The New Historical Link between Vietnam and Iraq

tags: Vietnam



Matt Jacobs is a PhD student at Ohio University, where he studies twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy.

As fighting raged in Iraq during the mid-2000s several commentators and politicians began making comparisons between the conflict and the war in Vietnam. Images of U.S. soldiers engaged in an unconventional war with no apparent end in sight aided in the belief among some that we were replicating what occurred in Southeast Asia over forty years ago. Senator Edward Kennedy bluntly declared that “Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam.” With the end of the war, the comparisons receded.

Yet, the current debate over what, if anything, should the United States do in Syria has created a new link between the two wars. Several years after the United States’ defeat in Vietnam the term Vietnam Syndrome became common. Ronald Reagan was the first president to use it, though its exact origins remain unclear. The overwhelming public response against American intervention in Syria begs the question, is their now an Iraq Syndrome?

President Reagan was once asked by a reporter if it were possible for the United States to become embroiled in the El Salvadoran Civil War so much so that extraction would be difficult; he replied that thinking along those lines was part of the Vietnam Syndrome. At its core, the term meant that Americans were wary of military engagements and not ready to commit to undefined operations that offered the chance of getting stuck in intractable conflicts. It seemed that anytime U.S. military forces were utilized or their utilization even discussed, echoes of Vietnam could be heard. It was not until 1991, following the First Gulf War, that President George H.W. Bush declared, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all!” The argument went that by driving Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in less than a year and doing so with only several hundred casualties, the United States had vanquished American apprehension about committing combat forces to war.

The debate over the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons and whether an American intervention is necessary have taken place with the specter of the Iraq War in many minds. Just as Ronald Reagan bemoaned a Vietnam Syndrome anytime the use of American military power was contemplated, the Obama administration has been quick to counter critics by simply stating that “this is not Iraq.” Even with the fact that a Middle Eastern Dictator, with ties to terrorist groups, has employed chemical weapons, the American public is still not convinced an intervention is necessary or justified. Several U.S. Senators have even judged the events as not having any relation to the national security of the United States. President Obama’s declaration that no ground forces will be introduced has done little to sway people who remember the many promises made prior to the Iraq War that never came to fruition.

There is an argument that the Obama administration has not made a good enough case for intervention; that somehow if their presentation were better they would gain more support. That is possible, though currently it seems that there exists no amount of evidence or argumentation that could persuade a war wary public to endorse U.S. involvement in Syria.

There is nothing wrong with the public and elected leaders being skeptical of another possible American military intervention, debates can be informative and ultimately produce better policies. However, skepticism should never turn to unwavering isolationism. A resolute and active U.S. role in the world is a global necessity. For the time being, it appears the Iraq War is not going anywhere, it will linger in the minds of policymakers and the public, much in the same way Vietnam cast a long shadow on every presidential administration in its wake. Perhaps years from now, following a successful intervention, someone will declare, “By God, we’ve kicked the Iraq Syndrome once and for all!”


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