War Called Riskier Than Vietnam

(Pool - Getty Images)
By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

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 Vietnam. 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 e-mail 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 (D-Neb.), 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."

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