Vietnam’s Shadow Lies Across Iraq

Stanley Karnow covered Vietnam from 1959 to 1975. He is the author of "Vietnam: A History" (Viking, 1983) and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history. His most recent book was "Paris in the Fifties" (Times Books, 1997).

“By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome,” President George H.W. Bush crowed after his swift triumph in the Gulf War in 1991. His effusive proclamation was meant to suggest that the U.S. public had finally shaken off the memory of the humiliating disaster in the Far East and would henceforth underwrite fresh engagements overseas, without guilt or anxiety.

But he was mistaken. His optimism notwithstanding, Americans remained haunted by the specter of a defeat in some distant realm, and their uneasiness continued as President George W. Bush made his plans to invade Iraq. The younger Bush excoriated pundits who cautioned that we faced a catastrophe there, and at first he seemed to have been proved correct, as Americans witnessed the amazing speed with which our battalions drove into Baghdad. But it has since become apparent that Iraq, if not exactly “another Vietnam,” could degenerate into an equally calamitous debacle.

The experiences in Southeast Asia and the Iraq conflict have many differences but are analogous in some respects. As they oozed into the region, Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson each justified his commitment by expounding the “domino theory,” the concept that Moscow and Beijing had chosen Vietnam as the key arena in which to pursue their grandiose scheme for world domination. Johnson averred that unless we held the line there, we would be compelled to fight the Communist hordes “on the beaches of Waikiki.”


Similarly, Bush -- permeated with evangelical fervor -- has portrayed himself as a crusader and Saddam Hussein as the evil genius behind international terrorism whose influence reached from Indonesia to Algeria, and further insisted that Hussein was close to possessing a nuclear arsenal. But just as his precursors in the White House failed to prove their case that Vietnam was indispensable to U.S. security, Bush has produced no solid evidence to back his allegations.

We deployed a panoply of sophisticated weaponry in Vietnam -- supersonic aircraft, high-tech artillery, napalm and devices that could detect a quivering leaf in the jungle. Yet we were unable to ferret the Viet Cong guerrillas out of their concealed village sanctuaries, and eventually we became frustrated, even paralyzed. In Iraq, our overwhelmingly superior firepower quickly crushed Hussein’s legions, but now we are becoming bogged down as we endeavor to eliminate fedayeen and suicide bombers prepared to sacrifice themselves in a jihad against diabolical infidels seeking to eradicate Islam.

We were bewildered in Vietnam by our inability to distinguish between our friends and foes, both of whom looked like innocent peasants and fishermen. In Iraq, too, it is hard to separate allies from enemies. Our efforts to reconstruct Iraq’s shattered institutions have deteriorated into a nightmare as the nation’s profusion of rival political and religious factions compete to promote their sundry programs, thwarting attempts by our troops to impose law and order.

Perhaps the most striking similarity is this: Those of us who covered Vietnam were regularly inundated by civilian and military bureaucrats with piles of glowing details, charts and statistics devised to show progress. We spoofed their daily briefings in Saigon as the “Five O’Clock Follies” and learned from accompanying U.S. soldiers into battle that they were either distorting the truth or blatantly lying.

Today, as I listen to Bush and his spokesmen deliver euphoric accounts of the headway being made in Iraq, they remind me of the bulletins from Vietnam that reassured us that “victory is just around the corner” and that “we see the light at the end of the tunnel.” As the war escalated in Vietnam, members of Congress privately began to oppose what increasingly seemed to be a futile enterprise. But they never failed to vote funds for the venture on the grounds that “we can’t let down our boys.” For the same reason, they will grant Bush the $87 billion he has requested.

Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, one of the prime architects of our involvement in Vietnam, confessed in a lachrymose book published in 1995 that “we were terribly wrong” -- cold comfort for the families of the nearly 60,000 Americans and more than 1 million Vietnamese who lost their sons and daughters in the conflagration. If our casualties mount in Iraq, we may ultimately hear a similarly emotional mea culpa from a Bush administration official, perhaps even Donald Rumsfeld.