You Don't Need to Be a Genius to Understand History's Dark Lessons for Iraq

News Abroad


One of the fantasies of the present presidential race is that Vietnam is ancient history. It's a matter of musty documents, disputed records, ancient statements, and youthful acts of heroism, shame, or indiscretion by our two candidates. Been there, done that -- move on. And these days, when we do move on, it suddenly seems as if many people are in a rush to say that Iraq is certainly not Vietnam. Anything but. And in various ways this is obviously true (in part because nothing historically is ever anything else).

You could certainly start to make the case for the inapplicability of our Vietnam experience to Iraq with the greatest difference between the eras -- that we are now in a one, not two, superpower world. As a result, the Iraqi guerrillas have no"great rear area" as the Vietnamese ones did. No equivalent of North Vietnam, China, or the USSR. Nor do they have the greatest"rear area" of all, which was the fear of a superpower nuclear war that would engulf and incinerate the planet. This was an apocalyptic scenario that, in its own way, possessed both Lyndon Johnson, who feared not just a ground war with China (as in Korea in the early 1950s) but a wholesale nuclear conflagration, and Richard ("I will not be the first president to lose a war") Nixon, who privately threatened to launch a nuclear attack to scare the North Vietnamese into a deal. As Nixon's aide H. R. Haldeman reported the President saying:

"I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that 'for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communists. We can't restrain him when he's angry -- and he has his hand on the nuclear button' -- and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."

Well, so much for end-of-the-world fantasies. North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh never arrived.

All that's now left of such fears of global conflagration and incineration in our single superpower era of asymmetric warfare is the smaller fear (which has nonetheless gripped the country tightly) of a terrorist nuclear attack on a city, a"lost" bomb from the old Russian arsenal, say, or a new one bought from the North Koreans and snuck into… gulp… New York where I live.

Then, if you're still in the mood to enumerate differences, there's the fact that the Iraqi insurgency seems to be a hodgepodge of at least four loosely interconnected groups: "Sunni tribalists, former Saddam regime loyalists, [Shiite] fighters loyal to anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and foreign jihadists." Infused with a powerful brew of intense nationalistic and religious emotions, this movement has no named leaders other than al-Sadr and the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There is no equivalent of Vietnam's disciplined, nationalistic communist party. ("Muqtada al-Sadr/Abu Musab al-Zarqawi/Saddam Hussein, I knew Ho Chi Minh and you're no Ho Chi Minh.") I'm sure many of you could list any number of other ways in which Iraq is not, and never will be, Vietnam.

But let me note here another phenomenon, which is a bit puzzling -- the loss not just of the power of the Vietnam analogy, but of all potentially useful historical analogies. There was a time, not so long ago, when Vietnam was on people's lips as a living example of disaster -- think, for instance, of the way"quagmire" reentered the language in the wake of the invasion of Iraq) -- and a whole host of critical writings cited, among other places and historical parallels, the French in Algeria in the 1950s (the Pentagon's special operations chiefs even scheduled a special screening of the film The Battle of Algiers), the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s, Afghanistan during the war against the Russian occupation, and Israel in the occupied territories. Now, with the exception of the odd report, analogies seem for the time being largely to have departed the scene; while Vietnam, always just under the surface of American consciousness, has retreated to a musty debate topic in our media -- what people did long ago. Here, for instance, is a typical headline from a late August piece in the Los Angeles Times: Kerry Shifts Focus From Vietnam to Iraq -- that is, from Swift Boats to something living.

Perhaps we're just ducking. Analogies, after all, can hurt because in them we usually know how the story ends -- painfully. (The French withdrew from Algeria under chaotic conditions; the Americans were driven from Vietnam, the Israelis from Lebanon, and the Russians from Afghanistan.) Or perhaps things in Iraq have gotten so bad at such an ungodly, even a-historical gallop that the analogies have begun to look pallid by comparison (as in the recent headline for a Sidney Blumenthal piece, Far graver than Vietnam, that quotes retired general and former head of the National Security Agency William Odom as saying:

"This is far graver than Vietnam. There wasn't as much at stake strategically, though in both cases we mindlessly went ahead with the war that was not constructive for US aims. But now we're in a region far more volatile, and we're in much worse shape with our allies."

Whose Jungle Is This Anyway?

