Are we doomed to repeat the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq?

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The Vietnam War and George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq share several tragic similarities. In both cases domestic political calculations, rather than military necessity or feasibly, led the country to war. As part of these political calculations, Lyndon Johnson and Bush convinced the American people that war was necessary to protect national security. In fact, both wars ended up weakening national security, and resulting in the deaths of millions of innocent civilians and thousands of American soldiers.

Vietman Napalm 1972

South Vietnamese forces follow after terrified children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, center, as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places, June 8, 1972. A South Vietnamese plane accidentally dropped its flaming napalm on South Vietnamese troops and civilians. The terrified girl had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing. The children from left to right are: Phan Thanh Tam, younger brother of Kim Phuc, who lost an eye, Phan Thanh Phouc, youngest brother of Kim Phuc, Kim Phuc, and Kim’s cousins Ho Van Bon, and Ho Thi Ting. Behind them are soldiers of the Vietnam Army 25th Division. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

The road to Vietnam began at the start of the Cold War and adoption of “containment” as political orthodoxy. This policy argued that the best way to ensure national security was to aggressively contain communist aggression wherever it occurred. As early as 1954, President Eisenhower was warning about the consequences of a communist takeover of Vietnam:

Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the “falling domino” principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.

These words appeared logical to an American public that was bred to fear communism as a threat to their very existence. However, when communism did not spread to the rest of Southeast Asia after the U.S. withdrew, it became clear the “domino theory” was based on overblown fears rather than sound policy. (I’m excluding Cambodia from this analysis, considering the U.S. destabilization of the country during the war was the primary reason for the rise of the Khmer Rouge.)

Therefore, we can regard containment and the domino theory primarily as creations of domestic politics. Since domestic politics were driving U.S. involvement in Vietnam, there was little regard to military feasibility.

The words of LBJ’s military and civilian advisers support this idea. In 1961, General Maxwell Taylor wrote to John F. Kennedy that the “strategic reserve of U.S. forces is presently so weak that we can ill afford any detachment of forces to a peripheral area of the communist bloc where they will be pinned down for an uncertain duration” and if a “first contingent is not enough to accomplish the necessary results, it will be difficult to resist the pressure to reinforce.” Even after this analysis, Maxwell still favored sending ground troops to Vietnam because doing so would “produce the desired effect on national morale in SVN and on international opinion” and because the “risks of backing into a major Asian war by way of South Vietnam are not impressive.” Maxwell is basically saying it is worth escalating the situation in Vietnam– even though it would place severe strain on the military– to send a message to the communist bloc that the U.S. would fight to contain communist expansion wherever it occurred.

Maxwell’s poor judgement regarding the risks of escalating involvement in Vietnam were exposed as early as 1965. That year the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John McNaughton declared in a memo that “70 percent” of the U.S. purpose in Vietnam was “to avoid a humiliating defeat.” In early 1966, he analysis was even more dire: “We … have in Vietnam the ingredients of an enormous miscalculation…” The U.S. continued searching for ways to avoid the “humiliating defeat” until 1973, which made the eventual defeat exponentially more humiliating than it would have been in 1965.

By 1973 the country had spent $686 billion (in 2008 dollars), lost 58,220 men, and killed about 2 million civilians in Vietnam, half a million in Cambodia, and 1 million in Laos.

The desire to avoid humiliation was not just to avoid damage to American pride, but because it would undermine the notion that the U.S. was strong enough to resist communist expansion wherever it may occur. For JFK, LBJ, and Nixon, it also meant protecting their political careers. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK said,”If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Red scare on our hands.” In July 1963 he reportedly said at an off-the-record news conference that, “We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam…. But I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and get the American people to reelect me.”

LBJ saw the Republican “soft on communism” attacks of the late 40s and 50s and thus was even more afraid of the political consequences of “losing” Vietnam. He told Doris Kearns that, “Conservatives in Congress would use [the war]as a weapon against the Great Society. You see, they’d never wanted to help the poor or the Negroes in the first place. But they were having a hard time figuring out how to make their opposition sound noble in a time of great prosperity. But the war. Oh, they’d use it to say they were against my programs, not because they were against the poor–why, they were just as generous and charitable as the best of Americans–but because the war had to come first.” Such a mentality is what drove National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy to write this 1964 memo to LBJ: “Question: in terms of domestic U.S. politics, which is better: to lose now or to lose after committing 100,000 men? Tentative answer: the latter.”

The unfortunate conclusion of the war weakened national security, eroded faith in government, and resulted in millions of deaths. The invasion of Iraq produced the same unfortunate results. The vacuum the invasion created helped birth ISIS, one of the largest present threats to national security. The false pretenses given for war– that Iraq had WMDs and a role in 9/11– and horribly bungled nation building effort eroded faith in government. This eroded faith is reflected in Bush’s 36.5 average second term approval rating, which is second only to Nixon’s second term.

