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Iraq and Vietnam: Differences, Similarities, and Insights

Authored by Dr. Jeffrey Record, Dr. W. Andrew Terrill. | May 2004

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Unfolding events in Iraq have prompted some observers to make analogies to the American experience in the Vietnam War. The United States has, they argue, stumbled into another overseas ?quagmire? from which there is no easy or cheap exit.

Reasoning by historical analogy is an inherently risky business because no two historical events are completely alike and because policymakers? knowledge and use of history are often distorted by ignorance and political bias. In the case of Iraq and Vietnam, extreme caution should be exercised in comparing two wars so far apart in time, locus, and historical circumstances. In fact, a careful examination of the evidence reveals that the differences between the two conflicts greatly outnumber the similarities. This is especially true in the strategic and military dimensions of the two wars. There is simply no comparison between the strategic environment, the scale of military operations, the scale of losses incurred, the quality of enemy resistance, the role of enemy allies, and the duration of combat.

Such an emphatic judgment, however, may not apply to at least two aspects of the political dimensions of the Iraq and Vietnam wars: attempts at state-building in an alien culture, and sustaining domestic political support in a protracted war against an irregular enemy. It is, of course, far too early predict whether the United States will accomplish its policy objectives in Iraq and whether public support will ?stay the course? on Iraq. But policymakers should be mindful of the reasons for U.S. failure to create a politically legitimate and militarily viable state in South Vietnam, as well as for the Johnson and Nixon administrations? failure to sustain sufficient domestic political support for the accomplishment of U.S. political objectives in Indochina. Repetition of those failures in Iraq could have disastrous consequences for U.S. foreign policy.


Many of those who questioned the U.S. invasion of Iraq and now doubt the chances of creating a stable and prosperous democracy in that country have invoked America?s experience in Vietnam as an analogy. In their view, the United States has yet again stumbled into a foreign quagmire--a protracted and indecisive political and military struggle from which the United States is unlikely to extricate itself absent expenditure of considerable blood and treasure and abandonment of its policy objectives.

Conversely, proponents of the Iraq War and optimists over Iraq?s future have dismissed the Vietnam analogy as misleading, even irrelevant. For them, the differences between the two wars vastly outnumber the similarities; the appropriate analogy is not Vietnam, but rather the total destruction of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and their transformation into democratic allies. Still others believe some elements of Vietnam are present in Iraq--e.g., both wars involved counterinsurgency operations, but not others--e.g., there is no counterpart in the Iraq War to North Vietnam, and that the non-analogous elements dominate.1

The Vietnam War?s entry into the debate over the Iraq War and its aftermath probably was inevitable. The Vietnam War continues to influence American attitudes toward the use of force overseas, and the analogy of Vietnam has been a staple of critics of U.S. intervention in foreign internal wars since the fall of Saigon in 1975. The Vietnam War was moreover a defining foreign policy event for the generation of political and military leaders now in power. It was also the last major counterinsurgency experience of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, which re-encountered the counterinsurgency mission in Iraq.

Are there instructive comparisons between the U.S. military and political experiences in Vietnam in the 1960s and the challenges it faces in Iraq today? If so, can those comparisons usefully inform current U.S. policy in Iraq? Are there lessons from America?s defeat in Vietnam that can be applied to promote U.S. success in Iraq? Indeed, what were the lessons of the Vietnam War?

At first glance the contrasts between the Vietnam and Iraq wars would seem to overwhelm the similarities. To begin with, Vietnam in the 1960s was a country with a long national history and powerful national identity forged by centuries of fierce resistance to foreign rule and domination. The Communists had successfully mobilized that nationalism against the French (as they were subsequently to do against the United States) and had developed a doctrine of protracted irregular warfare that pitted Vietnamese strengths against Western weaknesses. In contrast, Iraq is a relatively young state plagued by ethnic and religious divisions that threaten national unity.