So let me try to return us to the analogy fray by suggesting a way in which Iraq is indeed Vietnam. With a few rare and striking exceptions like the Tet Offensive, the war in South Vietnam took place in the rural areas. On one side, the massive American bombing campaigns, the endless patrols, the free-fire zones, the search-and-destroy missions; on the other, the expanding and shrinking patchwork of"liberated areas," the booby-trapped mines and artillery shells that took such a toll (the equivalent of today's IEDs and car bombs), the hit and run attacks -- these all took place in the countryside. In Vietnam, in other words, the jungle was actually jungle.

Iraq is, in this sense, Vietnam but transposed to the cities -- to, that is, an urban jungle. And as the foliage protected the guerrillas in Vietnam, helping to even the odds slightly in a technologically unbalanced war -- hence our urge to defoliate so much of the countryside with Agent Orange to deprive the guerrillas of cover -- so the alleyways, side streets, buildings, markets, mosques, the unfamiliar urban terrain, all offer a protection which evens the odds slightly in an asymmetric war in Iraq. These, however, can only be"defoliated" by -- as in the old city of Najaf recently or in Falluja today -- being turned into rubble. As in the countryside in Vietnam, so in the city in Iraq, American troops face a literal jungle of hostility -- those same unfriendly eyes and hostile adult stares; the same kids running alongside Bradleys or beside foot patrols pleading for candy. There is the same inability or limited ability to communicate in a language and to a culture that seems alien to our soldiers and officials. There is the same inability to get serviceable information on the enemy from the civilian population (hence the feverish tortures at Abu Ghraib).

In this context so much is, in fact, the same. The infiltrated military and police forces, our"allies" who simply can't be counted on; a corrupt and weak central government which can't extend its sway to the"jungle" areas; the frustrating inability to tell friend from foe, civilian from rebel; the no less frustrating ability of the enemy to blend into the local population; the growing"body count" which seems proof of military victories that inevitably turn out to be political losses.

As an American NCO stationed in Iraq recently wrote at the Libertarian website

"We have fallen victim to the body count mentality all over again. We have shown a willingness to inflict civilian casualties as a necessity of war without realizing that these same casualties create waves of hatred against us. These angry Iraqi citizens translate not only into more recruits for the guerilla army but also into more support of the guerilla army."

All of this is taking place within" congested, three-dimensional urban environments" of sweltering animosity and misery which -- whatever Saddam Hussein inflicted on his people (and that was plenty) -- we are now inflicting on the Iraqis. And it's bound to get worse for Iraqis and Americans.

The reason to make analogies in the first place is to extrapolate from a known experience to an unknown one, and it's really not so terribly hard to extrapolate here. All you need to do is use the famed testimony of the young John Kerry ("I am not here as John Kerry. I am here as one member of the group of veterans in this country, and were it possible for all of them to sit at this table they would be here and have the same kind of testimony.") before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on April 22, 1971. He summarized then events and acts to which other soldiers back from Vietnam had testified only months earlier in the Winter Soldier hearings, a set of informal war crimes inquiries organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He said, in part, in words that should still reverberate as a warning for all who care to listen:

They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, tape[d] wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in [a] fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country…

We saw Vietnam ravaged equally by American bombs as well as by search and destroy missions, as well as by Vietcong terrorism, and yet we listened while this country tried to blame all of the havoc on the Vietcong. We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them. We saw America lose her sense of morality as she accepted very coolly a My Lai and refused to give up the image of American soldiers who hand out chocolate bars and chewing gum. We learned the meaning of free fire zones, shooting anything that moves, and we watched while America placed a cheapness on the lives of Orientals.

We watched the U.S. falsification of body counts, in fact the glorification of body counts. We listened while month after month we were told the back of the enemy was about to break. We fought using weapons against"oriental human beings," with quotation marks around that. We fought using weapons against those people which I do not believe this country would dream of using were we fighting in the European theater or let us say a non-third-world people theater, and so we watched while men charged up hills because a general said that hill has to be taken, and after losing one platoon or two platoons they marched away to leave the high [ground] for the reoccupation by the North Vietnamese because we watched pride allow the most unimportant of battles to be blown into extravaganzas, because we couldn't lose, and we couldn't retreat, and because it didn't matter how many American bodies were lost to prove that point. And so there were Hamburger Hills and Khe Sanhs and Hill 881's and Fire Base 6's and so many others.

Now we are told that the men who fought there must watch quietly while American lives are lost so that we can exercise the incredible arrogance of Vietnamizing the Vietnamese.

