Iraq as Vietnam?

That is the question occupying some commentators as the approaching end-of-year prompts looking back at the “big picture” of 2003’s top story, the War in Iraq. The Washington Post’s Sunday “Outlook” section offers up Iraq Isn’t Vietnam, But They Rhyme, by long-time Post reporter Robert G. Kaiser. Then, as the sort of foreign counterpart that EuroSavant makes its business to make available for exposure to its English-reading audience, there is the essay in this month’s Le Monde Diplomatique by Ignacio Ramonet, entitled Irak, le «merdier». (Sorry: «merdier» is perhaps best translated as “shit-house”; we’ll shortly get into where Ramonet gets that from.) These articles are not as far apart in their sentiments as you might think – or as those might think who are familiar with Le Monde Diplomatique’s usual left-leaning perspective (although, as we’ll see, the French monthly can’t resist lapsing into good old-fashioned left-leaning invective).


Naturally, you can read Kaiser’s article yourself, so I’ll just repeat its high-points. He gets his title from Mark Twain’s quote “History doesn’t repeat itself, at best it rhymes,” and Kaiser’s point is that the current situation in Iraq and the situation in Vietnam of over thirty years ago are sure starting to do that. Remember the infamous “Domino Theory”? Kaiser presents George W. Bush’s comment from last August: “Our military is confronting terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other places so our people will not have to confront terrorist violence in New York or St. Louis or Los Angeles.” More substantially, he points out that, just as in Vietnam, the Coalition presence in Iraq has a political, not military, objective – namely to give that country a workable democratic government. It’s still questionable whether that is a reachable goal, given the predominantly military nature of Coalition assets there. Further parallels:

  • Unwarranted official optimism: Projections about how many American troops would be needed in Iraq – together with how they would be greeted after the war by the local populace – have consistently fallen short of the true mark.
  • American isolation on the ground: Just as in Vietnam, Americans shelter in their armed compounds, and often have trouble identifying who out there in that strange culture, whose language the vast majority cannot fathom, is the enemy and who the “friendlies.”
  • American isolation in the world: Pretty self-explanatory.
  • The primacy of American political considerations: As in Vietnam, how Iraq is heavily impacting already President Bush’s re-election campaign and the selection of his Democratic rival, as well as how (and when) the war and occupation has been paid for.

Now to the Le Monde Diplomatique article, and it turns out that that the Le Merdier in its title is the French translation of “The Short-Timers,” the title of the Vietnam War novel by Gustav (“Gus”) Hasford which served as the basis for the script of Stanley Kubrick’s movie “Full Metal Jacket.” Yes, Diplomatique writer Ignacio Ramonet is even more into the Iraq-Vietnam parallel than Robert Kaiser (aside from the almost-obligatory statement “Iraq is not Vietnam” with which he starts his analysis). Not for him any coy mention of “rhyme” or treatment (at least explicitly) of the ways in which the two situations clearly differ.

A curious reversal of roles has happened in Iraq, Ramonet notes: the initial attackers (i.e. the Coalition forces) have had to go over on the defensive, with their main mission now that of protecting themselves against a resistance which is “more and more audacious.” (Note that this article was published before the detention of Saddam Hussein, although that event in any case does not seem to have produced a lessening of guerrilla attacks so far.) The inevitable mention of that classic Chinese philosopher of war, Sun Tzu, follows: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy becomes immobilized, we harass them,” and insurgent forces are further following to perfection Sun’s admonition to not present the occupier with any clear target to hit, while the Coalition targets are all-too-obvious. Cela tourne au cauchemar Ramonet says – it’s becoming a nightmare.


Indeed, he offers his readers a conspiracy theory which, although bizarre at first glance, might be intriguing if you care to stop and think about it: that this was the Iraqi plan all along, namely to offer only token military resistance of the conventional kind in order to lure Coalition forces into precisely a mess like this. After all, he notes, the Iraqi armed forces were strangely negligent during the allied invasion in their failure to blow any bridges or destroy any airfields. (And reports in other publications have made mention of an explicit project carried out before the invasion at the direction of Saddam Hussein to cache weapons, explosives, money, and other supplies at hidden locations around the country, presumably in preparation for post-occupation resistance.)

The 130,000 American soldiers in-country have shown themselves to be insufficient for restoring security to the country (although Ramonet also points out that, of those, only 56,000 are true combat troops). Not even the thousands of additional private security personnel have helped. (Though “Iraq has become the El Dorado for private security firms.”) The Bush administration would claim that its firm action in Iraq would help to stamp out “terrorism,” both there and elsewhere in the world, but that has not proved to be the case, as subsequent attacks in Casablanca, Riyad, Mombassa, and Istanbul have shown.

Who is at fault for this mess? It is those Washington “hawks” (“Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle…”), “drunk with power,” with their “delirious dream” of “redrawing the Middle East.” OK, at this point Ramonet crosses the line off the “deep end” for many. And perhaps Saddam Hussein’s capture will indeed ultimately weaken or demoralize the Iraqi resistance in ways that have yet to make themselves manifest. The fact remains, however, that Ramonet’s article differs from Kaiser’s only quantitatively, not qualitatively – i.e. in the extent to which he is willing to push the Iraq-Vietnam argument, not in that argument itself. So maybe that argument deserves reasoned consideration.

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