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Is There a Vietnam-Iraq Connection?

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Is the Iraq War like the Vietnam War? Answering that question is harder than you might think. It is complicated by the fact that our national memory of the Vietnam War is splintered and constantly changing. In addition, our recollection of the war is clouded by a haze of ideological posturing that has lasted more than 30 years. In the end, it is clear that there is still no consensus among Americans about what the Vietnam War means, about whether it should have been fought, or about what lessons we should learn from it.

Every decade has seen new meanings and myths attached to our memory of the Vietnam War. In politics, presidents from Ford to Reagan to Bush have been influenced by the nation’s experience in Southeast Asia more than a generation ago. Political rhetoric has often brought the war in Vietnam back to public attention. How often have we heard words like “noble cause,” “quagmire,” “bogged down”–all fixed in public consciousness to that war–applied to international crises?

Meanwhile, movies and television have presented highly selective pictures of the Vietnam War, often distorting or selectively remembering what actually happened. The shifting memory of the war becomes apparent in looking at screen versions of the conflict. In diverse movies — including the likes of The Deer Hunter, Missing in Action, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Rambo, We Were Soldiers and others — it is surprisingly hard to get a clear idea of the big picture. (The same can be said of TV series such as China Beach, and M*A*S*H.) Some productions give a fairly clear view of certain aspects of the Vietnam War and its times. Often, however, so much is left out, or treated with such artistic license, that what is left is too partial and incomplete to be useful in understanding the war as a whole.

Clearly, the Vietnam War has a powerful place in American memory. But our recollections are clouded by many layers of media images and political declarations. In the new book The Afterlife of America’s War in Vietnam (McFarland & Co., 2006), a professor of liberal studies at Montserrat College of Art in Massachusetts takes a fresh look at these issues. In overview fashion, Professor Arnold examines the reincarnations of the Vietnam War in American media and politics since the 1970s, right up until the 2004 Presidential election and the Global War on Terrorism.  He successfully presents it as a story full of twists and turns and not one which provides easy answers.

The next time someone asks us if the Iraq War is or is not like Vietnam, we might not want to answer too quickly.

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  • Correct me if I’m wrong, Mark, but you seem to have the idea that we would have, or could have, won the Vietnam war if it had had popular support. The reality is, the failure of the U.S. military was not the result of erosion of American morale. It was the cause.

  • MCH

    Re comment #1, by Mark Edward Manning. Below is an opposing point-of-view, by someone who’s actually served in the military.

    From Tim Russert’s recent interview with General Anthony Zinni (Ret), on Meet The Press:

    GENERAL ZINNI: “The remarkable similarities to Vietnam is I saw in places in Vietnam where we were making a difference in the villages, where we had programs that innovative commanders were exercising, where there were troops that were dedicated to changing the lives of the Vietnamese. Meanwhile, back in Saigon, we had the revolving generals, coup after coup, while we sat there and watched, and this wasn’t the kind of government that the people felt they could risk their lives for.

    TIM RUSSERT: I want to bring you back to a book you co-wrote with Tom Clancy called “Battle Ready.” And you wrote this: “In the lead-up to the Iraq war and its later conduct, I saw, at a minimum, true dereliction, negligence, and irresponsibility; at worst, lying, incompetence, and corruption.” That’s very serious.

    GEN. ZINNI: Yes.

    MR. RUSSERT: Where did you see that? At what level?

    GEN. ZINNI: Well, I–first of all, I saw it in the way the intelligence was being portrayed. I knew the intelligence; I saw it right up to the day of the war. I was asked at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing a month before the war if I thought the threat was imminent. I didn’t. Many of the people I know that were involved in the intelligence side of this, or, or in the military felt the same way. I saw the–what this town is known for: spin, cherry-picking facts, using metaphors to evoke certain emotional responses, or, or shading the, the context. We, we know the mushroom clouds and, and the other things that were all described that the media’s covered well. I saw on the ground, though, a sort of walking away from 10 years worth of planning.

    You know, ever since the end of the first Gulf War, there have been–there’s been planning by serious officers and planners and others, and policies put in place. Ten years worth of planning, you know, were thrown away; troop levels dismissed out of hand; General Shinseki basically insulted for speaking the truth and giving a, an honest opinion; the lack of cohesive approach to how we deal with the aftermath; the political, economic, social reconstruction of a nation, which is no small task; a belief in these exiles that anyone in the region, anyone that had any knowledge would tell you were not credible on the ground; and on and on and on. Decisions to disband the army that were not in the initial plans. I mean there’s a series of disastrous mistakes. We just heard the secretary of state say these were tactical mistakes. These were not tactical mistakes. These were strategic mistakes, mistakes of policy made back here.

    MR. RUSSERT: Should someone resign?

    GEN. ZINNI: Absolutely.

    MR. RUSSERT: Who?

    GEN. ZINNI: Secretary of defense, to begin with.

    MR. RUSSERT: Anyone else?

    GEN. ZINNI: Well, I think that, that we–that those that have been responsible for the planning, for overriding all the, the efforts that were made in planning before that, that those that stood by and allowed this to happen, that didn’t speak out. And there are appropriate ways within the system you can speak out, at congressional hearings and otherwise. I think they have to be held accountable. The point is, those that are in power now that have been part of this are finding that their time is spent defending the past. And if they have to defend the past, they’re unable to make the kinds of changes, adjustments, admit the mistakes and move on. And that’s where we are now, trying to rewrite history, defend the past, ridiculous statements that, “Well, wait 20 years and history will tell you how this turns out.” Well, I don’t think anybody wants 20 years to continue like it is now.”


    Just for the record, here’s Gen. Zinni’s military credentials:

    **Served 35 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, 1965-2000
    **2 tours in Vietnam, 1967 and 1970
    **Defense Distinguished Service Medal
    **Defense Superior Service Medal
    **Bronze Star with combat V
    **Purple Heart
    **Meritorious Service Medal
    **Navy Commendation Medal with combat V
    **Combat Action Ribbon
    **Chief of Staff and Deputy Commanding General of Combined Task Force Operation Provide Comfort during the Kurdish relief effort in Turkey and Iraq, 1991
    **Commander in Chief, U.S. Central Command, 1997-2000

  • I am a Vietnamese and I learnt about it so far in school and in other resources. I am still yound so i may not know much about it or I don’t see the real picture of the war between your people and our people.

    However, I still think the situation in Irag is a little similar to the war 30 years ago in Vietnam. People will still die more and more, everyday as long as the American Soldiers are still there. I don’t know exactly the reasons why people make war and so on but peaceful life is what Vietnamese people are caring about. Not many people in Vietnam now remind stories about the War though it was horrible. They are happy now because of new life. Since last time the Prime Minister Phan Van Khai visited U.S., alot of things have changed. Many more business people from U.S are coming to Vietnam. Even Bill Gates said that he just knows Vietnam via war when he was creating Microsoft.

    Anyway, let’s hope that things will be better and there will be no war. The oil price is increasing because of that and I am not happy because of the war.

    We here welcome American people to come to our countries and we treat them even more hospitable than other people, though they were not good to us.

    That’s the past so don’t mention it.

  • It is becoming more and more like Vietnam with respect to the turning of the tide in the U.S. So, now, just as then, our soldiers will lose face due to a lack of popular support. And the media is doing the same thing as they did in Vietnam, too, propagandacizing the war in every way possible. I even think the connection is there in terms of the government, because Rumsfeld has not contributed enough troops to do the job correctly.