-called Iraqi "resistance" hopes to copy the Vietnamese, they can't. There was no successful uprising or "resistance" in South Vietnam. The South wasn't "liberated," it was conquered with tanks. It fell to a mechanized ground invasion from the North.


The Baathists and Islamists in Iraq have no ground divisions waiting in a stronghold to conquer Iraq if coalition forces leave. Saddam's Baathists recently did have divisions, but they were taken off the board in one of the greatest routs of all time.


The real enemy in the Vietnam War was the Chinese/Soviet alliance. Unable to confront them directly, we fought their shadow in the jungle. It was a war of choice from beginning to end.

We aren't fighting anyone's proxy in the Middle East. Iraq is the scene of direct confrontation against our primary enemies -- Islamofascist terrorists, whether religious or secular.


No Longer a War of Choice


Before coalition troops hit the ground in Iraq, it was still a war of choice. A wise choice, in my view, but a choice all the same. It's not anymore.


The U.S. could afford to run away from Vietnam because Ho Chi Minh and the Vietcong were only a direct threat to Americans so long as we stayed. Many of the terrorists in Iraq are a part of the same murky network that murdered thousands in Washington, New York, and Pennsylvania. Although there is new evidence that Saddam Hussein was connected with Al Qaeda as far back as the early 1990s, we still don't really know for sure. But that hardly matters. Both Baathists and Islamists are gunning for us now. And if we let them drive us out, it will be one of the greatest propaganda coups for terrorists ever.


In the mid-1980s the Soviet Union was driven by the mujahadeen from Afghanistan. They lost their will to fight, and their empire unraveled. From that, Osama bin Laden learned a critical lesson. One of the strongest nations on Earth can lose a war to ragtag jihadists. With one hated superpower down, he trained his sights on the other one.


The Russians were weak, he said. But Americans are even weaker. They flinch when they're hit, and they won't fight back. He had every reason to think so. Just a few years earlier Ronald Reagan withdrew US troops from Lebanon after a Marine barracks was hit by a single suicide-bomber. A few years later, Bill Clinton pulled troops out of Somalia after 18 American soldiers were killed in a mission in Mogadishu.


Regime-change in Afghanistan seemed to prove bin Laden wrong. The U.S. did fight back -- hard. But if Americans run away from Iraq, we will have to admit he is right: even after 9/11, the most powerful country on Earth can be taken down with a truck bomb.


Vietnam is a country, but for Americans it is also an open wound, unhealed and throbbing. Our enemies know it. Terror is a jerk and a twist of the knife.


Here is Alaa, an Iraqi in Baghdad, on the Baathists and Islamists in Iraq:


American public opinion is a matter of life and death to us here, at this particular time. The "enemy" doing his damn best to influence American and western public opinion...[W]hen it comes to psychological torture, they are the greatest masters of the "art" in human history.


Iraq is Vietnam only in feverish imaginations. Vietnam was a quagmire. Iraq, by comparison, is a particularly nasty pothole. Though the Vietnam Syndrome is on simmer right now, one mega attack in Baghdad will almost surely blow the lid off. And if Americans in the middle join those on the margins demanding a withdrawal, we will all lose the war.


Michael J. Totten writes from Portland, Oregon. Visit his Web log at

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