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Iraq and Vietnam: Differences, Similarities, and Insights

Iraq and Vietnam: Differences, Similarities, and Insights - Cover

Authored by Dr. Jeffrey Record, Dr. W. Andrew Terrill.

May 2004

76 Pages

Brief Synopsis

U.S. political and military difficulties in Iraq have prompted comparisons to the American war in Vietnam. The authors conclude that the military dimensions of the two conflicts bear little comparison. Among other things, the sheer scale of the Vietnam War in terms of forces committed and losses incurred dwarfs that of the Iraq War. They also conclude, however, that failed U.S. state-building in Vietnam and the impact of declining domestic political support for U.S. war aims in Vietnam are issues pertinent to current U.S. policy in Iraq.


Unfolding events in Iraq have prompted some observers to make analogies to the American experience in the Vietnam War. The United States has, they argue, stumbled into another overseas “quagmire” from which there is no easy or cheap exit.

Reasoning by historical analogy is an inherently risky business because no two historical events are completely alike and because policymakers’ knowledge and use of history are often distorted by ignorance and political bias. In the case of Iraq and Vietnam, extreme caution should be exercised in comparing two wars so far apart in time, locus, and historical circumstances. In fact, a careful examination of the evidence reveals that the differences between the two conflicts greatly outnumber the similarities. This is especially true in the strategic and military dimensions of the two wars. There is simply no comparison between the strategic environment, the scale of military operations, the scale of losses incurred, the quality of enemy resistance, the role of enemy allies, and the duration of combat.

Such an emphatic judgment, however, may not apply to at least two aspects of the political dimensions of the Iraq and Vietnam wars: attempts at state-building in an alien culture, and sustaining domestic political support in a protracted war against an irregular enemy. It is, of course, far too early predict whether the United States will accomplish its policy objectives in Iraq and whether public support will “stay the course” on Iraq. But policymakers should be mindful of the reasons for U.S. failure to create a politically legitimate and militarily viable state in South Vietnam, as well as for the Johnson and Nixon administrations’ failure to sustain sufficient domestic political support for the accomplishment of U.S. political objectives in Indochina. Repetition of those failures in Iraq could have disastrous consequences for U.S. foreign policy.

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