Now, of course, we are dealing in the cheapness of Iraqi lives while we Iraqicize them. Like the"liberated areas," the free-fire zones have begun to spread in Iraq's cities, as they once did in Vietnam's countryside; while American troops, spread thin, take parts of Najaf, or Falluja, or Haifa Street and Sadr City in Baghdad only to give them up again. And as we already know from the photos at Abu Ghraib, the abuses, the tortures, the humiliations have begun. Imagine what will follow when the sweltering, "disillusioned and bitter" as well as beleaguered troops the Bush administration -– which can't lose and can't retreat -– has put in harm's way can't take the hostility, the casualties, the mortarings, the seeming ingratitude, the IEDs, the suicide bombers, the Iraqi police who don't police and the Iraqi soldiers who won't soldier against other Iraqis.

You don't have to be some historical genius to know where our splendid little adventure in Iraq is headed now that everything's visibly going wrong. You don't have to guess too hard what exactly will happen if, after our November election, the administration really does order the"taking" of Falluja, or Ramadi, or Baquba, or Sadr City. We're already willing to bomb the urban jungle just as we once were willing to bomb the actual jungle. The further devastation and the crimes will follow as night does day. This -– more than anything else -– is why our war in Iraq must be stopped now before embittered representatives of a new generation of American soldiers decide to throw their medals back on the White House lawn.

This article first appeared on, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

...but then this article petered out (no pun intended) into "gosh its another Vietnam after all". There IS, however, a particularly disturbing sense in which the Vietnam analogy and the uncouth comment above by S. Thomas ARE both valid, and this is in the unusually inept response by the so-called "anti-war" movement of the last few years. This bogus protest movement, which sucks in followers seeking a "feel good" experience, has had exactly zero effect on anything despite the abundance of facts and arguments available to it. And one of the main reasons for this rather amazing result, is their inability to think of war, ANY war, apart from Vietnam.

Robert Byrd said in Fall of 2002, that he would not vote for another Gulf of Tonkin resolution. HE had learned from Vietnam. But few listened to him, and those who did often failed to realize that the concocters of the Iraq War blank check resolution of October, 2002 were ALSO aware of the earlier Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rove went for maximum authority from Congress, maximum deception of the public, minimal troop commitment, and very careful timing, avoiding the big mistakes made in all those areas by Johnson and Nixon. The Bush team had learned from Vietnam as well. Their war was carefully pre-programmed to be as unlike Vietnam as possible. Unfortunately, those who anticipated how faulty and inept that programming was likely to be were all but ignored, and by all "sides".

The motley group of marchers who shouted stupifying slogans against war in the abstract, (and for and against a diffuse grab bag of other issues) but who couldn't be bothered (for example) to think of the role of U.S. government subsidized gasoline in fueling Mideast tyranny, learned nothing from Vietnam, except that marching and shouting makes you feel better.

Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

Where do they clone these people? How do they induce brain death in them? Why would any self-respecting human agree to have their name appear as a by-line in that grungiest of Stalinist rags, The Nation?

This one was pasted together using all the standard biolerplate.

It is missing the obligatory racism motif, thank God. How did that bit get passed over?

tom plotts - 10/1/2004

I can't engage you if you don't read carefully and respond thoughtfully. At the same time, your own reliance on condescension and personal sliming (calling everything outside of your lens "silly", "inane", etc. and defining your opposition away by claiming that if they disagree, they're obviously "unreasonable") provokes some form of bitchy response. This is apparently how you argue.

You use an interesting phrase--"absolutely correct"--to describe your previous remarks regarding the precise location of the Nation in terms of its ideology. If you had read my post with any care, you would have seen that I grant this description, but *only* under the constraints of the new language of right and left. What I mean by this--and if you weren't sure, you should have asked--is that your own evaluative spectrum stops at regulatory or reformist liberalism, which in *absolute* terms is demonstrably misplaced (and not all that long ago historically incorrect).
You were right the first time: we have no common frame of reference, but that's because my whole point in posting was to lament the narrowing of what is considered right and left, and at no time did you engage what I actually said. I say the same thing in my initial post! Duh! Here it was:

"This implies that my conception of ideological spectra is much wider than yours; a real substantive argument of some importance. Your view of left-right, to me, is highly constrained by the times you live in, not by the availability of ideological options."

