November 20, 2005
The Iraq War is Not Another Vietnam - Part I
By Richard Miniter

(Note: 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 in Korea.

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 roadside bombs.

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 catastrophic war.”

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 issue.

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 Today
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 combat.

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 Powell.

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 casualties disproportionately.

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.


Richard 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 War."

Richard Miniter

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Books By Richard Miniter

Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine The War on Terror

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