Jewish World Review May 2, 2005 / 23 Nisan 5765
Sometimes, it simply isn't Vietnam
This Saturday marked the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. For a child born today, that war is as ancient as World War II was for someone born in 1975. But for some, Vietnam is still current events, not history.
The cliché is that generals like to fight the last war. The phrase is usually invoked to suggest (often inaccurately) that military types are behind the times. But in America, even if generals were fighting the last war, that would still put them several wars ahead of much of the mainstream media, academia and Hollywood.
The gravitational pull of Vietnam analogies is so powerful in some quarters that it can bend not only light but logic. At The New York Times, especially, there seems to be a hair trigger for such comparisons. It's as if their computers have macros designed to bypass the laborious and go straight to the lugubrious; so that R.W. "Johnny" Apple & Co. needn't even type words such as "quagmire" or phrases such as "echoes of Vietnam" when deadlines loom.
For example, on Day 24 of the war in Afghanistan, Apple wrote, "Like an unwelcome specter from an unhappy past, the ominous word 'quagmire' has begun to haunt conversations among government officials and students of foreign policy, both here and abroad. Could Afghanistan become another Vietnam?" Apple pondered. "Echoes of Vietnam are unavoidable." For some, the echoes stopped suddenly when the Taliban fell a few days later.
But for many others, the beat goes on. Since the beginning of the second Iraq war, comparisons, insinuations, allusions to Vietnam have been a near-daily occurrence. Literally thousands upon thousands of articles and editorials make the analogy as though it were actually a novel insight. You get the sense that Earth could be invaded by Klingons and some editorialist would hear "echoes of Vietnam" amid their disruptor blasts.
One is tempted to simply chalk this up to the geezerification of liberal baby boomers who can't shake their nostalgia for the glory days of speaking truth to power. But many of today's younger generation have been Vietnamized as well. This isn't as odd as it might sound. World War I seemed like ancient history before the ink on the armistice was dry. World War II, meanwhile, continues to dominate our imaginations, on the right and left, six decades after it ended. As any historian will tell you, public understanding of WWII has become far more literary than literal. So it is with Vietnam.
There's an enduring myth that Vietnam was a singular evil undone by America's idealistic youth, holding hands and singing songs in one voice for peace. This reflects the ego of baby-boomer liberals more than the facts. Not only did large numbers of young people support the war, but in the annals of unpopular wars, it wasn't that special. In 1968, Sol Tax of the University of Chicago cataloged anti-war activity from the Revolutionary War until the beginning of peace negotiations and found that Vietnam ranked as either the fourth or seventh least-popular war in American history.
Regardless, Vietnam is part of our cultural DNA now, and it will probably never be fully erased anymore than the Civil War or WWII will be. Right or wrong, silly or legitimate, that's the reality. And that's fine. If people want to argue about the Tet Offensive forever, so be it. But it is history.
But it's not particularly useful history. Ask military experts about the similarities between Vietnam and Iraq (or Afghanistan), and their eyes roll. Vietnam was a state-to-state war and had vastly more support from its Communist benefactors than Iraqi "insurgents" could ever receive from Syria and Iran. Indeed, in Vietnam, the insurgency phase of the war was largely over by 1965.
In Iraq, meanwhile, it's nothing but insurgency now. But, unlike the Viet Cong, Iraq's insurgency is ideologically diverse. Some are terrorists seeking to impose a pan-Arab theocracy, some are looking to restore the secular bacchanalia of fear they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein, and others are just gangsters. Vietnam was a jungle war that started against the French in the 1950s. Iraq was a desert war that permanently toppled Saddam's regime in a month. The technologies in play are incomparable.
The terrain, the political will and ideologies behind the efforts, the cultures almost every single point of comparison doesn't add up save the common bravery of America's military. Perhaps most important: Casualty rates are vastly different.
Now, none of this is to say that the Iraq war was right (though I believe it was). The point is that a war can be completely different from Vietnam in almost every major respect and still be wrong and hard. We've come to think that any military blunder or challenge must be akin to Vietnam (in much the same way some people think that if a law is bad, it must be unconstitutional). The war on terror and the Cold War are profoundly different enterprises, so it should only follow that the conflicts they generate would be different, too.
Of course, there are some similarities between Iraq and Vietnam including the press' attitude toward both. But such similarities are inherent to all wars and national struggles in a republic such as ours. The Spanish-American War, for instance, would probably be a far more fruitful point of comparison for critics of the Bush administration, but that would require they read up on it first.
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