Why Vietnam Haunts the Debate Over Iraq

News at Home

Mr. Greenberg writes Slate's "History Lesson" column and teaches history and political science at Yale. He is the author of NIXON'S SHADOW: THE HISTORY OF AN IMAGE.

History Posters of All Kinds! Georgetown Bookshop

The Vietnam War is again dividing the country, this time by analogy. Doves liken the Iraqi occupation to the Indochina debacle. Hawks tick off the obvious differences. All this comparing and contrasting shouldn't be surprising. A law of rhetorical entropy seems to decree that every American war since 1975–Grenada, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan—tends toward comparison with Vietnam.

Indeed, for more than a year, hardly a month has passed without some new invocation of the Vietnam parallel. Even before the Iraq invasion, critics of the rush to war pointed to Vietnam as a cautionary reminder about the arrogance of power. The ground war had lasted barely a week before skeptics and hacks began whispering the dreaded word"quagmire."

The Vietnam parallel returned with a vengeance during last fall's controversy over Saddam's missing weapons cache. The dawning recognition that the Bush team's zeal for war had led it to misread data—and consequently to misrepresent the Iraqi threat to the world—stirred memories of another phony casus belli, the Gulf of Tonkin attacks of August 1964. Meanwhile, the administration's relentlessly upbeat forecasts and its withholding of key information opened a credibility gap reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson's.

In the past few weeks, the occupation has inspired still more Vietnam comparisons—this time to the ill-fated"pacification" program. Violent uprisings have shown far greater Iraqi anger toward the American presence than was assumed. The enemy of our enemy, it turned out, wasn't our friend: Many Iraqis thrilled about Saddam's ouster nonetheless had little love for their occupiers. But the Vietnam experience suggested that the odds against winning the"hearts and minds" of the Iraqi populace were long. Pacification failed in Vietnam, after all, both because the Army always focused mainly on its military goals, and, more important, because most Vietnamese didn't wish to be pacified. Discouraged and sour, U.S. troops put stock in an officer's memorable line:"Grab 'em by the balls and their hearts and mind will follow." That approach failed, too.

For all the resemblances, however, even most occupation critics agree that history isn't repeating itself. The Vietnam parallel, like all historical analogies, admits as many differences as similarities. Each time Vietnam is invoked, some administration booster effortlessly reels off the countless contrasts: the relative brevity of the American term in Iraq; the lighter casualty toll; the wholly different nature of the enemy. Most significantly, in Iraq the main battlefield victories have already been won. And so the Vietnam parallels and contrasts degenerate into partisan claims and counterclaims.

(What does genuinely echo Vietnam, however, is the barrage of scurrilous attacks against those who question the occupation. Richard Nixon used to argue, in a textbook case of black-is-white newspeak, that protesters who demanded an immediate end to the war were actually prolonging it—rather like saying that Martin Luther King Jr. was prolonging segregation. Now, sadly, that twisted logic is being revived to try to disparage administration critics.)

But if Vietnam offers little in the way of usable lessons today, it remains relevant as history and as a large part of the explanation of how we got into Iraq at all. Among the American public, especially on the left, Vietnam conferred a deep wariness—"the Vietnam Syndrome"—about military intervention. The war chastened many Cold Warriors, teaching them the wisdom of humility in foreign affairs. It demolished the domino-theory logic that had transformed the moderate policy of containment into an untenable duty to police the world for Communist influence.

But the Vietnam Syndrome had harmful consequences, too. If it rightly showed many liberals that the Nicaraguan Sandinistas posed no threat to the United States, it also blinded them to the wisdom of such interventions as the first Gulf War, which stopped a regional menace from taking over its neighbors, or the Balkan interventions, which saved thousands of Muslims. And the Vietnam Syndrome also saddled the Democratic party with a reputation as soft on defense, which Republicans have regularly exploited at the polls.

Along with the Vietnam Syndrome on the left, however, the Indochina war also bequeathed a different neurotic complex to the right. The Vietnam humiliation naturally spawned the sorts of"stabbed in the back" myths that accompany most lost wars: wishful claims that even more American troops and firepower could have, somehow, prevailed; that only a lack of will led to defeat.

Such thinking influenced conservative policymakers disenchanted with the realpolitik of Nixon and Henry Kissinger. In the 1970s, most leading diplomatic thinkers shared Nixon and Kissinger's view that America was declining as a hegemony and had to share global power with the Soviet Union, China, Europe, and Japan. Many on the right, however, including Dick Cheney and other key Bush advisers today, concluded otherwise.

Vietnam helped convince them that America had to deploy armed force around the world more often and with fewer qualms. The exercise of American might could not only achieve diplomatic ends but also dispel the debilitating shame of Vietnam.

This outlook gained strength in the 1980s. The movie Rambo: First Blood, with its narrative of avenging the Vietnam defeat, embodied the spirit of the age. Ronald Reagan's invasion of Grenada didn't much affect the long-term security of the United States, but it did induce waves of patriotic pride. George Bush Sr.'s 1989 invasion of Panama similarly did little militarily but remove a thorn in the president's side. Symbolically, though, it showed that the American armed forces were back and ready for action. Two years later, after the successful expulsion of Saddam's army from Kuwait, Bush could claim he had kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.

