Iraq and the Lessons of Vietnam

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Eds: Lloyd C Gardner and Marilyn B Young, The New Press, £17.99

In 2003 Donald Rumsfeld was asked by reporters whether US troops would get bogged down in Iraq as they did in Vietnam 30 years before. "All together now quagmire," he mocked.

Within a year, as US troops were faced with a mass uprising across the country, the analogy was no longer seen as a joke.

But how far can the analogy be taken? This was a question posed by Vietnam War historians Lloyd Gardner and Marilyn Young. They collected a series of essays by leading scholars of the war and analysts of contemporary US foreign policy. The essays provide some important insights into both occupations.

Policy makers in Washington and the Pentagon were convinced that the real lesson of the defeat in Vietnam was that, instead of a gradual build up of troops, all wars launched by the US would be fought with "shock and awe" - the use of overwhelming force - with a small highly trained volunteer army leaving a "light footprint".

But as the occupation has stalled this terminology has been replaced by one familiar to the Vietnam era: the US is now involved in a "counterinsurgency", using the strategy of "clear, hold and build".

When Rumsfeld told the Senate last year that if the US withdrew from Iraq the whole of the Middle East would fall under the control of Islamists, newspapers dusted off the "domino theory".

The theory held that if Vietnam fell to the Communists in the 1960s then one by one the rest of South East Asia would follow suit.

The authors stress that at every turn the current occupation in Iraq is turning into a Vietnam in the sand. In unpicking the current "strategy for success" and "the surge" of 30,000 extra troops, they illustrate what has become known in Vietnam as "winning the defeat".

According to the authors the war in Iraq is almost lost, and like Vietnam in 1968, this realisation is now guiding a new strategy - the US must put "enough distance" between their failing occupation and any withdrawal.

The heaviest criticism is directed at those neocons and liberals alike who blame the problems of the occupation on flawed military strategy: the idea that if the US had put in half a million troops, instead of 130,000, the outcome would be different. This, they argue, is the greatest misconception.

The US lost the war in Vietnam, and is losing the current war, because they are politically misguided and intellectually dishonest. That so many leading scholars now consider the neocons to be intellectually flawed, deceitful and incapable of learning the lesson of the past, makes this book a must read.