Before you wind up repeating me, you dismiss this observation by invoking the rejoinder "relativist pabulum (I added the 'u' for you here since i'm quoting it)". In my neck of the woods, this would be considered "non responsive", meaning calling something relativistic and hoping it goes away isn't an actual argument.

So here we are: I was pretty clear why I describe the Nation as a centrist rag. It is, in fact (since we're all so enamored of facts) the most conservative material I read on a daily basis. Does that make it right wing reactionary to me? Not at all. So why did I use that phrase?

If I hold the political values of communal property, worker-owned production, egalitarian distribution of material resources and wealth using democratic methods, autonomous and more or less stateless human communities, this magazine would in fact be a reactionary tract. It regularly defends the antithesis of these ideals. Honestly, you ever see Greider say anything other than "Gee, I wish we could maybe regulate this kind of corporate behavior!"? Further, just because the magazine isn't as right wing as, say, Aryan Life Today!, doesn't minimize that reaction. It just means that there exist *more* reactionary right wing material. I provide the challenge of demonstrating to me in what ways the magazine challenges Lockean principles either with a consistent authorial voice or via editorial content. I don't see that response anywhere.

If you don't want to engage this, Catsam, don't. If you don't want me to respond in ways that push your ego-buttons, then don't pull that slime crap. You obviously don't like being dismissed out of hand. Why would you think anyone else does? Don't lecture me about the current state of American political writing, because from my two posts, you should be smart enough to glean that I don't think very highly of it. Engage me there, don't blindly imply that I don't read it.

I don't share your obsession with rightness or wrongness in the same way. You want to discuss why my initial observation is unimportant, fine. Do so. I'll be happy to share my views on why it matters for historians (and pretty much everyone else). If you don't, then shut the fu*k up and save your "I'm smart, you're stupid" mode of argumentation for some other sucker.

NOW you get the last word, assuming you read this far.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 9/30/2004

"And the question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is not very damned many. So I think we got it right, both when we decided to expel him from Kuwait, but also when the president made the decision that we'd achieved our objectives and we were not going to go get bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq...

"All of a sudden you've got a battle you're fighting in a major built-up city, a lot of civilians are around, significant limitations on our ability to use our most effective technologies and techniques...

"Once we had rounded him up and gotten rid of his government, then the question is what do you put in its place? You know, you then have accepted the responsibility for governing Iraq."

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, 1991

Derek Charles Catsam - 9/30/2004

Tom --
Nice post. Real lot of substance there. Except that what I said is absolutely correct -- that on the political spectrum as most all observers understand it, the Nation is left of center. I have no idea who "Tom Plotts" is to be telling people that their comments ought to "stay in the can" but given that I am what we sticklers like to call "Factually right" I suspect I will have the last word, at least among those who know even a tiny little bit about the current state of American political writing. Being wrong and compounding it with misplaced (that is, silly) condescension probably ought not to be a point of pride.

tom plotts - 9/30/2004

I know you're busy, but this response is probably one that should have stayed in the can. Feel free to have the last word.

Derek Charles Catsam - 9/29/2004

Look, if we are talking about the American political spectrum, and you are denying that the Nation is left of center, then we really have no common frame of reference, expect that for any reasonable observer you are wrong. Any other relativist pablum is nice window dressing. I am not making a value judgment about it (though i will make a qualitatice judgment) and I am not saying that there are not things further to the left, but to say that it is somehow "right wing reactionary" is simply inane. Really.

Charles Lee Geshekter - 9/29/2004

"The chief practical value of history is to deliver us from plausible analogies," noted James Bruce.

tom plotts - 9/29/2004

Good thing my post didn't suggest that no spectrum exists, otherwise I'd be in the doghouse, huh?
My aside about Stalinism was directed specifically to your description of it's historical particularity in your previous post. I disagreed with that statement, nothing more.
In some respects, your response here indicates how much we've forgotten (or just ignored in the heat of contmporary frames)collectively about the rather wide range of choices that political philosophy/theory offers us as to how to live our lives. That was the spirit behind my response.
To regard a publication like the Nation as "Left" is far more silly than placing that rag anywhere else on this "spectrum". Sure, compared to, say, fascism, the Nation is much more left. Compared to democratic or revolutionary socialism, it's a right wing reactionary tract.
This implies that my conception of ideological spectra is much wider than yours; a real substantive argument of some importance. Your view of left-right, to me, is highly constrained by the times you live in, not by the availability of ideological options. I'd take this point seriously if I were still a scholar in the professional sense. Your response (and so many others like it from people who probably should know better, even if they're in disciplines that don't necessarily make a point out of studying political history/philosophy) is indicative of just how constrained American political discourse is, that we label a centrist mag like the Nation leftist, and the Weekly Standard rightist.