But the claim was premature, and not just because Saddam remained in power. The Vietnam Syndrome endures because Americans remain profoundly ambivalent about the use of military force to work our will. As well we should.

This piece first ran in Slate and is reprinted with permission of the author. Click here to see a list of his other History Lesson columns in Slate.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Ken Melvin touches upon a valid rationale for comparing Iraq to Viet-Nam. The Viet-Nam War was not fought in isolation, it was an episode, a chapter, in larger book called the Cold War. As Ernest Lefever, a Kennedy & Johnson administration's policy wonk put it in his "essay in the "Wall Street Journal," "Vietrnam's Ghosts," 21 May 1997, despite our loss in Viet-Nam our fighting in Viet-Nam as long and painful though it was achieved at least three important benefits for the U.S. & its allies, except Viet-Nam, 1) It reassured our allies around the world that an America that wouldn't cut & run in far-off Viet-Nam, we'd haedly leave our more important allies in the lurch, open to Communist conquest. Secondly, "our steadfastness in Vietnam strenghtened nationalist and anticommunist forces elsewhere in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Third, holding the line in Indochina as long as we did eventually led to a balance of power favorable to the states in the region and to us, a point Soingapore's Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew repeatedly empasizes..."

Likewise the campaign in Iraq was & is not a stand-alone war, but rather a campaign in the larger war against al-qaeda and militant Islamism.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

As someone pointed out, our mini-wars, the Monica Wars, in the Balkans were unjustified, morally shameful. That is because they were fought for no more elevating reasons than to distract public attention from Blue Dress Willie's White House scandals. Clinton aping Banana Republic dictators sought (and succeeded) to divert attention from his immoral personal conduct by sending our armed forces into military adventures abroad. But those episodes were but petty sins with no long-term ramifications for U.S. foreign policy, other than demonstrating weakness on the part of a military-hating Chief Executive, reinforcing bin Laden & his ilk in the belief that the U.S. is a paper tiger& therefore encouraging our enemies to attack us in the Middle East, in East Africa & on 9/11.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Friend Daniel Larison,

As much as Bush is respected, and he certainly is (as I once a soldier meself am made aware through nattering with both fellow veterans & with guys on active duty via both this medium & in personal conversations, I living near Colorado Springs, where there are 5 large military facilities, the AF Academy, Fort Carson, NORAD, Peterson AFB & Schrievner AFB) by & large, by the men in the uniforms of our armed forces nonetheless you do have a point about his willingness to misuse the armed forces because of his reluctance to bear the cost of a needed, in my opinion, larger Army. In my opunion, because of the committments we've laid on our Army we should raise at least four more divisions of infantry, better yet 6, and one, perhaps two, divisions of armor. But to preserve his tax cuts Bush doesn't want to pay the admittedly large cost of a larger Army. Because he won't, undue strain is placed on te Army we have.

On the other hand, governments usually attempt to get by on the cheap when utilizing their armed forces. For instance, in Viet-Nam, my first tour, 1966-7, I carried a WWII vintage M-1 carbine, hardly the best defensive weapon available even then. Instances abounded of our gov't attempting to save a buck when our troops were in the trenches. While an understandable attitude for politicians & bureaucrats, when one's fanny is at risk in an isolated foxhole & one knows the bad guys are crawling arond out there in the dark toward one, one wants the best weaponary available, expenses be damned!

Still, Willie was widely despised by our boys in uniform, both enlisted & officer, returning the sentiment to a President who said openly he despised the military & Bush is widely respected and trusted by them. Poor Willie hiding behind women's skirts all his life, save when he was attempting to lift them, was profoundly ignorant of national defense matters. Moreover, he refused to learn about them. It was reported he even refused more often than not to permit the normal daily national security briefings to given him--because the subject didn't interest him.

Willie's failures in the defense realm are understandable because he so much of a self-centered hedonist was & is no patriot with a caring love for the nation. For an assessment ow much of Willie's indifference to his fellow man was a natural outgrowth of his, as any, powerful politician's concern for power I'll leave to others to conclude.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005


Wrong versions of Islam? Aw, come on, we've, Christendom, have been warred upon by militant Islam since the Arab tribes swept out of the desert to swarm over Byzantine provinces screaming "Allah ak-bar..."

Can it be "wrong" versions of Islam for it to be Moslems are at war with everyone different than them, in the Philippines, in the Sudan, in the Holy Land, in Kashimir, in Bali, in Central Asia, in Russia, in Thailand, in Nigeria? And of course, attacking us & Spain & laying plots to kill the Cousins? The nearly endless list of conflicts between Moslems & other peoples paints a line around the perimeter of the failed civilization of Islam.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

O.K., not unless you move to the small-town in Kansas in which I grew up. About my age twelve we lived half a block, one of those very short small-town blocks, from the local high school. A teacher in the high school did something to get himself tarred, feathered & run out-of-town.

Asked my father what the guy had done. He refused to tell me. Asked him a second time. Again he refused to tell me. I knew better than to ask him a third time. To this day I don't know what the teacher had done to warrant his punishment, but I do know if that joker had returned to town for any reason whatsoever he most likely would have been lynched. Chances are my Uncle Bob, then the county undersheriff would have stood by waving off any Bleed'n Heart types seeking to interfere with our justice at work. Places like that, nationwide, don't put up with much of the evil nonsense urbanites tolerate.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Mr. Petit,

The reason the U.N. doesn't work politically is because its ranks are dominated by scores of petty dictatorships. But from experience, Peadce Corps, Liberia, 1962-4, I'm aware that UNESCO does sometimes work well. Likewise WHO, except when 1st World bureaucrats are pushing birth control upon the darker peoples of the world.

