Monday, July 10, 2006

# Posted 12:39 PM by Taylor Owen  

IN THAT WAY ONLY HE CAN: Hitchens critiques Vietnam-Iraq analogies in a manner that plainly demonstrates why his is a polemical voice to be cherished.

While his argument is fragmented and dangerously absolute (as it often is) and in the form of a response piece (likely scribbled in a mid-night fit of anger), the combination of a ruthless and unabashed critique of the Vietnam war along side a vigorous defence of the Iraq war is, delightfully, enough to make any reader squeamish – whichever end of the political spectrum.

The scope of the typically eclectic argument defies summary, however, some morsels of his pastiche are worth highlighting. First, he argues, as if undisputed, that there never should have been a war in
Vietnam to begin with, that by:

1945 the successive French and Japanese occupations had been discredited and defeated, and if Franklin D. Roosevelt had lived it is unlikely the US would have supported the disastrous restoration of French rule in Indochina.

He cites the war’s atrocities, including “ecocide by chemical weaponry to the indiscriminate bombardment of civilians.” The latter of which I have worked extensively on in Cambodia and will discuss in a post this week.

He holds no punches at contrasting the two in the starkest of ways:

In Vietnam, even president Dwight Eisenhower conceded that Ho would have won any national election. But the US then proceeded to impose a dictator who was so hateful that Kennedy had to have him killed.

In Iraq, the coalition has removed an almost uniquely ghastly dictator and mass murderer, and sponsored the only elections Iraq has had. The only real people's army in Iraq, the Kurdish freedom fighters, enter combat on our side.

And again:

The tussle in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, on the other hand (compared with 911), was a minor squabble, distorted and magnified for purposes that were warmongering and imperialistic.

Of course, saying that there are no similarities between Iraq and Vietnam is equally as fallacious as drawing deterministic parallels. Issues of domestic and international, public and political support, and some aspects of fighting the insurgency are certainly similar. The latter is actually much more pronounced in Cambodia, where the shift to air-power in fighting a fragmented rebellion had disastrous strategic and human consequences. Military planners look regularly to Vietnam to frame aspects of Iraq strategy for, obviously, while some are more useful that others, we ignore past lessons to our peril.

As should be no surprise, his support for Iraq remains steadfast:

Gruesome as it is, the Iraq war has justice on its side and pits us against a truly wicked enemy; the confrontation was inevitable and long in the making. It is a pity Saddam was not removed in 1991. None of these things can be said about the war in Vietnam, which no revisionist will be able to remove from the annals of disgrace.
Who else could write that paragraph?

Like his line of the day or not, there are very few people who have both ruthlessly critiqued the Vietnam war and unabashedly supported and advocated for the war in Iraq. For this, if nothing else, I am glad he is as extraordinarily prolific as he is.

(4) opinions -- Add your opinion

Hi Taylor,

This is not my area of expertise, so some things are not necessarily obvious to me regarding Iraq-Vietnam comparisons. What are the similarities and what lessons from Vietnam apply to the current context in Iraq?

At first glance, it seems that although the two conflicts are not analogous, the U.S. does face similar issues. Simply to take a stab at identifying some of the broader similarities:
(1) The U.S. (and perhaps all Western-style liberal democracies) confronts a faceless enemy. The V.C. in Vietnam and now al Qaida, et al. in Iraq.
(2) The notion of a global threat from an ideology. Communism in Vietnam and now Islamic radicalism.
(3) The lengthy presence (occupation) of American troops in foreign territories.
(4) Public perception is important for the U.S. to realize success within the given territory.
(5) American presence and action face questions of legitimacy.

Aside from these, nothing else seems to jump out at me. Have I missed any major points?
Well, as this is a well trodden debate, I will be weary of not rehashing old arguments. Also, as I alluded to in the post, for every similarity there are obviously many more differences.

To a greater or lesser degree, I agree with your five. 1 and 2 are a bit problematic because of the fragmented nature of the Iraqi insurgency. 3,4 and 5 are unquestionably, and relatively uniquely, relevant to both conflicts. As for others, there has been a fair amount written on this over the past year.

Melvin Laird had a much discussed piece in Foreign Affairs last December in which he laid out a dozen or so lessons from Vietnam, stating, “It is time for a reasonable look at both Vietnam and Iraq - and at what the former can teach us about the latter.” The three of his suggestions that seemed the most important to me were: Vietnamization, Building a legitimate Government and Insurgents as Enemies.

On the last, the question of fighting asymmetric warfare, or as my friend PH Liotta aptly calls it, chaos warfare, Kaplan wrote in the TNR, also in December of last year:

“In The Army and Vietnam, his classic account of the Army's experience combating insurgency in Southeast Asia, then-Major Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr. writes: "[T]he Army's experience in war did not prepare it well for counterinsurgency, where the emphasis is on light infantry formations, not heavy divisions; on firepower restraint, not its widespread application; on the resolution of political and social problems within the nation targeted by insurgents, not closing with and destroying the insurgent's field forces." If all this rings familiar from Iraq, that's because it is. The Army's historical memory contains a gap. "After Vietnam," recounts retired Army Colonel Robert Killebrew, "the Army just walked away from unconventional war."”

In many ways, he suggested that we need more Vietnam comparison, not less.

Finally, in a third good piece, “Iraq Is No Vietnam - But Vietnam holds lessons for Iraq,” Jonathan Rauch says the following:

“Vietnam, for all its differences, holds lessons for Iraq. Not to study those lessons would be equally foolish. Foremost among them are these: Iraq can only be won politically, not militarily; only Iraqis can win it; and the United States has some influence but little control, perhaps even less than we now think.”

To these, I would add the increasing use of bombing to fight insurgencies, and the unavoidable, if not already ongoing, withdrawal planning and implementation, logistically and otherwise.
Let Iraq Have Its Civil War

It's become evident within the last year that Iraqis are now more interested in killing each other than in killing American troops. This was bound to happen since religious differences always result in the bloodiest consequences. Yes, Americans have a different religion, but the Shia-Sunni sectarian warfare is about religious schism, inherently much more volatile and fanatic.

Do we just cut and run then, leaving Iraq for the benefit of some other country due to our effort? No. Let's consolidate the few gains we've made and hunker down to see how the Shia-Sunni civil war plays out.

Move our troops and our Iraqi Green Zone government into friendly Kurdish territory. We can move back in if Iran or anyone else tries to intervene. Keep the Syrian border sealed. Reinforce the British troops in Basra so that the oil fields and the Gulf are protected.

The Sunnis, though a minority, will get plenty of help from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. Iran will supply the Shiites. Our troops and puppet government will be out of harm's way.

Our troops will no longer have responsibility to control a territorial area too big for the force we have there. Yet we will still have a deterrent capability in the area.

No matter when we leave, a sectarian civil war will occur at some point. Why lose anymore American soldiers in trying to put off the inevitable?

This conflict looks less like Vietnam and more like the British Mandate in Palestine everyday. What did the British do? They left.
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