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It's Vietnam, again: Does that analysis stand up for every U.S. intervention?

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By Jackson Diehl
Sunday, October 25, 2009

"One of the lessons of Vietnam," said Democratic Sen. John Kerry, "is if you are going to send American forces into harm's way, you don't do it in a limited way. You don't do it tying hands behind your back ahead of time. You don't ask people to give their lives for something less than the prospect of success."

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Kerry might have been talking about Afghanistan -- only he wasn't. He was talking about the Serbian province of Kosovo, in April 1999, in the middle of the U.S. intervention there.

Kerry, one of the country's best-known Vietnam veterans, makes a lot of comparisons to that war. But he's hardly alone. Each time Washington has debated sending troops to war in the past 30 years, or bringing them home, parallels to Vietnam have been drawn -- and endlessly argued over.

As the examples below demonstrate, the Vietnamization of war debates has been bipartisan. It has occurred with large conflicts and small; with those fought in jungles and in the desert.

And in every case until now, the comparisons have been unhelpful. No military mission since Vietnam has come close to that war in the number of casualties, or in its consequences for the United States.

Is Afghanistan like Vietnam? Kerry thinks so. Or maybe not. His comments and those of some of his fellow Vietnamizers follow.

VIETNAM

Duration: 1964-73

Peak deployment of U.S. troops: 536,000

U.S. deaths: 58,220

LEBANON

Duration: 1982-84

Peak deployment: 1,200

U.S. deaths: 265

The comparison: U.S. troops will slowly be drawn into an unwinnable civil war.

What they said:

"You recall how the Vietnam War developed. A little more and a little more and a little more . . ."

-- Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), September 1983

"Lebanon -- Reagan's Vietnam."

-- Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.), October 1983

The outcome: President Ronald Reagan withdrew U.S. forces, and Lebanon's war went on.

EL SALVADOR

Duration: 1980-92

Peak deployment: 108

U.S. deaths: 5

The comparison: A U.S. military advisory mission will lead to the deployment of U.S. troops who will be drawn into an unwinnable civil war.

What they said:

"I am not convinced that this body has the will, once American troops are committed, to say 'Halt!' We were reluctant and too late in doing so in Vietnam."

-- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), sponsor of a measure to ban U.S. troops from El Salvador, April 1984

"Vietnam was lost under the Capitol dome, under an amendment very, very similar to the one offered by the senator from Massachusetts."

-- Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.), June 1984

"Now there is an issue in this [1984 presidential] campaign. It has to do with what, if anything, we learned from Vietnam. If we have a policy . . . of keeping American combat forces in Central America and only removing them after negotiating with another government -- the Nicaraguan government -- that is an invitation to fall prey to the error of Vietnam and Lebanon."

-- Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), April 1984

The outcome: U.S. troops never deployed and the U.S.-trained Salvadoran Army eventually fought the guerrillas to a stand-off, leading to a peace settlement that consolidated a democracy.

PERSIAN GULF WAR

Duration: 1990-91

Peak deployment: 694,550

U.S. deaths: 382

The comparison: U.S. troops will be massively deployed for an unnecessary war that lacks the support of the American people.

What they said:

"I feel [the Tonkin Gulf Resolution] was used for justification of an unjust war in Vietnam, and I intend to use my efforts to make sure the United States never again enters an unjust war."

-- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), January 1991

"We hear time and time again references to the Vietnam War and how we want no more Vietnams. We hear that from the president, we heard that from all those who have addressed this issue. Clearly the American people do not seek a replay of that tragic chapter in our nation's history. I think you can make an argument that if we drag out this crisis and we don't at some point bring it to a successful resolution, we face the prospect over time of another Vietnam War."

-- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), January 1991

The outcome: U.S. forces drove the Iraqi army from Kuwait in a matter of weeks, with overwhelming public approval.

SOMALIA

Duration: 1992-94

Peak deployment: 6,300

U.S. deaths: 43

The comparison: U.S. forces are being slowly drawn into an unwinnable civil war.

What they said:

"It's Vietnam all over again."

-- Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), October 1993

"We need an exit strategy and I don't see one. That is compounding the Johnsonian error in Vietnam of incrementally deploying forces."

-- Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), October 1993

The outcome: U.S. forces were withdrawn in 1994, and Somalia's civil war went on.