Evidence of the influence of petty dictatorships in U.N. affairs is offered by the frequent attempts of the unelected bureaucrats of the U.N. to push gun control. Dictators don't like anyone outside government havinf access to firearms because an armed people is a threat to tyranny.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Pat Buchanan warns against our what he sees as our hubris. One point he makes is that Russia is weak today in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, but give it time Russia should bounce back to becoming a first rate power and if we've gone out-of-way to humble Russia during this moment of weakness generations to come may bitterly regret our hubris of today. Pat may or may not be correct in this his assessment. Either way, where lies the advantage to us of unnecessarilly belittling the Russians or anyone else? It is not only unwise to do so, it is also unChristian, Christianity yet one of our society's prevailing guidlines.

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Don't mind on occasion to be mistaken, because you learn from different points-of-view? That reminds me of an instance a few years ago when a space probe sent back data to the JPL that confounded theory. An engineer at JPL said he was pleased with the data, saying, more or less, "Because if [the probe] sent only information confirming what we already believe, we'd learn nothing new."

Marc "Adam Moshe" Bacharach - 5/3/2004

There are 2 options when looking at Clinton's wars:
1) take the cynical and conspiratorial opinion, which cannot be refuted and is really a way for Clinton-haters to simply reinforce their hatred by applying negative motivation to everything he does... OR
2) Look at the evidence, weight the stated rationale for going to war and compare it to what the evidence suggests, and make an informed speculation on motivation.

When one looks at #2, one sees that the so-called "Monica wars" were actually either relatively successful, or unsuccessful only because they did not do ENOUGH. I find it amazing that the same people who fault Clinton for not doing enough militarily can still attack him for the little that he did do. Each of those wars has a background, a context, and an overall political environment. Taking track #1, it is easyo to dismiss all of that. It is far less easy when embracing track #2.

Daniel B. Larison - 4/30/2004

I agree with you that the 'Monica Wars' were also shameful, but these completely absurd attacks were aimed against Sudan and Iraq (the latter falling in the middle of the impeachment proceedings).

The interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo were very much an extension of a conscious direction of NATO and U.S. policy of breaking down recalcitrant states in eastern Europe to make NATO and EU expansion easier. Though these wars are manifestations of Clinton's immorality of a different kind, they were waged with the enthusiastic support of much of the foreign policy establishment and had no direct relation to Clinton's other personal and public failures.

The goal seems to have been to advance American commitments closer to the borders of Russia to increase pressure on Moscow and perpetuate old-school Russophobic, confrontational policies. The more immediate goal seems to have been to try to bring down the one government in the region that remained more pro-Russian than the others and did not submit to the conception of Europe advanced by Brussels and the globalist toadies at the CFR and State Department.

In many ways, Kosovo paved the way for pre-emptive and preventive war in Iraq, since it was justified as a preventive measure against so-called 'genocide', and Kosovo was supported by many of the same people, including Mr. Bush, who have launched their hegemonist strategy. The Kosovo war was founded on the same idea that America has the unchallenged right to attack any country that displeases it; the chief difference is that Bubba was able to sucker more of the main leftist and other European governments to support the effort because it was an issue of 'stopping genocide in Europe'. For that cause, even otherwise diffident Europeans are able to become as dreadfully barbaric and bloodthirsty as any chauvinist.

As for military-hating chief executives, I can only assume that both Clinton and Bush share contempt for the armed forces of the United States, as both have consistently misused and abused them with excessive, unnecessary and overly long deployments without the proper resources. The new Marine deployments in Iraq did not have their tanks sent along with them, and there is insufficient ammunition available to avoid rationing--that strikes me as giving our real enemies an indication that our military has become something of a paper tiger in much of the rest of the world. Clinton gave off the appearance of weakness and fecklessness, but it has taken Bush to actually make us strategically vulnerable on a global scale.

Daniel B. Larison - 4/30/2004

That's very kind of you to say those things. I can't claim to be especially learned. The events of the last two years have given me considerable incentive to become better acquainted with Near Eastern history and the relationship between religion and war, so it is really just a matter of spending a lot of time on the subject.

We are in agreement that it is for the best that the administration, or at least the military and occupation officials in Iraq, has begun to see the folly of a violent crackdown.

Perhaps parallel tracks of secular and religious authority could be established, so that the government provides the technical education and legal system while granting privileged space to Islamic law over certain social issues. This dual-track and a gradualist approach have eventually worked in Turkey, but it must be something that an Iraqi government pushes for, and not something required by the U.S. mission.

Incidentally, I don't believe that there can be excessive patriotism, just as there cannot really be excessive love for one's family or friends--it is the absue of this intense, genuinely good sentiment through denying someone else his just claims that makes such dedication become warped or misleading. What often gives patriotic zeal a bad image is when someone assumes that his love of country frees him from the constraints of morality or human decency, or that someone else's love of country is somehow perverse because it is not one's own. But that is chauvinism, and I have seen none of that in any of your posts.

