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Iraq and Vietnam Wars - Comparative Analysis
Written by Robert L. Fares   
Thursday, 04 August 2005 10:39

The United States has not been truly involved in a war since the Japanese surrender on August 14, 1945. However, the United States has involved itself it three sizable campaigns of "police action." These campaigns of "police action," manifest themselves in the Korean War, Vietnam War, and more recently, the Iraq War. The Iraq War and the Vietnam War hold many key similarities. Neither Vietnam nor Iraq directly attacked the United States before America launched its campaign. In both Iraq and Vietnam, the United States drastically underestimated the number of troops needed to successfully complete its objectives. Also, both wars have been characterized by the violent and oppressive relationships between American forces and foreign civilians and soldiers alike. Because the Iraq War and the Vietnam War have such key similarities, policymakers dealing with Iraq can learn pertinent lessons from the American experience in Vietnam.

Iraq and Vietnam were similar from the start. The United States did not declare war against either Vietnam or Iraq. Also, the power to declare war was delegated to the President shortly before either war began. In the summer of 1964, the United States began patrolling the coast of Northern Vietnam. On the second of August, the American destroyer Maddox was fired on briefly by three Vietnamese patrol boats. Neither the American destroyer nor the Vietnamese patrol boats were damaged. This brief attack in the Tonkin Gulf made sailors paranoid to Vietnamese assault. Two nights later, in the midst of a violent storm, the C. Turner Joy reported a torpedo attack from Vietnamese ships. However, due to the adverse conditions of the gulf, the radar on the ships had strange readings. The US government did not know if the Vietnamese torpedoes spotted on radar were whales or electrical disturbances, however President Lyndon B. Johnson called the incidents "open aggression on the high sea." The President went on to pressure congress into passing the Tonkin Gulf resolution which gave the President authority over military action to defend American forces in the Far East. In a way, this surrendered the congressional power to declare war to the President. Shortly before the Iraq War began, the congress passed a resolution similar to the Tonkin Gulf resolution. On October, 2002, congress passed a resolution giving President George W. Bush the power to launch military strikes in Iraq to his discretion. Like the Tonkin Gulf resolution, the resolution on Iraq vested key military decisions in the executive as though he were a monarch. Both the Iraq and Vietnam Wars were fought without a formal declaration of war by congress.

Both the United State's entry into Vietnam and Iraq were similar in their legislation. The entries were also similar militarily. At the beginning of both wars, the United States sought to use its technological advantage over Vietnam and Iraq respectively. The campaign in Vietnam began with "rolling thunder," in which Northern Vietnam was blanketed with American bombs. The United States sought to make the Ho Chi Minh trail inaccessible by the Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces before sending its own troops to Vietnam. Similarly, in Iraq, the United States performed surgical bombing strikes before invading with a ground force. The Bush administration used the same military strategy in Iraq as the Johnson administration had in Vietnam. After invading with ground troops, a key problem was immediately realized in Vietnam. The United States had underestimated the number of soldiers needed to achieve victory in Vietnam. In the beginning, only 3500 troops were sent to Vietnam. This number would be gradually increased as the government slowly realized how much force would be needed. The number of troops in Vietnam peaked in 1968 at 536,000. Policymakers in anticipation of the Iraq War failed to learn from the American experience in Vietnam. Expecting that toppling Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq would bring immediate victory to the United States, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld only provided enough troops to dethrone Saddam but failed to provide peace-keeping forces to pacify Iraq after the overthrow. This eventually led to a great deficit of troops in Iraq, just as in Vietnam. The Bush administration learned one valuable lesson from Vietnam: if there is mild dissent from a war, a draft will only sharpen the dissent and will become a political suicide. A general draft was never imposed in Iraq, however George W. Bush "drafted," more than 108,000 of our 333,000 national guardsmen. The drafted guardsmen were sent to Iraq to fight a foreign, international war. This goes against the principal purpose of the National Guard to "execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, and repel invasion," according to the United States Constitution.

Because the beginnings of the Iraq and Vietnam Wars were so similar, policymakers in Iraq could glean lessons on Iraq policy from Vietnam policy or the failure of that policy. Iraq and Vietnam continue in their similarities. Iraq and Vietnam were very much alike towards their ends because of the slow, arduous pace both took on. However, this slow pace which immediately manifested itself in Vietnam did not instill itself in Iraq until after the topple of Saddam Hussein. From the very beginning, objectives were vague in Vietnam. The major objective was to stop the spread of communism by using US forces to protect Ngo Dinh Diem, the capitalist leader of Vietnam, from a communist overthrow by the popular leader Ho Chi Minh. The United States had installed Ngo Dinh Diem in the first place. This ambiguous objective left the military using any means necessary to defeat who attacked them. Often, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese army were hard to distinguish from the Vietnamese civilians. This led to a great number of civilian casualties. The major objective of Vietnam boiled down to a battle over opinions. In order to change the opinions of the North Vietnamese, the United States attacked them. This only made their opinions more hard and fast than before. This proved to create an un-winnable situation in Vietnam.

