, As the duration and cost of the U.S. occupation of Iraq grow, parallels with the Vietnam War are becoming an increasing part of the public debate. A wide range of observers — in Congress, in the media, in the military and elsewhere — are drawing comparisons or contrasts with that conflict of three decades ago, when U.S. troops battled insurgent forces to prevent communist authorities in the north from taking control of the south.
U.S. government claims of steady progress in the war clashed repeatedly with reports from the field of fierce resistance. American society became bitterly divided over whether to stay to halt the spread of communism or pull out to avoid more losses. Ultimately, U.S. forces withdrew, a shaky cease-fire collapsed and communist forces overran the south in 1975.
Many battlefield conditions in Iraq bear little resemblance to those in Vietnam, according to military historians. But enough parallels are apparent for lawmakers, commentators and others to worry that the United States may be making some of the same mistakes. Such concerns emerged at a House Armed Services Committee hearing last month.
“We are not going to be able to ferret out a bunch of insurgents with a population that's willing to hide them,” Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) said. “Didn't work in Vietnam. It won't work here.”
A Vietnam veteran, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), saw another replay in attempts by the Bush administration to fault news organizations for focusing on negative developments in Iraq. “We're in a blame game with the media, which is essentially another issue that became a big issue in Vietnam,” Reyes said.
The strain on U.S. ground forces resulting from the Iraq operation prompted another comparison. Arguing for expanding the U.S. Army, Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) said that without such an increase, “we're going to end up with the kind of hollowed-out Army at the senior NCO [noncommissioned officer] and junior officer level that destroyed the Army in the wake of the Vietnam War.”
Gen. John Keane, who stepped down Thursday as the Army's vice chief of staff, assured the committee that he and other top Army officials had “lived through that experience” and understand the risks. He said Iraq presented differences and similarities with Vietnam.
Among the differences, he said, is that U.S. forces have unseated the ruling power in Iraq and are well into the process of constructing a new political and economic order. “What may be similar is the fact that we are dealing with the possibilities of a protracted campaign here,” he added. “And it does require patience on the part of the American people.”
A number of top military leaders have their own memories of Vietnam. Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew 600 combat hours there. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman, served as a rifle platoon leader.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was a presidential appointee at the time. He was President Gerald R. Ford's chief of staff in 1975, when the last U.S. military advisers were withdrawn from Saigon. Later that year, he began his first stint as defense secretary, which lasted until 1977.
A week and a half ago, when a woman protesting the U.S. occupation of Iraq jeered Rumsfeld during a speech at the Ronald Reagan Building here, Rumsfeld likened it to Vietnam-era protests.
“Twenty five years ago when I was secretary of defense, we used to have the Berrigan brothers come in and dig graves in our front yard,” he said, referring to Daniel and Philip Berrigan, two Roman Catholic priests who became leading activists against the war. “So I guess everything changes and nothing changes.”
Max Cleland (D), a former senator from Georgia who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam, drew an analogy between how President Bush got into the Iraq war and how President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Writing in the Atlanta Constitution last month, Cleland suggested that Bush, like Johnson, came into office decrying an overextension of American military might but secretly harboring plans for war and bolstering his case using faulty intelligence and selective reports to Congress.
Cleland said the Bush administration had ignored many of the lessons of Vietnam, and had “gotten this country into a disaster in the desert.”
But Dale Andrade, a senior historian at the Army Center of Military History, said comparing the Vietnam experience to Iraq is a stretch because the conditions on the ground are so different. In Vietnam, the communist insurgents had a homeland in the north that was off-limits to U.S. ground troops; they had sanctuaries in neighboring Laos and Cambodia; and they had aid from China and the Soviet Union. In Iraq, Andrade said, enemy fighters lack a secure homeland, significant sanctuaries or major outside resupply sources. Further, the Iraqi guerrillas are nowhere nearly as developed and entrenched as were the communist Vietcong, he said.
“The main perception I see people expressing that bothers me is this notion that once a guerrilla war begins, it's invincible, that it just can't be fought against,” said Andrade, who is writing a history of the Vietnam War. “But the reality is that most guerrilla campaigns have failed throughout history.”
Helmut Sonnenfeldt, who was a senior national security adviser to President Richard M. Nixon and State Department counselor in the Ford administration, noted that political tensions over Iraq remain a far cry from the raging demonstrations of the Vietnam days. “What's happening now hasn't reached the intensity of those years,” he said. “There was much broader disenchantment and stronger hostility.”
But the potential for U.S. public opinion to sour on the war does weigh on the minds of senior military officers who recall the “credibility gap” between optimistic accounts issued by government officials during the Vietnam War and the realities in the field.
“It's just absolutely essential that we tell you what we think, and that we not let this thing get perverted the way things started to get perverted in the Vietnam War, where we didn't really tell the truth,” Army Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, told the House panel last month.