Thanks for an edifying exchange. It often seems that these forums wind up producing exchanges that are not especially useful, but this one was certainly useful for me.

Ben H. Severance - 4/30/2004

And thank you Mr. Larison for your learned response. I am humbled by your deep grasp of affairs in the Middle East and by your knowledge of religious views regarding war.

In creating a secular republic in Iraq, I agree with you that Islam must play a substantial role, certainly as a state religion at the very least (something akin to Turkey). Moreover, while I believe that the concept of separation of church and state facilitates civil order and social freedom, I would certainly not advocate anything like Test Acts for religious/political reliability. Frankly, I wish more politicians and magistrates conducted themselves with a genuine God-Centered outlook, where they demonstrated an understanding of the difference between evangelism and proselytism. Incidentally, the current developments in Fallujah and Najaf suggest that the Bush Administration is discovering the importance of native, local rule and the unavoidable influence of the religious leaders. I'm glad that the military has not had to storm those two cities.

Anyway, thanks again for your insights. I often plunge into these HNN articles with excessive patriotism, only to be sobered by refreshing comments by observers such as yourself.

Ken Melvin - 4/29/2004

Please don't tar me with this brush of yours.

Daniel B. Larison - 4/29/2004

Thanks for your reply, Mr. Severance. I'm afraid that it was I who went on a bit too long the last time. To respond to your remarks, I will just add a few more things.

First of all, I agree that wars are sometimes necessary in the last resort. We agree that Iraq was no such thing, and that's all that needs to be said here about this unfortunate campaign. As my long-winded, earlier post argued, wars are also probably unavoidable in a world where imperfect or corrupt human politicians guide states of various levels of power to compete for limited resources and supremacy.

That having been said, St. Basil the Great condemns war as an evil, pure and simple. It is a grievous sin to participate in a war, and I would suppose that it is also sinful to advocate war as anything other than an utmost final option. There may be occasions where its evil is mitigated by circumstances and necessity--a war of defense is allowed, but it is not approved of in the sense that it has been deemed good. Nothing contrary to the will of God can be good, and I know of no Church Father who credibly argues that God wills that we make war against each other. Insofar as we are free, God may allow wars to take place, but it is clear even from Scripture that wars are brought upon Israel as tests at best and punishments at worst.

In Orthodox tradition, in particular, there are military saints who represent the transformation of soldiers into spiritual champions, and in the Serbian tradition Tsar-Martyr Lazar is held up as a great example of one dying in defense of his Faith and country, but the Orthodox interpretation of Kosovo Polje makes it clear that Tsar-Martyr Lazar was granted the understanding that the spiritual kingdom is greater than the earthly. There has only been one instance of spiritual privileges being granted to Orthodox soldiers by the Church, as far as I know, and this was an unusual event in the early 13th century following the capture of Constantinople--normally, Orthodox bishops have rejected sanctifying bloodshed as holy. The emperor Heraclius declared a kind of holy war against Zoroastrian Iran at one point, but this had no religious merit and even this was a war of retaliation against an invasion.

Even Orthodox Christianity, which patristically takes a much more negative view of war in general than most other confessions, accepts that there are 'just' wars in the sense that legitimate governments can fight for the security of their people, but I do not think that a Christian could ever say that war is the "best" approach. It may become unavoidable and the "only" approach at some point, but if I have discerned anything in reading histories it is that people choose war long before other options have been closed. It is the fig leaf of justification and the idea that wars can achieve something genuinely good that allows people to choose war sooner than is absolutely necessary. It is a desire for gain, prestige or self-satisfaction of having done something 'good' that moves people to start or encourage warfare. War is the triumph of impatience and intemperance over wisdom, because it stems from the decision that some goal, however attractive it appears, is worth killing many people for and risking the lives of many of your own people, but it is not worth the extra investment of patience, time and hard work of persuasion. Somehow the lives of human beings are deemed less important than the time of the politicians, and it is my conviction that elected governments are even more dangerous in engaging in this kind of sudden action. Perhaps when the survival of a state is at stake, a leader or leaders might be forgiven for erring on the side of precipitous action, but in modern conventional wars there is almost no instance today where extra deliberation would be so fatal.

You wrote: "Perhaps I am naive, but constructing a secular Iraqi republic is a feasible objective provided the timeline is reasonable, which I happen to think is the case."

It is not inconceivable that this could be achieved, but this goal begs the question of the purpose of having needed "regime change." I don't mean to be obnoxious about this, but Iraq was a secular republic before the invasion; it just so happened to be a dictatorship as well. I do not think this is a coincidence. If secularism is the goal, then we will have to contend with the understandable resentment of the bulk of the population who have become sick at the thought of secularism. Secularism has meant for them what Americans probably equate (probably unfairly in some cases) with theocracy: despotism, the curtailment of their rights and traditions and the murder of their leaders.

Secularism, where it exists, has been established in most countries of the world by elites using coercive force against the religious institutions in those countries, and even in our country we see that extreme secularism has been pushed through court rulings in opposition to popular sentiments. There cannot be a truly self-governing people or representative government in a highly religious society or even fairly religious society if secularism is a requirement of its political structure--either some considerable measure of popular control over political content will have to be lost, or secularism will not survive. No seriously religious society or one in the process of religious revival willingly adopts secularism of the kind now established in Western countries; it must be imposed upon it through some judicial or dictatorial means. If we are concerned enough about Iraq failing to have a secular regime, then it follows that the major religious institutions of the society will have to be excluded from wielding power or influence over the government.

