Is Iraq another Vietnam?

Is Iraq another Vietnam? The question is being asked more often as the numbers of fallen U.S. soldiers steadily increases, and it appears to some that a quagmire is in the making. There are important differences, however, in Vietnamese and Iraqi history and society, which make these conflicts unique and their outcomes likely to be quite different.

Vietnamese vs. Iraqi Society
It is easy to underestimate the differences between Vietnamese and Iraqi societies. The Vietnamese have had a unified society for over 2000 years. Their borders, though evolving over time (especially in the south), have remained basically intact for that long period. Their unity stems in part from their common language and ethnicity. Ninety percent of Vietnam’s people share the same ethnic background, language and culture. Part of their unity also comes from their successful opposition to external threats. In the 20th century alone, the Vietnamese successfully fought off France, Japan, the United States and China.

Compare this to Iraq. Iraq is a modern creation of the British Empire. The borders for Iraq (and neighboring Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon) were drawn less than nine decades ago by Britain and France. The British controlled Iraq from 1920 to 1932; only then did it become a fully independent state. When the British put Iraq on the map, colonial politics and convenience mattered more than logical divisions. The borders roughly incorporated three very different societies: Kurds in the north, Sunni Arabs in the center and Shiite Arabs in the south. Rather than looking like united Vietnam, Iraq appears a boiling cauldron of cultures and beliefs.

U.S. Political and Military Stance on Vietnam and Iraq
Like the history and cultures of the two states, there are also critical differences in U.S. foreign policy goals toward Iraq and Vietnam. During the Vietnam War era (the “American War” for the Vietnamese) the Cold War was in full force. The explicit U.S. goal was to preserve the South Vietnamese government at all costs, lest it be lost as a “domino” to Communist aggression.

Contrast that to Iraq, where the initial explicit U.S. goal was simply to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein. When President Bush declared “mission accomplished” back in May 2003 his administration perceived that their main goal had been achieved. Major combat operations were ended. The idea was that whatever came afterwards was to be dealt with by Iraq’s new leaders, with a grateful, unified Iraqi population thankful for the U.S. intervention.

Similarities in U.S. Military Policy
Unfortunately one similarity in the two conflicts is the way in which the U.S. badly misread the situation on the ground. In the war in Vietnam, the U.S. consistently believed that it was primarily communist ideology that was the driving force behind the North’s desire to unify the country. It was only 30 years later that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admitted that the U.S. was “wrong, dead wrong” in its assessment of the conflict in Vietnam. Nationalism and a determination to drive out all foreigners was the inspiration that drove the Vietnamese to sacrifice more than a million of their own people before the war was finally over.

In Iraq the U.S. has again seriously misread the situation on the ground. The discordant history and divided culture of Iraq has quickly trumped the expected unity of the post-Saddam state. This historical lack of a cohesive, stable society, combined with religious fervor (enough to inspire a generation of young Iraqis to strap explosive belts around their waists), has revealed the true difficulty of establishing a genuine peace in Iraq. Unlike in Vietnam, where the nation stabilized after the war was over, in Iraq there is likely to be turmoil for years to come. The reason for this lies in the very different history and culture of the two countries. The explosive mix of ethnic and religious fragmentation that was not present in Vietnam has made a peaceful future for Iraq very difficult indeed.

Kenneth Martens Friesen is a history and political science professor at Fresno Pacific University. He and his wife, adjunct faculty Fran Martens Friesen, served with Mennonite Central Committee, an international relief agency, in Vietnam.