Iraq

A key difference in Bush’s invasion of Iraq compared to Vietnam is that Bush used the post 9/11 political climate to seek out a conflict, while JFK and LBJ were forced by an unhinged anti-communist political climate to respond to a conflict. Although this is a significant difference, domestic politics were still the driving force in each case.

Without 9/11, it is likely Bush would not have invaded Iraq. However, the attack created a climate of fear regarding national security, one that Bush exploited in his disastrous attempt to create a pro-western democracy in Iraq. Bush started pounding the war drums when he labeled Iraq as part of an “axis of evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union address, along with North Korea and Iran. Throughout the year, Bush escalated his rhetoric, telling the UN General Assembly that member states must confront the “grave and gathering danger” of Iraq, or become “irrelevant.” In October, he said Iraq was trying to build nuclear weapons, and for this claim cited intelligence that Saddam’s regime had tried to acquire materials needed to enrich uranium, and that satellite photos showed Iraq was rebuilding facilities that were part of the country’s nuclear weapons program in the past. He also said Iraq was producing chemical and biological weapons. All of these claims were false.

Bush and his administration also made numerous claims that Saddam had ties to Al-Qaeda and was involved in the 9/11 attack. In February 2003, Bush said Iraq provided Al-Qaeda training with bomb making, document forgery and chemical and biological weapons. He also claimed Iraq harbored a terrorist network headed by a senior al Qaeda member that had a camp in Iraq. Again, these claims were all false. The bi-partisan 9/11 commission report said that there were some contacts between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, but, “they do not appear to have resulted in a collaborative relationship.” Yet with this rhetoric, Bush was able to connect Iraq to 9/11, with statements like this one from 2003: “the battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001.”

From when Bush first labeled Iraq as part of an “Axis of Evil” until the invasion, he and his administration were constantly warning the country about the imminent danger to national security that Saddam posed, and that protecting America meant taking him out as soon as possible. The climax of this fear mongering was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN that gave specific details about Iraq’s weapons programs, all of which turned out to be nonexistent. An especially damaging aspect of the speech is how Powell tried to paint Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as the link between Al-Qaeda and Iraq. Again, this was untrue– Zarqawi did travel to Afghanistan hoping to meet bin Laden, but Al-Qaeda considered him a poor recruit. However, having his name mentioned by Powell brought him credibility in Iraq, which helped him gain more followers with which he waged sectarian warfare. He eventually went on to found ISIS.

Although Powell’s speech enhanced Zarqawi’s reputation, Bush’s invasion and the bungled “nation building” that followed it created a vacuum in which sectarian gangs fought the government and each other for power. This bloody civil war began soon after Saddam’s regime fell. Although violence has fluctuated through the years, there was never a sustained period of peace. With the rise of ISIS in 2013, the civil war entered its most dangerous phase. At its height in 2014 the terrorist group controlled more than 34,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq, and to this day Iraqi and Kurdish forces are furiously battling ISIS to drive it from Iraqi territory. The human toll of the invasion and subsequent violence are truly staggering– from 2003 to 2011 over 114,000 Iraqis died, along with almost 5,000 US and coalition soldiers.

So what went wrong? Basically, the Pentagon and key administration officials– primarily Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz– pushed for the invasion, but were overly optimistic as to how simple it would be to achieve a lasting peace. On March 7, 2013, Cheney said, “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” The extensive post-invasion violence cited above show just how wrong Cheney was. Paul Wolfowitz’s argument for invading was that it would be cheaper than the previous 12 years of containing Saddam through no-fly zones and other measures, which had cost about $30 billion. “I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to spend another $30 billion to be there for another 12 years,” he said. According to the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, by 2013 the war had cost over $2 trillion.

This mindset led the Pentagon and pro-invasion members of the administration to ignore State Department studies on how to stabilize Iraq after the invasion and foster a competent government that could sustain peace. They also ignored British warnings. A British memo from July 2002 lamented,”A post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise. As already made clear, the U.S. military plans are virtually silent on this point.”

Just as in Vietnam, the Bush administration used domestic politics to launch a costly and counter-effective war. Involvement in Vietnam was escalated because politicians wanted to avoid criticism they “lost” Vietnam to communism. As for Bush, he used the post-9/11 political climate to convince the country invading Iraq was essential to protect America.

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About Author

Chris Russell studied history and journalism at the University of Massachusetts--Amherst. The work of history I am most proud of is my senior thesis, which can be reached by following this link: http://scua.library.umass.edu/umarmot/wp-content/uploads/flura_russell.pdf

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