But this exclusion is a political impossibility in that country for the foreseeable future. It is a truism that the mission's fate lies in the hands of Sistani, but it is correct. I think the government might just about be able to make up for its criminal policy if it were to withdraw now and let the Iraqis make their own way. It could demonstrate that, contrary to the original designs of the warmongers and the interests they represented, America really wasn't engaged in dirty Machtpolitik, an expansion of the global base system, the pursuit of lucre or advancing Israeli interests, or any of the other proposed goals for this war. The government could make good on the claim that this was a liberation after all, even though it was a dreadful mess in the meantime, and, yes, cut and run.

It will give an otherwise terrible war a more decent outcome, at least from the self-determination point of view. What they do with that self-determination is anybody's guess. This liberation will almost certainly prove to be very bad for U.S. interests, but that is something Mr. Bush & Co. can defend to their constituencies when folks wonder why America's position in the Near East is at a record low in modern times.

I don't know why 'we' have a particular moral obligation to the Kurds. It seems to me that 'we' have protected them, more or less, for 13 years and they have made a decent start in running their own affairs. And the Kurds are the only ones, according to the latest reports, who want us to stick around, even though they are the ones who least need our assistance or security. If the other Iraqis don't want us there, even knowing how bad things might be if we leave, and a majority of our own people regard the war to not be worthwhile, then I say, in this instance, vox populi, vox dei.

Ben H. Severance - 4/29/2004

You make many thoughtful points. I don't know exactly how to respond, other than to express overall agreement with your skepticism over the usefulness of war as a problem-solver. Most wars do not solve problems in any lasting sense, and they frequently create more problems. Nevertheless, I stand by my belief that warfare can be the best and sometimes only approach. What I insist on is that the fighting be conducted justly and that war aims be clear and attainable. Bush's pretext for invading Iraq--WMD and terror connections--was bogus and Congress should be ashamed for not preventing the whole thing. But now that conquest has occurred, new goals must be established. Perhaps I am naive, but constructing a secular Iraqi republic is a feasible objective provided the timeline is reasonable, which I happen to think is the case. To this end, I applaud Bremer's efforts to train and field an Iraqi constabulary, one led by former RGFC officers. As another aim, I also believe that the U.S. now has a moral obligation to sustain Kurdish freedom and security as that region of Iraq pursues local self-determination (and polls indicate that a vast majority of Kurds want and like America's military presence). Regardless of the outcome, the U.S. will likely maintain an armed presence in the Middle-East, whether from Iraq or Kuwait or somewhere else for many years to come. And given the irrational character of Arab terrorism, a vigilant presence is imperative.

To wax philosophical, for me war is a manifestation of humanity's inability to find consensus. And this inability stems from an inherent depravity within all men, whereby our self-interest clashes with our ideals (both of which differ from person to person and nation to nation) in an ongoing struggle. I know this sounds Calvinistic, but the Christian church has it right when it comes to the sinfulness of human nature. This doesn't mean peace is forever elusive, nor does it mean that war in-and-of-itself is bad ("A Time for War, a Time for Peace--Ecclesiastes 3:8). I am optimistic that Iraq will be better off as a result of U.S. intervention. But I agree that the fruits of U.S. victory will be picked by the Iraqis themselves at their own choosing. America just needs to help create an environment where the harvesters can safely go into the orchards. But I've gone on too long.

chris l pettit - 4/29/2004

THere are those who can be approached as colleagues, mentors and friends...even if we have our differences in ideology. And then there are those who are "right" and approach it as a battle. I know our own perceptions sometimes blur the difference, but most often...on the extremes...it is easy to tell the difference.

I guess I see it as there are times when we can appraoch individuals and conversational debates as trying to understand and come to a common understanding (this is where most good things are accomplished) and times when speaking to another person is like bouncing a rubber ball off a wall and a sledgehammer is needed to try and drive the ignorance out...which almost never works it should be said. What do you do with the bigoted and the ignorant who see things in black and white instead of gray? I am not sure just ignoring them is the best idea...if you engage them constructively, they just get self righteous and attempt to bluster...so you are left with pointing out why their points are bigoted (for example) provided you define the words properly.

I have appreciated your comments on my definitions, and hope that I have been gracious enough to offer mea culpas when I am mistaken or when a better definition is presented to me (the fascism conversation comes to mind). TO be honest, I have always been happy to be wrong, or at least to be offered new viewpoints because it means I am learning something and learning to see my insights differently. Even with my students, I feel that they are not just there to be taught, but also to teach me. Being right all the time must be a terrible burden to bear.

The questions I raised in the above post are largely philosophical and linguistic methinks. Even in your response I have questions...what is counter-terrorism? Who really are the terrorists? What if we are? Why don't we address the root causes of terrorism instead of fighting it as it arises? What happens if we pull out of the Middle East and cut off all aid to Israel...can things be any worse than they are now? Why do we have to see things as nation-states and on a sovereignty basis when the world is so globalized that the system is obsolete? Why do we have to deal with history as a series of moments and occurences instead of a neverending stream of consciousness where everything is a cause and effect, a means and an end (which is why machiavelli is just nonsensical self interest)?

