The Iraq War is Not Another Vietnam - Part II
The following is the second of a two-part excerpt from Mr. Miniter's
new book, "Disinformation:
22 Media Myths That Undermine The War On Terror'. Part I can
be read by clicking here.)
This Time the Gloves are Off
In the 1960s, the U.S. was constrained by two great powers,
the Soviet Union and Communist China. Any move to invade North
Vietnam or dramatically escalate the conflict risked provoking
the ire of the Soviets. The nightmare scenario: a tidal wave of
Chinese army regulars flooding across the border, as they did
Today, the U.S. is the world’s sole surviving superpower. The
best outside help that Iraqi insurgents can count on comes from
Iran and Syria. To date, Iran and Syria can offer only the car
bomb, not the A-bomb. And now it is Iran and Syria who dare not
escalate too quickly—lest they incite America’s retaliation.
The Big Battles are Over
The duration of major combat operations—defined as combined air
and ground operations involving thousands of troops—is another
striking difference between Vietnam and Iraq. The Vietnam War
lasted fourteen years, more than eight of which were consumed
by intense combat against an organized foe. By contrast, U.S.
forces smashed the Iraqi army in less than three weeks in 2003.
The Quality of the Enemy is Different
The enemy in Vietnam was well drilled, with a seemingly limitless
supply of modern Soviet- and Chinese-made weapons. Some of these
Soviet weapons, especially small arms and anti-aircraft guns,
were frankly superior to America’s military technology. In Saddam
Hussein’s Iraq, ground forces were poorly trained and equipped
with outmoded weapons. Enemy discipline evaporated under fire.
Worse still, from the perspective of Saddam Hussein, Iraq had
lost its superpower patron with the collapse of the Soviet Union
in 1991. It received very little new equipment in the decade preceding
the war—while the U.S. was fielding new smart bombs and stealth
aircraft. Even in engagements with small numbers of insurgents,
America has new technology to disrupt the signals used to trigger
In Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, I met Lt. Gen. Barbeio,
who showed me new imaging technology that allows tanks and dismounted
troops to deploy more closely and more rapidly than ever before—a
deadly development for anti-democratic forces. Simply put, the
enemy in Iraq does not have the discipline and technological edge
that it did in Vietnam.
The War Aims are Different Too
In the 1960s, U.S. officials merely hoped to contain North
Vietnam. In Iraq, the goal was a complete “regime change.” In
the 1960s, America’s goal was essentially negative, to defend
its embattled ally in South Vietnam, to defend the status quo.
Today, America’s goal is positive, to bring a new democracy into
being in Iraq. As Record and Terrill note, “In the 1960s, the
United States was the counter-revolutionary power in Southeast
Asia; it sought to preserve the non-Communist status quo in South
Vietnam. . . . In 2003, the United States was the revolutionary
power in the Middle East by virtue of its proclaimed intention
to democratize Iraq for the purpose of providing an inspirational
model to the rest of the Arab world.”
In the 1960s, U.S. policymakers feared a “domino effect” that
would topple allied governments in the region and replace them
with Communist dictatorships; today American officials are openly
hoping for a “domino effect” in the Middle East that will replace
tyrants with democrats.
The Two Wars Have Differing Policy and Moral Justifications
Secretary of State Dean Rusk repeatedly justified the Vietnam
War by arguing that America had to stop Communist aggression and
by citing moral obligations to honor commitments to allies. “If
that commitment becomes unreliable, the Communist world would
draw conclusions that would lead to our ruin and almost certainly
Rusk’s Cold War calculation simply has no parallel in Iraq. The
U.S. was not allied with Iraq before the war, therefore, defending
the integrity of America’s treaty obligations is simply not an
The Iraq war was sold on a very different basis. If the United
Nations Security Council resolutions were to have any credibility,
President Bush argued, they would have to be enforced. President
Bush argued that the safety and security of Americans turned on
removing Saddam Hussein from power. The argument was simple. Iraq
was developing weapons of mass destruction and sponsoring terror
groups. Before the threat to America’s cities became imminent,
the president contended, the nation had to act. If not, the dictator
might give catastrophic weapons to al Qaeda or other Islamic radicals.
Hussein might even use them directly on U.S. bases in the region,
as he had against the Kurds. Whatever the merits of Bush’s claims,
they amount to a very different rationale for war than the ones
supported by the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.
American Casualties Were Far Higher in Vietnam Than in Iraq
America lost a total of 55,750 dead from 1965 to 1972—a death
toll of nineteen servicemen per day. The U.S. has lost fewer than
2,000 dead from June 2003 to June 2005—a rate of fewer than two
servicemen a day. Indeed, the number of accidental and other non-battle
deaths in Iraq continues to outpace the number of deaths from
The Antiwar Movement is Weaker Now
In the 1960s, America was beset by a large, well-organized
antiwar movement. Today, the antiwar movement is fragmented and
marginalized and that fact appears unlikely to change any time
soon. Indeed, the movement seems to exist as a nostalgia vehicle
for some and a dating service for others.
One reason for marginalization of the antiwar crowd is the absence
of a draft. “The major reason you don’t see colleges up in arms
about the Iraq War is that we no longer have conscription,” Northwestern
University sociologist Charles Moskos told National Journal.
“If you stared drafting students again, you’d see protests start
up in a hurry.
Without conscription, there is no debate about who serves and
who does not. No one resents “privileged” college students lolling
in gothic quadrangles while unfortunates are sent to serve in
humid fields of fire. Service is voluntary and simply one of a
set of choices in a free society.
Nor is there a debate about those who shirked national service
or fled to Canada or about the injustice of the draft, an issue
that still burns among some baby boomers.
In September 2004, television host George Stephanopoulos asked
then secretary of state Colin Powell about a passage in his memoirs,
where he reveals that he was “angry at the preferential treatment”
given some draft dodgers, while disadvantaged young men were pressed
into uniform. “That system was disturbing to me. That’s why I
was such a supporter of the voluntary army when it came,” said
And when it came, the voluntary army looked more like America.
National Journal noted in May 2004 that the U.S. population
was 69 percent white, 12 percent black, and 11 percent Hispanic.
Deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were 71 percent white, 12 percent
black, and 11 percent Hispanic. (The balance was Pacific Islanders,
Native Americans, foreigners who volunteered, and others.) Unlike
Vietnam, it is hard to argue that some racial groups are suffering
Another difference between the Vietnam and Iraq war deaths is
that soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan were,
on average, four years older than those killed in Vietnam (aged
twenty-six vs. twentytwo). This removes another staple of the
Vietnam era: soldiers dying before they could vote.
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Miniter is author of "Disinformation: 22 Media Myths
That Undermine the War on Terror." Miniter is a veteran investigative
reporter, award winning journalist and author of two previous
New York Times bestsellers: "Losing bin Laden" and "Shadow