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Jim Harrison

Iraq differs drastically from Vietnam. The various insurgencies are not united, and no great powers stand behind them. It also matters that Iraq is a desert country with little air cover while Vietnam is forested. And we are far stronger in sheer military power than we were in 1965. Granted enough political will, we could, in theory, subjugate Iraq and keep a more or less tractable puppet government in power. Short of turning the whole place into a radioactive wasteland, we could never have prevailed in Vietnam. This difference does not make things better, unfortunately. Indeed, the war in Vietnam was bound to be be won by the Vietnamese sooner or later--it had to end. An American departure from Iraq is not inevitable. Temporary victory in Iraq could be the prelude to decades of imperial adventures in the Middle East, especially since the public could be easily convinced that occupation is the only way of securing the oil, which was, after all, always the stake.


What's your take on Steve Biddle's analysis of the comparisons between the nature of the conflict in Iraq and Vietnam and the strategies the US employed? See the first 20 or so minutes of the video I linked to.

Jim Harrison

I don't think Biddle's notion of ideological insurgency really captures what happened in Vietnam--he's much better on Iraq. Vietnam was not one of those ersatz, cobbled together nation. It was already a nation, though a subjugated one, when it was artificially split after the French left. The Vietanmese had a language and literature and a more than thousand year history of resisting foreign invasion. I don't think that Communism or Marxism had much to do with the fierceness of the resistance. Just the reverse. Being a self-respecting Vietnamese became identified with being a Communist. That didn't have to happen. A clever American foreign policy could have co-opted Ho's revolution, though not after millions of Vietnamese were blown to bits.


I'm not an historian on the Vietnam war - thus my question is more one of ignorance and curiosity than provocation - but what about Vietnamese nationalism and history made the conflict something distinct from Biddle's characterization (a government of perceived illegitimacy fighting an insurgency that claimed to speak and fight for the people)? Are you saying that the insurgency was less ideologically motivated than it was an insurgency that happened to have an ideology?

Jim Harrison

Ho had led an insurgency against first the Japanese and then the French before he took on us. He was certainly a Communist, but his movement was nationalist from the get go. We associate another liberation movement, the American Revolution, with the ideals of the Declaration; but the revolution was fifteen months old before the Declaration and had more "Don't Tread on Me" in it than John Locke. What I object to in Biddle is his emphasis on ideology. I suspect--and suspicion is all it is--that he still thinks of Vietnam as part of the larger narrative of the Cold War rather than as the war of national liberation the Vietnamese thought it was.

By the way, we talk about the need to build up a unified Iraqi nation, and that outcome would be fine if we really plan on getting out in the foreseeable future. If we do succeed in creating an integral nation there that somehow transcends the Shia/Sunni/Kurdish divisions and yet still try to occupy the country as the Neocons, Bush, and McCain apparently demand, we could easily convert the Iraqi war into something like Vietnam after all. No Iraqis want American troops in their territory except insofar as we can help their faction prevail against another faction, and a reconciled nation would tell us to leave and rise against us if we refused.

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