I guess that is part of the reason why I asked about "winning." For me, no war is winnable, but especially not one engaged in for profit or power. i can't think of a war in history that hasn't eventually been lost by both sides to be honest. US wars of imperialism and greed...which are all but the Revolutionary, Civil (although there is an interesting economic argument to be made), and maybe WWII have always cost us much more than we have gained...and definitely cost mankind and the international community.

THis is why we lose internationally...why the UN doesn't work...why we get mired in occupations that eventually go against us or our lackeys (Vietnam, Iraq, all of South America, the Phillippines, Indonesia and East Timor...on and on). And many nations do it...but many fight against it. Our current occupation is against mostly liberation soldiers at this point...people fighting for true freedom to choose their own destinies. Are terrorists being attracted to the chaos? of course, but do you really think the people of Iraq after decades of oppression by Saddam and his US sponsors are going to allow terrorists to take over the country? Somehow I doubt it...unless you identify terror as similar to Iranian government...in which case we need to view history as a whole and examine the factors that contribute to such extremist, fundamentalist, and wrong versions of Islam, very similar to most extremist fundamentalist and wrong versions of Judaism and Christianity that are forced on others. Unfortunately, US policies have played a large part in fomenting fundamentalist passions and driving people to their causes. of course those extremists strike the US and cause us fear and drive us to a further extreme and we strike back and so on and so on. It is idiocy...lunacy and human pride at its disgraceful best. how to get out? Great philosophical question...for me universal human rights, peace, and tolerance. There will always be those who call me a utopian or idealist because they cannot overcome their pride, greed, or wish to be "right" and have power. You know why there aren't many good leaders throughout history...truly profound ones? because they dont want to lead. i was told very early in my career that when you find 100,000 people faollowing you ask yourself what you are doing wrong. They had to almost force Mandela to lead. King Asoka did not want to lead. True leaders dont step forward...they have to be pushed. Truly good people lead by example and stay out of the limelight...it is about the idea...not the person.

Anyway...sorry...i feel like I have been preachy and dont want to be. Ben...if and when i ever actually get back in the US it would be my honor to grab a beer sometime.


Ken Melvin - 4/29/2004

Not only did we not win Vietnam, we lost by some 55,000 US and millions of Southeast Asian deaths.

Seems to me; lots of distinctions need be made. Nations can be involved in: wars of aggression, i.e., wars of invasion, wars of expulsion, i.e., wars of revolution, defensive wars, and probably some others. Any definition of winning must accommodate the idea of return on expenditure, i.e., was it worth it?

A comparable war? Of US wars; Vietnam, Spanish American, and The Mexican are most similar. All successful occupations, no? Japan and Germany after WWWII? Completely different situation, I think (they were the instigators, aggressors, invaders). Who wins genocides/wars of extermination such as the those of the American Indian? The Palestinians? In this war with Iraq, the US was the instigator, aggressor, and invader. Seems only some 15% of Saddam's Army stood and fought (Saddam himself didn't want war), so the rest of Iraqis were never at war with the US. Now theirs is a war of rebellion, expulsion, revolution against the US. Now, they, like the Vietnamese, want to expel the foreigners and heaven forbid, find their own way (Recall Tolstoy's train and its driver, Napoleon?).

I've read that the administration allowed for up to 4,000 dead and $400billion in treasure in its decision making. Perle and others thought the venture to certainly be worth more lives and treasure. So far? On a pace. In the invasion alone, we expended some 200 US lives, suffered thousands of US wounded, killed and wounded thousands and thousands of Iraqi, and spent $200billion. In the first year hence: some 500 more US dead, thousands more wounded, thousands and thousands more Iraqi dead and wounded, some $120billion more spent and things have gotten steadily worse.

The decision making should have included the option of doing nothing. What will Iraq be like in 5 years if we all hold course? In 10 years? Deposing? What other options exist? What's the cost of these options versus the cost of going to war? We now know such options held no interest to Bush & Co. All the summer of 2002, trains ladened with tanks and other armament rolled across the land enroute ports where their loads were then shipped to Kuwait.

Do we win the war if all resistance immediately ceases. Was it worth the 720 US dead, 5,000 US wounded, 10,000+ Iraqi? Another 1,000 US dead and 5,000+ wounded? What is worth so much? A democratic Iraq? Only if the Iraqi want it more than we do, methinks.

Come Mr. MBA President, tell us again the net.

Daniel B. Larison - 4/28/2004

Nations can be successfully occupied, but only if local authorities are co-opted or if the population recognises that it has been defeated and respects a code of war in which defeat implies the acceptance of terms. Neither has really occurred in Iraq, and the longer the occupation lasts there is all the more reason for ordinary Iraqis to not accept the position that the defeat of their army put them in.

War is a legitimate instrument of policy, but it does not 'solve' problems, properly speaking. It nullifies problems by rejecting the possibility of a solution. It destroys those things or people that create the immediate problem, the particular cause of the war, and simply suppresses the other causes of the more fundamental problem, the long-term origin of the war, through force and occupation.