In Vietnam the United States went to war with a pre-Goldwater Nichols conscript military against a highly experienced, skilled, disciplined, and operationally flexible enemy that enjoyed enormous external material support and considerable international legitimacy. In Iraq, highly-professional U.S. joint forces quickly overwhelmed a politically isolated and militarily incompetent foe. Additionally, whereas in Vietnam the nature of war evolved from an insurgency into a predominantly conventional conflict, in Iraq it moved exactly--and quickly--in the opposite direction, from major conventional combat into an insurgent war.

The nature of insurgent warfare in Vietnam and Iraq also differed. In Vietnam, the Communists waged a classic, peasant-based, centrally directed, three-stage, Maoist model insurgency, culminating in a conventional military victory. The Communists also had a clear and well-publicized political, economic, and social agenda. In Iraq, small, scattered, and disparate groups wage a much smaller-scale war of ambushes, assassinations, car bombings, and sabotage against U.S. and other coalition forces and reconstruction targets, including Iraqis collaborating with coalition forces. Nor do the insurgents have an explicit set of war aims.

U.S. war aims and freedom of military action were also much more limited in Vietnam than they are in Iraq. The United States sought only to defend South Vietnam, not overthrow North Vietnam. American military power in Indochina moreover was checked by the threat of Chinese intervention, and more broadly by the Soviet threat worldwide. Today, the United States enjoys uncontested global military primacy and seeks nothing less than revolutionary regime change in Iraq.

In Vietnam, the United States committed a peak-strength force of over 500,000 troops and withdrew after 8 years of major combat operations that incurred 58,000 American dead and 305,000 wounded.2 In Iraq, U.S. forces overwhelmed Iraqi military resistance in 3 weeks and continue to conduct operations against a small and manageable insurgency, all at a cost of?as of mid-April 2004?685 dead.

From neither a strategic nor an operational standpoint does there appear to be any significant and meaningful comparison between Iraq and Vietnam. The wars and the backdrop of the global distribution of power against which they were waged were as different as night and day.

It is from the political standpoint that Vietnam may harbor some pertinent lessons, or at least warnings, for U.S. policymakers on Iraq. This seems especially the case in the areas of legitimacy and sustainability. The United States is now seeking to do in Iraq what it failed to do in South Vietnam: create and sustain an indigenous government and political order that the Iraqi people will accept as legitimate and successfully fight to defend. The Republic of Vietnam was a Cold War creation of the United States and for its brief and corrupt 20-year history remained utterly dependent for its survival on America military power and economic and technical assistance. As such, it was a politically attractive target to the Communists, who claimed that the regime in Saigon was illegitimate. In the end, there were simply not enough South Vietnamese who were prepared to fight, and if necessary die, to preserve the non-Communist political order as it was then configured.

It did not help, of course, that the United States eventually abandoned South Vietnam to its fate, which brings us to the issue of sustainability. The Communist strategy of protracted war succeeded in part because it correctly identified the American center of gravity as public opinion. The limited and abstract nature of U.S. objectives in Indochina meant that there were limits to the domestic political sustainability of the American war effort. Over time, the combination of continuing losses of blood and treasure with no apparent definitive policy progress turned public and congressional opinion against the war, at least as it was being conducted. This situation prompted a steady withdrawal of U.S. forces and accession to a negotiated settlement that effectively abandoned South Vietnam to its Communist foe. (The Paris Peace Accord of January 1973 mandated the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from South Vietnam, while leaving in place there over 200,000 North Vietnamese Army troops. Under the circumstances, it was unrealistic to expect South Vietnamese forces alone to accomplish what U.S. and South Vietnamese forces had failed to accomplish after 8 years of major combat operations.)

State-building in Iraq is still a work in progress, and it is impossible at this juncture to make conclusive judgments on the domestic political sustainability of U.S. policy in Iraq. Though the United States incurred unexpected casualties and occupation costs in post-Saddam Iraq, they bear no comparison with those of the Vietnam War. On the other hand, by virtue of the Vietnam War (and subsequent failed interventions in Lebanon and Somalia), U.S. public and congressional tolerance levels for protracted, indecisive conflict are not what they were in 1965.

