War Called Riskier Than Viet­nam

Mil­i­tary Ex­perts Fret­ful Over Long-Term Con­se­quences

The Washington Post Sunday - - The Conflict In Iraq - By Thomas E. Ricks

Pres­i­dent Bush re­cently said that “there’s a lot of dif­fer­ences” be­tween the cur­rent war in Iraq and the Viet­nam War.

As fight­ing in Iraq en­ters its fifth year, an in­creas­ing num­ber of ex­perts in for­eign pol­icy and na­tional strat­egy are ar­gu­ing that the big­gest dif­fer­ence may be that the Iraq war will in­flict greater dam­age to U.S. in­ter­ests than Viet­nam did.

“In terms of the con­se­quences of fail­ure, the stakes are much big­ger than Viet­nam,” said for­mer de­fense sec­re­tary William S. Co­hen. “The geopo­lit­i­cal con­se­quences are . . . po­ten­tially global in scope.”

About 17 times as many U.S. troops died in the Viet­nam War — the long­est war in U.S. his­tory — as have been lost in Iraq, the na­tion’s third-long­est war. Also, de­spite wide­spread pub­lic dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the Iraq war, the de­bate over it has not con­vulsed Amer­i­can so­ci­ety to the ex­tent seen dur­ing the Viet­nam con­flict. How­ever, Viet­nam does not have oil and is not in the mid­dle of a re­gion cru­cial to the global econ­omy and fes­ter­ing with ter­ror­ism, ex­perts say, lead­ing many of them to con­clude that the long-term ef­fects of the Iraq war will be worse for the United States.

“It makes Viet­nam look like a cake­walk,” said re­tired Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, a vet­eran of the Viet­nam War. The domino the­ory that na­tions across South­east Asia would go com­mu­nist was not ful­filled, he noted, but with Iraq, “worst-case sce­nar­ios are the most likely thing to hap­pen.”

Iraq is worse than Viet­nam “in so many ways,” agreed Andrew F. Kre­pinevich Jr., a re­tired Army of­fi­cer and au­thor of one of the most re­spected stud­ies of the U.S. mil­i­tary’s fail­ure in Viet­nam. “We knew what we were get­ting into in Viet­nam. We didn’t here.”

Also, Pres­i­dent Richard M. Nixon used diplo­macy with China and the Soviet Union to ex­ploit the split be­tween them and so min­i­mize the fall­out of Viet­nam. By con­trast, Kre­pinevich said, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion has “mag­ni­fied” the prob­lems of Iraq by ne­glect­ing pub­lic diplo­macy in the Mus­lim world and by not de­vel­op­ing an en­ergy pol­icy to re­duce the sig­nif­i­cance of Mid­dle East­ern oil.

In strate­gic terms, the Viet­nam con­flict was un­der­stood even by many of its op­po­nents as part of a global stance of con­tain­ment, a pol­icy that pre­ceded the war and en­dured for 15 years af­ter Saigon fell, noted re­tired Army Col. Richard H. Sin­nre­ich, a vet­eran of two Viet­nam tours of duty. “I’m not sure we can count on a sim­i­larly prompt strate­gic re­cov­ery this time around,” he con­tin­ued. “Bush’s pre­emp­tion strat­egy was con­tro­ver­sial even be­fore Iraq, and the war it­self has been so badly mis­man­aged that even our al­lies doubt our com­pe­tence.”

Gary So­lis, who fought as a Marine in Viet­nam and more re­cently taught the law of war at the U.S. Mil­i­tary Academy at West Point, said he is hear­ing more such dis­cus­sions. “Most of my mil­i­tary ac­quain­tances agree that the is­sues in our de­par­ture from Viet­nam will pale be­side those that will be pre­sented by an Iraq with­drawal,” So­lis said.

In ad­di­tion, some ex­perts say that the eth­i­cal bur­den of the Iraq war is heav­ier for Amer­i­cans. “Viet­nam had an on­go­ing civil war when the U.S. in­ter­vened, while Iraq’s civil war did not be­gin un­til af­ter the U.S. in­ter­ven­tion,” said a State De­part­ment of­fi­cial who served in Iraq and is not au­tho­rized to speak to the me­dia. “This makes it much harder — morally — for us to ex­tri­cate our­selves, at least from where I sit.”

To be sure, not ev­ery­one agrees that Iraq’s dam­age to the United States will ex­ceed that of Viet- nam. Cornell Univer­sity his­to­rian Fredrik Lo­gevall, an ex­pert on the ori­gins of the Viet­nam con­flict, said he hears the ar­gu­ment fre­quently from both sup­port­ers and op­po­nents of the Iraq war, but he doesn’t buy it, be­cause it rests on pre­dic­tions rather than facts.

Al­though both con­flicts were “wars of choice” that frus­trated and an­gered Amer­i­cans, Viet­nam caused far more death and de­struc­tion, he said. “It’s hard to see how it’s worse at present,” he con­cluded. He was in­ter­viewed by email on the same day that he was de­liv­er­ing a lec­ture in Not­ting­ham, Eng­land, com­par­ing the two wars.

“Those who ar­gue about Iraq be­ing worse than Viet­nam tend to make those worst-case as­sump­tions,” said re­tired Army Col. Andrew J. Bace­vich, now a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at Bos­ton Univer­sity.

But the pes­simists re­spond that their view is war­ranted. “I be­lieve the de­cep­tion and in­com­pe­tence have been far worse in Iraq,” said for­mer sen­a­tor Bob Ker­rey (DNeb.), a Viet­nam vet­eran. And Nathaniel Fick, a Marine vet­eran of Iraq, noted that un­til re­cently U.S. gen­er­als have not been crit­i­cized much in the Iraq war — a sharp con­trast to the lam­bast­ing that Army Gen. William West­more­land and oth­ers re­ceived dur­ing Viet­nam.

Some of those mak­ing the ar­gu­ment say they al­ready are be­gin­ning to see the out­lines of an “Iraq syn­drome” that will re­place the “Viet­nam syn­drome” that haunted U.S. for­eign pol­icy for decades.

“I think the hang­over from this war will be at least as bad as Viet­nam and wouldn’t be sur­prised by a grow­ing move­ment to­ward re­trench­ment and iso­la­tion­ism,” said Erin M. Simp­son, a coun­terin­sur­gency ex­pert at Har­vard Univer­sity. She also is wor­ried by a “stab-in-the-back nar­ra­tive” emerg­ing about who lost Iraq that could poi­son dis­course be­tween the mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers for years to come.

“We have seen how sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions looked at the world and the ex­er­cise of Amer­i­can power through Viet­nam-col­ored lenses,” agreed Thomas Donnelly, a fel­low at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute who was a lead­ing ad­vo­cate of in­vad­ing Iraq. “I would be sur­prised if fu­ture gen­er­a­tions didn’t be­gin to see things, dis­tort­edly, through an Iraq-col­ored prism.”

Diplo­mat­i­cally, Bush “mag­ni­fied” the is­sues of Iraq, one scholar said. Richard Nixon used diplo­macy to min­i­mize con­se­quences of pull­out.

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