Consider Kosovo: the Serbs were technically militarily defeated, the Albanian nationalists emboldened, but this has only temporarily changed the military landscape without resolving the long-standing political conflict. Going to war is like ignoring the question on the test that you find too difficult, but still wanting to get credit for the right answer. I grant that politicians can legitimately go to war for national interests, but they almost always do so for short-term gains that cannot overcome ultimately untenable positions or policies in a region. Invading Iraq has knocked out an adversarial dictator, but it has not substantially advanced American interests anywhere else in the region and has indeed put us at a disadvantage throughout the world. The Iraq war in itself advanced a (dubious) goal as part of a global strategy, but the strategy itself is untenable and the aftermath of the war is proving just how untenable.

There was no legitimate cause for the rebellion in 1775. The problem of perceived unjust taxation might have been settled by negotiation, but the leaders of the rebellion actually wanted independence even more than they wanted a settlement of grievances. It may be that the colonists had righteous grievances against the Crown and Parliament, but none of them justified war, much less such a destructive and costly war. It is only afterwards that the decision to launch a rebellion can appear even remotely justifiable because of the good things that occurred after it.

Again, in 1860-61, there was no cause for war that could not have been overcome by diplomacy. Partisans of the Unionist cause did not want a diplomatic solution and were keen enough to provoke fighting. One may or may not approve of the outcome of the war, but that the war was strictly unnecessary should be clear enough. It did not really solve a problem, unless American constitutionalism may be considered a problem to be solved by negating it. To the extent that it 'solved' any problem, it solved the problem of confederation, balancing slave and free state, and it established the republic as one based on the coercion of the central government. It also solved the problem of the economic prosperity of the South, which has only now begun to fully return. What remains elusive, however, is how solving these problems achieved much that might be considered to be to the benefit of Americans in general.

For that matter, WWII did not solve the fundamental problem of power in Europe or East Asia, but simply postponed their settlement. It is these imbalances of power that have led to multiple conflicts. WWII led to the defeat of Germany and Japan, yes, but it did not settle the problems that German unification and Japanese modernisation imposed on their regions. Indeed, these problems remain unsolved even today. There is an attempt to supplement American military domination of the European continent with a Franco-German political domination, but the American involvement is highly artificial and will not last as other regions become more important to the United States. When that military shadow over Europe is lifted, and the fragility of the EU leads to its eventual breakdown, we will see many of the same dynamics of power relations in Europe that we have seen these many centuries.

Keeping Germany down politically has not eliminated the inevitability of German domination of eastern Europe, at least in the economic sphere, and as the financial and industrial engine of Europe EU policy was largely follow where Germany leads it. Thus we are back to the conundrum of earlier periods: how does a united Germany fit in European politics? The German answer seems to be collaboration with France and Russia at the moment, and this may be the eventual solution. But it is precisely this division of eastern Europe between Germany and Russia that was nullified in 1919 and which America remains committed to preventing from happening again. In that sense, the expansion of NATO reinforces this division and prevents the settlement of this century-old question.

In a long-term, historical sense, then, after the end of the Cold War we can see that WWII achieved as little in terms of fundamental change of the underlying realities of power in Europe as WWI did. It has been a waste emerging out of the refusal to accept the consequences of the unification of Germany. Accepting reunification in the post-Cold War period has reintroduced all of the same tensions, and only put them in a more staid, bureaucratic EU framework. Those tensions are the problems and the sources of conflict. In the immediate sense, yes, states can legitimately respond to German and Japanese aggression in the 1940s, but defeating this aggression does not remove the problem. In a more strictly moral sense, everyone can be glad that aggressive powers were defeated then, and that powerful countries such as Germany and Japan became more 'like us' or at least friendly towards 'us'. But this has not solved the problem that gives rise to wars. It will simply be that, in the future, the wars that these countries are involved in will be 'good' wars that we can support.

I suppose my overall point is that wars cannot ultimately solve much, or else wars would have become less frequent as time went along. Instead, they have remained a constant part of the world. States can have recourse to wars, but we should not imagine that defeating armies necessarily changes much of the underlying political realities of a defeated country. It is indeed only the political program installed or imposed after the war that can 'solve' immediate problems, though it still cannot alter the fundamental problems significantly. I am quite in agreement that to be successful in installing such a program it would have to be a long, intensive effort with active participation of a broad cross-section of local authorities or leading figures. With respect to Iraq, this will not be the case--the participation is too limited on the Iraqi side, the public will tire of it, and no administration has any political incentive to see it through. Already the more desperate among the pro-war camp are calling for strongmen to replace the strongman we just got rid of--the political realities of Iraq have not changed just because everyone feels glad that Hussein is out of power.

This is a recurring phenomenon with every war, though it has perhaps become even more likely with the advent of total war and total defeat. Without post-war settlements between two negotiating parties, and accepted authorities to enforce those measures, it is more difficult to resolve outstanding disputes even temporarily.

Ben H. Severance - 4/28/2004

Victory is a relative term, but beyond a purely military victory, which the U.S. is more than capable of achieving, "winning" in Iraq means subduing the insurgency long enough to establish a secular Iraqi republic that can assume its own power of enforcement. Winning also means crippling the terrorist network that is now using Iraq as an open arena (and whatever my misgivings about going into Iraq or about Bush, I am firmly committed to an aggressive and ruthless policy of counter-terrorism).