The US does not tilt left in policy preferences and ideologies very often, partly because of the boundaries mentioned and the historical criminalization of genuine left/far right thought. In fact, I can't recall the Nation (or any of its stable of writers, for that matter) taking on basic Lockean principles.

I'll cut it off here, but I think these are points worth discussing for historians commenting on current events that use the "new" language of right and left in ways that I think are demonstrably improper and flat-out wrong.

Best, tcp

Richard Henry Morgan - 9/28/2004

First, I thought it was Johnson rather than Nixon who said he wouldn't be the first to lose a war. I'm ready to be corrected though.

Secondly, it was Nixon's adoption of Ellsberg's result from game theory (from the mad man postulate) via the unrestricted bombing of N. Vietnam, that brought N. Vietnam to the table. An unfortunate fact.

Thirdly, it is a strange use of the term 'testimony' when Kerry relates what others said (in the real world this is called 'gossip') -- said not under oath, without corroborating evidence, and in fact accompanied by a refusal to to repeat the charges under oath. The part of Kerry's testimony which never seems to get repeated or receive critical attention, was his claim that blacks constituted the largest percentage of US casualties -- a claim so risible yet so consonant with N. Vietnamese propaganda. It's rather well that we don't emphasize the analogies to Vietnam via Kerry, inasmuch as he analogized Nicaragua to Vietnam -- and we all know how that turned out.

Fourthly, it would be nice to have an actual fact about civilian deaths to hang this piece on. Instead, there is the reed so thin as to be nearly invisible of an NCO's claim. Every day Iraqi police and Army recruits are targeted by those who desire chaos. For their sacrifice they are put down as police who won't police, and soldiers who won't soldier. Which sort of begs the question, why then are they being targeted?

Derek Charles Catsam - 9/28/2004

Tom --
Sure, if somone is using the term Stalinism to explain something that is, in fact, Stalinist, I would conur. It is almost never, ever, used in that sense in the current dialogue.
Look, "left" and "right" may not mean much these days to some people, but there is a broad spectrum of American political thoguht, and the nation is on the left end of that spectrum. From an analytical vantage point it may not mean as much as people thinks it means, but descriptively it means something. To deny that there is any politicqal spectrum at all in Ameriuca and to deny that the Nation is on the left end of that spectrum is simply silly.

tom plotts - 9/28/2004

I'm cracking up at this description of the Nation as a "leftist" rag. No, really, I'm actually laughing.
Perhaps some enterprising self-appointed expert could take a stab at refreshing people's memory as to what constitutes "left" and "right"--and whether that's even a useful category to begin with.
The Nation...Stalinist...very funny stuff. You'd hate to think of what the descriptor would be of, say, the ISR!
"So far left they're right again!"

Btw, there is such a thing as Stalinism that expresses a concrete ideology that isn't as dependent on one particular historical moment as it is a set of historical conditions. It's fair game to use, as I see it, provided it's used with something approaching a clue.

Derek Charles Catsam - 9/27/2004

Look, the Nation is very much a magazine of the left, and I have basically stopped reading it because it is often sloppy and there are better sources out there from that side of the spectrum, but could we stop just throwing terms like "Stalinist" and "Nazi" and "Fascist" out there every time we are too damned lazy to make an actual argument? Stalinism was a very particular phenomenon in a particular time and place. No one at the Nation would actually advocate Stalinism. So rather than drool our bile into our pillow, could we cease this vitriolic silliness and either engage or withdraw? It gets old, and for all of the insistence on trying to insult everyone who actually takes time to write articles, blogs or reasonable comments, the fact is, it becomes pretty clear which arguments take the cake for abject idiocy.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/27/2004

Mr. Thomas,

If you don't care whether we succeed in Iraq, get out of the conversation. I'm not saying that this article is terribly original, but it's not like the administration has done anything lately to make the comparison less valid.

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 9/27/2004

I can't help but notice that you failed to cite a single thing about the article that you found inaccurate? I am not saying that I agree with this 100%, but if I believed the article was as bad as you say, I would certainly be willing to explain why.