Policymakers learned a valuable lesson from Vietnam. They set specific objectives before entering Iraq. They would topple Saddam and dismantle the operations he was believed to have under his control: a uniquely powerful dictatorship, a link to Al-Qaeda, programs to acquire nuclear weapons, and chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. In the beginning, the Iraq War seemed to be moving quickly as the American people watched the flash of bombs over Baghdad and the crash of the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein. Shortly after the topple of Saddam's regime, George Bush landed on an aircraft carrier to proclaim "mission accomplished." This is when the second phase of the Iraq War began. The second Iraq War has been almost synonymous to Vietnam in its slow pace and seemingly needless soldier and civilian deaths. Since President Bush celebrated the end of the Iraq War, two years have passed, and almost 1800 US soldiers have died in Iraq. Like the Vietnam War, the second Iraq War has made no progress with time. Everyday, reports come in about the US effort to establish an Iraq police force and to pacify the insurgence, but no real progress is seen. The second Iraq War will end just as the Vietnam War did. The United States will withdraw from Iraq with its tail between its legs.

The Bush administration failed to learn from Vietnam that if a large bloc of a country is fighting to remove the presence of the United States, then increasing the presence of the United States in that country will only result in further dissent. Iraqi dissent against the United States was vivid from the beginning of the war. Just after Saddam's regime had been toppled, massive demonstrations took place in which Iraqis pushed for the removal of US forces from Iraq. The American's propagandist, Ahmed Chalabi, said that Americans would leave Iraq in "a matter of weeks rather than months." One year later, Sunnis and other Muslims in Iraq unified in protest of the American "occupation." The protesters demanded that the US leave Iraq immediately.10  Tensions were broiling in Iraq, yet the US still refused to remove forces form Iraq. They saw some inherent need to remain in Iraq.

The dissent in Iraq would go on to be intensified by a violent, brutal act on behalf of the United States. This brutal act would also reveal to the American people that the path of the war in Iraq was not uphill. Iraqi detainees being held in Abu-Ghraib prison were brutally humiliated by American soldiers. Pictures were leaked to the press. The first portrayed two soldiers making a thumbs-up sign near a pyramid of seven naked detainees. The second showed a kneeling inmate posing as though performing oral sex acts on another hooded inmate. The third showed a terrified male Iraqi inmate trying to ward off an attack dog.11  The horrific images continued and only intensified. The Abu-Ghraib incident worked to remove opinions of the US liberators and replace them with beliefs that the US was just one tyrant in place of the other.12  Policymakers in Iraq failed to learn from Vietnam that military cruelty must be completely avoided in order to hinder dissent. The military in Vietnam was notorious for their massive killing of civilians. Particularly at My Lai where US forces killed more than 200 men women and children.

Because of the view that the United States was a tyrant, the peaceful protests against the United States would become an insurgency. This violent insurgency became the reason for the United States to stay in Iraq. However, the opinions of the insurgence against the Americans will not be swayed by attack. The power behind their opinions is as strong as the power behind the opinions of the North Vietnamese. Where communism and capitalism clashed in Vietnam, Christianity clashes with Islam in Iraq. Christianity is such a deeply laid theology that Islam will never overpower it and vice versa. The two must survive and assimilate naturally. Policymakers in Iraq would be wise to realize that in Iraq, like in Vietnam, the deep beliefs of a people cannot be swayed by men. The United States has learned some valuable lessons in policy from Vietnam, but the most significant lesson: that wars like Vietnam and Iraq do not work has yet to be learned.

James W. Davidson and others, Nation of Nations (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 1007.

Robert C. Byrd, "Preserving Constitutional War Powers," Mediterranean Quarterly (Vol. 14 no. 3(2003)), Project Muse [Online Database]; accessed May 2005. 1-5.

Barbara Slavin, "Questions for Rice Have Been Waiting a While," USA Today (18 January 2005), ProQuest [Online Database]; accessed May2005. A.6.

Al Neuharth, "Guards 'draft' Duty in Iraq Is Backfiring," USA Today (11 March 2005), ProQuest [Online Database]; accessed May2005. A.13.

Chaim Kaufmann, "Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas: The Selling of the Iraq War," International Security (Vol. 29 no. 1 (2004)), Project Muse [Online Database]; accessed May2005. 5-48.

Anthony Violanti. "The Iraq War Part II." Buffalo News (1 February 2004) Lexis-Nexis [Online Database]; accessed May 2005.

Pat Kneisler. Iraq Coalition Casualty Count 2005. [Online]. Available:; accessed 03 Aug 2005

"The Iraq War Part II."

David Espo. "Iraqis Tell U.S. to "Get Out" New Tapes Add to Mystery of Saddam's Whereabouts." Advocate (19 April 2003) ProQuest [Online Database]; accessed May 2005. 1.A

10  Anti War Demonstrations, Friday Sermons in Iraq," BBC

11  Henry A Giroux. "What Might Education Mean After Abu Ghraib: Revisiting Adorno's Politics of Education." Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East (Vol. 24 no. 1 (2004)) Project Muse [Online Database]; accessed May 2005. 5-22

12  "What Might Education�" 5-22

Last Updated on Friday, 13 March 2009 14:51

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