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At 30: Iraq and the Vietnam Syndrome

Iraq is not Vietnam; still, though some find comparisons silly, the fact remains that 53% of Americans feel the current war is 'not worth it.'
 
 
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The flood of stories in the press marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon is near its end (the anniversary having passed on Saturday). There have been articles lamenting that we ever set foot in Indochina, others claiming that we could and should have won the war, and every view in between.

Then there's Jonah Goldberg's Op-Ed in USA Today. He used the occasion not to try to come to grips with that war but denounce those -- mainly, he said, "liberal baby boomers" -- who on a "near-daily" basis link Iraq to Vietnam. He said they are simply filled with "nostalgia" for their glory days of antiwar hedonism.

Attempting to bolster this argument, Goldberg charged the boomers aren't even in touch with the facts: namely, the Vietnam war wasn't among the most unpopular in our history. His one piece of evidence: someone named Sol Tax of the University of Chicago who apparently claimed, in a 1968 study, that Vietnam ranked as only "the fourth or seventh least-popular war in American history."

Ignore for a moment the imprecision (fourth or seventh?) and consider when this ranking took place: 1968, well before most of the country turned against the war. I realize that Goldberg is a youngish man, but really, he should know his Vietnam history a little better. Then again, he didn't live through the conflict (as baby boomers did).

Then there's Goldberg's dubious claim that "in Vietnam, the insurgency phase of the war was largely over by 1965." Goodbye, "Charlie"!

With that taken care of, Goldberg described the ways that Iraq is "completely different from Vietnam in almost every major respect." He mentioned the differences between a "jungle war" and a "desert war." Also, "the technologies" are "incomparable." And let's not forget: the "terrain," the "ideologies," not to mention "the cultures." The Cold War vs. The War on Terror. The casualty rates.

Of course, this is all one big "Duh," the knocking down of overstuffed straw men. No one I know, when they make any firm or loose connection between Iraq and Vietnam, mentions anything on Goldberg's list, for good reason. But this Goldberg variation is necessary. He needs to highlight the no-brainers to avoid the profound ways in which the wars are similar.

Let's start with: the nation's leaders lying to the American people to gain our involvement in the two wars. Don't take my word for it. Gallup found this week that half of all Americans now say that President Bush deliberately misled them on WMDs.

Then, how about, watching the war drag on, month after month, with "pacification" said to be right around the corner (two or three times a year). We just came out of such a "turning point," only to be told by General Richard Myers last week that the insurgency was as strong as ever, followed by a massive upsurge in attacks in the past few days.

Goldberg types told us the war was over two years ago, nearly over a year ago, and going just fine as recently as last week. Baby boomers remember the syndrome well: The Vietnam syndrome.

Yes, we have not yet been in Iraq 10 years. But military officials have said that we probably WILL have to be in Iraq for 10 years.

Then there's the public disgust with the current war, which you'd never know even existed from Goldberg. Latest Gallup surveys find that 53% of all Americans now say launching this war was "not worth it," even after the Iraqi elections and (when the poll was taken) an air of optimism about the future. This is far ahead of the numbers for Vietnam, even after six years of our deep involvement there.

So maybe Iraq is actually Vietnam on speed, in some respects at least.

Added to this:

  • The sending of tens of thousands of soldiers into battle ill-prepared culturally and militarily. Our soldiers in Iraq do not know who is on our side -- who they should save and who they should shoot. Sound familiar?

  • Destroying cities to save them (notably, Fallujah) and the killing of tens of thousands of civilians.
  • No Gulf of Tonkin incident, no weapons of mass destruction.
  • Yet despite all the above, very few in the mainstream media are calling for the a pullout in Iraq or even for setting a withdrawal deadline -- again, very much like Vietnam until the early 1970s.
  • Iraqization and Vietnamization.
  • Did I mention the enormous cost, $300 billion and counting for Iraq? The crippling of a second-term president's approval ratings?
  • There's even a new "domino theory": We must establish democracy in Iraq (apparently at any cost) to inspire American-friendly governments throughout the region.
  • As for the difference in the casualty count: For the parent whose child has been killed or badly maimed it makes no difference whether the son or daughter was one of a hundred damaged that week or one of a thousand. And every loss of limb or loss of life takes place in the context of more than half of the Americans back home feeling the war is "not worth it."

But let me turn this over to another baby boomer, a Vietnam veteran named Patrick Sheridan, who was permanently disabled in 1970 when a mine exploded under the personnel carrier he was riding in. He's not exactly one of Goldberg's effete antiwar vets nostalgic for the "good old days."

In an article in today's Bozeman (Mt.) Daily Chronicle, Sheridan warned that the U.S was reliving its Vietnam mistake in Iraq, getting involved again in a horrific internal conflict. "We've gotten ourselves enmeshed in a difficult, protracted war," he said, "that doesn't seem to be winnable at this point."

Greg Mitchell ( gmitchell@editorandpublisher.com) is editor of E&P and author of seven books of history and politics.