Amid the comparisons, spurious or otherwise, between the reality of Iraq and Vietnam, the real story is that the paradigm of Vietnam has easily imposed itself on the public debate surrounding the Iraq war. In that context, people are more likely to brush off tomes by David Halberstam, Bernard Fall and Neil Sheehan to understand what must be done, than by those who actually understand Iraq.
In all fairness, Vietnam, too, was never really about Vietnam. It was about the United States. The most popular books and films on the war, Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie, Michael Herr's Dispatches, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, Oliver Stone's Platoon, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, all dealt with some aspect of America facing a debilitating conflict in a faraway place. The Vietnamese were usually bit players in an American drama unfolding before the readers' or viewers' eyes.
That's why it's not surprising today to see the public debate on the conduct of the Iraq war centering around themes of Vietnam-era vintage, all fundamentally American in their focus: Civilian-military relations; the link between U.S. military tactics and strategic aims; and the question of whether the Iraqi conflict is winnable.
Take, for example, the dissent by Lt.-Gen. James Conway, the outgoing Marine commander in Iraq. Last week he criticized American behavior in Falluja in April, and was said to have commented on how "the abortive assault, launched in response to the brutal killing of four U.S. civilian contractors by a mob in Falluja on March 31, raised tensions in the area and helped make the region more hostile to U.S. forces now than when his forces took charge of the area six months ago."
For Conway, this alienated the Iraqis and brought no military gains: "We felt like we had a method that we wanted to apply to Falluja, that we ought to probably let the situation settle before we appeared to be attacking out of revenge." Instead, the Marines were told to strike, only to be withdrawn three days later, clearly under orders from the civilian leadership. Asked about this, Conway released another bombshell: "I would simply say that when you order elements of a Marine division to attack a city, you really need to understand the consequences of that, and not, perhaps, vacillate in the middle of that. Once you commit to do that, you have to stay committed."
Conway was echoing an old military rant pervading discussion of Vietnam: that wars are lost through excessive civilian interference in military affairs. The only problem with the charge is that it is unclear what "excessive" means. In his influential 2002 book Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime, Eliot A. Cohen sought to debunk the myth that Vietnam was a case of civilians tying the military down. Rather, he argued, the problem was that they never did so enough, and in a way that gave the armed forces a sense of direction. Conway would probably question whether the civilians have offered that sense of direction in Iraq. Cohen might agree, but would not question their right to abort the Falluja assault. After all, the administration feared a sea of civilian deaths. Either way, one can hear the resonance of Vietnam in that implicit exchange.
In his column on Tuesday, David Brooks of the New York Times harked back to another Vietnam-era discussion, that on the relationship between tactics and strategic objectives in wartime. On Vietnam, one continually hears that the U.S. never used enough force to achieve its aims, a preposterous claim given the North Vietnamese death toll, but one that still holds much water. At a Veterans convention in 1992, then-President George Bush expressed this succinctly when speaking about Vietnam: "That war was controversial. Many refused to serve. The Government didn't go all out to win. You were fighting with one hand tied behind your back, and still, you fought with courage and with valor."
Brooks picks up on this idea by observing that Washington hawks are today split over Iraq between "gradualists" and "confrontationalists". The gradualists believe the conflict can be won "only with slow, steady pressure. The better course…is to allow some time to train and build up Iraq's own security forces, and allow some time for the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to build up a base of anti-insurgent support." The confrontationalists, in turn, "can't believe that the Bush folks, of all people, are waging a sensitive war on terror. By moving so slowly, the United States is allowing terror armies to thrive and grow."
Brooks then notes that the gradualists have gained the upper hand in the debate, and tacks on an inevitable coda they deploy to defend their approach: "The lesson of Vietnam is that you can't win these wars via military means. You have to build a political structure that organizes public support and mix it with military might."
The third question, whether the war in Iraq can be won, is only now beginning to be asked. There are many skeptics out there, but we have yet to reach that Walter Cronkite moment when, somehow, Vietnam suddenly seemed a certain defeat, though last Sunday's carnage in Baghdad may be as close to that as the U.S. has come since April 9, 2003. The parallels between the combined attacks in the Iraqi capital and the Tet Offensive were disconcerting, though one might pause a moment to consider how dissimilar the two really were, and how little the violence in Iraq seems to be impacting on American attitudes.
This paradox shows how incomplete the Vietnam paradigm is for an understanding of Iraq. Civilian-military relations, counterinsurgency tactics and the probability of success in Iraq are all highly pertinent topics today, but they don't really tell us much why Iraq was and remains important. The Bush administration's gravest mistake has been to blur the answer by focusing on the single issue of terrorism, because it is a patent election winner.
Apparently gone because of this is any notion of Iraq becoming a democratic centerpiece in the Middle East, let alone any consideration of how such a revolutionary reality might lead to a transformation of the country's neighbors, with the practical impact this might have in slowly curbing anti-Americanism in the Middle East. Gone, too, it seems, is the careful consideration American officials once gave to a new Iraqi polity: As Peter Galbraith lamented in the New York Review of Books recently, the Bush administration failed to seek UN endorsement for the interim Iraqi constitution that it had shaped, despite the pleas of Iraqi democrats. By so doing, it effectively abandoned the document. It preferred to defer to Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who "objected to provisions in [the interim constitution] that would make it difficult to create an Islamic state and would require a permanent constitution acceptable not just to the majority Shiites but also to the Kurds and Sunni Arabs."
Gone too are the sensible long-term priorities the Bush administration had set for Iraq. On Tuesday, as Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in an emailed analysis, the administration reprogrammed $3.5 billion away from long-term reconstruction projects in Iraq to "short term expenditures designed to provide better security, secure and boost oil exports, and provide immediate aid benefits of the kind that can support the elections scheduled for January." The overall result of this, he continued, was that this marked "a fundamental shift in its strategy in Iraq, and a recognition that much of the U.S. effort during the first year of occupation was a failure."
The current obsession with Vietnam is hardly valueless, but it is stifling. When thinking about Vietnam, we tend to look at 1968 and beyond, when the Johnson and Nixon administrations sought to exit from the war (even though it would continue for several bloody years). They were effectively operating in a framework of defeat foreseen. In Iraq, falling into such melancholy reasoning would not only be premature, it could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Much good can still come from success in the Iraq war. But that means the administration must be serious about victory, and, frankly, even the most ardent supporters of the conflict, including President George W. Bush himself, have repeatedly faltered in fulfilling their Iraqi and broader Middle Eastern ambitions. That's why their critics have so easily picked up on Vietnam, when the problem and its solutions really lie only in Iraq.