Hell, Chris, I don't know exactly what "won" or "win" means. But I do believe in taking on very real dangers: War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Terror. Are such conflicts winnable? I don't know, but I do believe that the U.S. is a well-intentioned superpower that is well-suited to engage in these struggles, with force of arms if necessary. I'd just like to see the nation's wealthy elite contribute more of their treasure, a lot more.

You and I need to get together some time and discuss the world's problems over a cold beer or whiskey on the rocks. Blogging on the HNN is too impersonal. It too often leaves a feeling of animosity between readers who could probably have a pleasant conversation face-to-face. Frankly, I try to approach the HNN like a friendly graduate seminar. Anyway, I'm glad I've avoided your worst barbs, for I've read some of your slicing comments against others. And in all fairness, you have often only been defending yourself. Free speech: a gift and a curse.

chris l pettit - 4/28/2004

How do you define "won?"

Purely militarily? It is hard to lose with a military that is larger than the next 20 combined. Ideologically? Well...multinationals have outgrown even the US government. I just don't know if you might be using too broad a stroke here.

I agree that Vietnam comparisons are used for self interested purposes, but on a certain level there are truths to some of the generalities...especially on an international community level.

Maybe it is just the difference between looking at it through a nation state lens versus and international community lens...or a short term versus long term lens...not to criticise in any way...just to raise questions thats all.


Ben H. Severance - 4/28/2004

While many critics of the current war in Iraq love to raise the spectre of Vietnam, they are overlooking two distinct and significant differences between the two conflicts.

1) In Vietnam, the U.S. faced an opponent who was militarily and politically centralized. Moreover, the enemy headquarters was located beyond the reach of U.S. ground forces (a self-imposed constraint on the part of the president). In Iraq, the insurgency is neither centralized nor does it have any safe havens (except perhaps for a mosque).

2) In Vietnam, American military technology was very good, but today U.S. weaponry is light-years ahead of its Cold War days. Iraqi insurgents are fighting hard, and there are still many of them, but U.S. counter-strike capabilities are overwhelming. Overtime, Jihad-minded militants will become demoralized both by the rapid and sudden death that befalls them at the hands of American firepower and by their inability to close with U.S. soldiers. To be sure, they have put up some stout resistance at times, but thus far they are only pricking U.S. strength. While the death of 700 U.S. troops over a year is unfortunate, that figure is only about 10 percent of the annual KIA number in Vietnam. This reduction in losses is due not just to excellent training and leadership, but to improved weapons and equipment, including body armor.

There are undoubtedly many other points of comparison (e.g., jungle vs. desert; belated Vietnamization vs. early Iraqization) but suffice to say that the Vietnam Syndrome is mostly a defeatist illusion. In case the critics and cynics hadn't noticed, the United States has won most of its wars. And it will win the current one, too.

Ben H. Severance - 4/27/2004

Your points about Cheney and Chalabi have argumentative validity, but your other, categorical, points need qualification. Nations can be successfully occupied (the oft-cited Japan after WWII, for instance), though it is preferable for occupations to be brief (such as U.S. occupation of Mexico in 1847-48). As for your comment about war, remember what Clausewitz said, "War is politics by other means." War should not been seen as uniformally immoral, but rather as one option among many for attaining a desired result (and maybe even the best option). For indeed wars have solved many things. The American colonies gained their independence through war. The Union was preserved in the 1860s against a secessionist rebellion by force of arms. The Grand Alliance defeated the fascist powers of Germany and Japan through war. Israel staved off annihilation in 1967 with a pre-emptive war. In none of these examples did peaceful politics prevail. And given the intractable hatred many in the Arab world feel toward the West, I don't see a purely diplomatic solution achieving very much in the Middle East. I think we need to find a better comparison for the current war than constantly harking back to Vietnam. Perhaps most Americans suffer from short-term memory, but we all might do well to study the Mexican-American War or the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War to better understand some of the challenges the U.S. now faces in Iraq. And these challenges are not insurmountable provided the coalition invests enough time, money, and firepower.

Ken Melvin - 4/26/2004

Most haunting of all? The continued desire of Cheney and ilk to refight the Vietnam War. Thus blinded, they missed completely the lesson of Vietnam and Afghanistan, i.e., no nation can be occupied.

From history: All solutions are political. War, is never to be taken lightly (this bunch did so), never solves anything.

The biggest mistake? Taking the nation to war in the interest of third parties such as Chalabi and the Israelis.

Daniel B. Larison - 4/26/2004

Mr. Greenberg's article would have been fine and otherwise reasonable, but for the fact that he found the need to justify the Balkan interventions in particular as good interventions. Undoubtedly, they were very good for Muslim separatists in the Balkans, and they helped create zones of criminality, drug smuggling and havens for Islamic terrorists, all at the expense of mainly Serbs, but it is difficult to see in what other way they were good. As anyone familiar with the Balkan wars should know by now, the atrocities in Bosnia were hardly all on one side, and what atrocities there were on the Serbian side have been magnified into something that they were not. The Kosovo intervention was simply a pack of lies. Above all, it was Kosovo that showed me that interventionism, especially so-called 'humanitarian interventionism', is usually wrongheaded and often despicable.

Since the first Gulf war has led almost inexorably to our current sorry situation in Iraq and our larger problem with terrorism today, its original rationale no longer convinces me that it was either wise or necessary. In theory, there might be a good intervention, but I have not seen one in the last fifteen years.