Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Iraq and Vietnam again

I want to take up the issue of comparing Iraq to Vietnam for a minute.

In short, I think the comparison between the two conflicts is wrong in the assertion that they are fated for the same outcome. It is, however, notable that they appear to be on parallel courses.

I thought to consider first the number of casualties. I’m not sure how many soldiers were killed in Vietnam in the first three years, maybe someone can help me with that. But from the time combat troops went in (1965) to the pullout (1973), the average over eight years was 7,250 deaths per year (21,000 in three years). So far 2000 soldiers, and a few this past week, have been killed in Iraq. We feel every loss, but for that reason I think it is careless to claim that the two wars are the same. By my ad hoc calculations, ten soldiers died in Vietnam (so far) for every one soldier who has been killed in Iraq. That doesn’t seem very comparable to me.

One important similarity is the lack of domestic support. I agree with Niall Ferguson on this point (see Colossus). He lists seven characteristics of engagement that Vietnam (and other US engagements) clearly followed(47). The basic story is one of guns blazing on the way in and domestic economic considerations bringing the job to a premature close in the end. In Iraq we seem to be on the fast track to withdrawal – that is, Americans have lost the enthusiasm much quicker in this case. The administration has not made it any easier to support the cause, even though they seem determined in it. Vietnam was somewhat different in that each of the presidents seemed to have domestic reasons for not pulling out, even though they might have wanted to. Anyway the two wars are similar so far in their lack of domestic support.

Iraq is not Vietnam, but there are some similarities. The differences in even loss of life, however, show that the comparison should not be made thoughtlessly. We can learn lessons, but solutions are never more than similar for two foreign policy questions.

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