HAITI

Duration: 1994-96

Peak deployment: 17,500

U.S. deaths: 4

The comparison: U.S. troops are being deployed for an unnecessary war that lacks the support of the American people.

What they said:

"It's a lesson of the Vietnam War we cannot forget, which is: We cannot involve ourselves militarily without the support of the American people."

-- Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), September 1994

The outcome: U.S. forces ousted a military regime and restored the previous elected government.

BOSNIA

Duration: 1995-2004

Peak deployment: 20,000

U.S. deaths: 1

The comparison: U.S. forces are being slowly drawn into an unwinnable civil war.

What they said:

This is a "halfhearted approach to force that proved so disastrous in Vietnam."

-- James A. Baker III, secretary of state in the George H.W. Bush administration, April 1994

"The concern about Vietnam is that we sent in a few troops, and before you knew it, we had a large number of lives lost and a large number of troops on the ground. We know now that the number is 20,000 [in Bosnia] and we're there to keep peace."

-- Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), November 1995

The outcome: After a bombing campaign, the United States brokered a peace settlement and joined an international force to implement it.

KOSOVO

Duration: 1999-

Peak deployment: 7,000

U.S. deaths: 1

The comparison: U.S. forces are being slowly drawn into an unwinnable civil war.

What they said:

"Many who argue we cannot pull out say we should stay to save face, if for no other reason. I would like to ask these people, was it worth it to stay in Vietnam just to save face?"

-- Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), April 1999

"I am not going to vote as a U.S. senator for my generation's version of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which has come to mean an open-ended, ill-defined conflict in which you commit Americans, particularly on the ground, and get a bunch of people killed and argue about why they were there later."

-- Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), April 1999

The outcome: Bombing and the threat of a ground invasion forced Serbian troops to withdraw from Kosovo, and the United States joined an international peacekeeping force.

IRAQ

Duration: 2003-

Peak deployment: 250,000

U.S. deaths: 4,355

The comparison: U.S. troops are slowly being drawn into an unwinnable civil war.

What they said:

"An absolute replay of Vietnam."

-- Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), July 2006

"Just like Vietnam: Just send more troops; send more money; send more involvement; give us more time. I don't think that there is any way you can escape that reality."

-- Sen. Chuck Hagel, February 2007

"I predicted after I went to Vietnam, asked by Gerry Ford to go there, and I found that there's going to be a bloodbath. I said there's going to be a bloodbath in Cambodia and that we'd have a terrible problem. That's going to happen. There's nothing we can do about that because we are not prevailing, and it's getting worse."

-- Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), January 2007

"I think Iraq is going to go down in history as the greatest disaster in American foreign policy, which means that it's worse than Vietnam, not in terms of the number of Americans who've died or Vietnamese versus Iraqis who have died, but in terms of its long-term consequences."

-- Madeleine Albright, secretary of state in the Clinton administration, January 2007

The outcome: A surge of troops in 2007-08 stopped the civil war; all U.S. combat forces are due to withdraw by August 2010, following Iraq's next democratic election.

AFGHANISTAN

Duration: 2001-

Peak deployment: 68,000

U.S. deaths: approximately 806

The comparison: U.S. forces are slowly being drawn into an unwinnable civil war.

What they said:

"I made a promise to myself a long time ago that I would not see all of our conflicts -- ground operations -- in the context of Vietnam. I really try hard. I have an automatic check that says, you know, not everything is that.

But, I have to tell you, in the several visits I have now made -- escape it as I might, the parallels just really keep leaping out in so many different ways. We are struggling to fight with, and for, people of a different culture, different language, different custom, different history, different religion, if any, and all of those similarities exist."

-- Sen. John Kerry, January 2009

"This is not Vietnam in many respects. We are here in Afghanistan because people attacked us here, in the most significant attack against the United States since Pearl Harbor. We are here because there are still people at large who are plotting against the United States of America. And we are here because the stability of this region is of critical strategic interest to the United States. I think most people agree on that. So the -- the basic assumptions here are very, very different from what we experienced years ago in Vietnam."

-- Sen. John Kerry, October 2009

"You never step into the same river twice, and so, Afghanistan is not Vietnam. But the dangers of overreach and not having clear goals and not having strong support from the American people, those are all issues that I think about all the time."

-- President Obama, September 2009

The outcome: Unknown.


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