This monograph seeks to identify and examine key comparisons between the challenges the United States faces in Iraq today and those it confronted in Vietnam for the purpose of offering historical insights to U.S. policymakers responsible for policy and operations in Iraq. We believe that differences between Iraq and Vietnam can be just as important as similarities in providing policy insights.

The monograph assesses differences and similarities in the following areas: relative U.S. military power; war aims; nature, duration, and scale of the war; U.S. manpower loss rates; the enemy; military operations; pacification; role of indigenous and international allies; challenges of state-building; and challenges of sustaining domestic political support. It ends with conclusions and recommendations.


1. Though policymakers instinctively turn to what they think history teaches about what to do, or not do, in a given foreign policy situation, reasoning by historical analogy is an inherently risky business. No two historical situations are identical, and policymakers? knowledge of history is often poor. Policymakers are, in any event, predisposed to embrace analogies, however faulty, that support preferred policy.143 Thus proponents of the Iraq War embraced the Munich analogy (and the success of U.S. state-building in Japan and Germany), whereas opponents of war warned of another Vietnam. Operation IRAQI FREEDOM achieved the ?Munich? objective of eliminating a regime that proponents believed posed a gathering threat to the United States. Yet satisfaction of that objective simply confronted the United States with the unexpectedly costly and difficult challenges of state-building in circumstances of ongoing insurgent violence that some were prepared to label a Vietnam-like quagmire.

2. The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime cannot be repealed. As in Vietnam in 1965, U.S. power and prestige have been massively committed in Iraq, and it is incumbent upon the United States try its best to leave behind in Iraq a ?better peace? than it found there, even if that means reconsidering some ambitious U.S. objectives in Iraq. What if, for example, the United States is forced to choose between stability and democracy in that volatile country? Many experts believe that genuine democracy lies beyond the power and patience of the United States to create in Iraq. If so, both Americans and Iraqis might have to settle for some form of benign quasi-authoritarian rule along the lines of Kemal Ataturk?s Turkey, Anwar Sadat?s Egypt, and King Hussein?s Jordan, perhaps as a prolonged transition to more representative governance. However, under no circumstances--other than the descent of Iraq into uncontrollable civil war--should the United States abandon Iraq as it did South Vietnam in 1975. Indeed, abandonment would seem a near-guarantee of civil war, which could be a worse state of affairs for the average Iraqi than even the Stalinist tyranny of Saddam Hussein.146

3. Policymakers must recognize that the differences between Iraq and Vietnam greatly outweigh the similarities, especially in the military dimensions of the two conflicts. That said, it would be a mistake to underestimate Iraqi insurgents as the United States did the Vietnamese Communists in Indochina. After all, the very appearance of an insurgency after the termination of major U.S. combat operations surprised many. Moreover, though the nature, size, and appeal of the Iraqi insurgency bears no comparison to its Vietnamese Communist counterpart (except in so far as both insurgencies are expressions of irregular warfare), the Iraqi insurgency has so far and with increasing skill attacked targets that are key to Iraq?s successful reconstruction. Dismissing the insurgents as ?terrorists? and ?dead-enders? overlooks the potentially dangerous downstream political consequences of establishing a large American force presence in an Arab heartland and attempting to transform Iraq into a pro-Western democracy. It was not expected that the minority Sunni Arab community would welcome a post-Saddam Iraq in which it no longer enjoyed a monopoly of power; but neither was it expected that U.S. postwar policies in Iraq would alienate many Shi?ites-- some of them to the point of armed resistance, raising the prospect of a two-front insurgency.

4. Policymakers must also recognize and understand the two most instructive dimensions of the Vietnam analogy for the current situation in Iraq: the challenges of state-building, and the need to maintain sufficient domestic political support. On these two matters, the lessons of Vietnam need to be studied. State-building in Iraq could fail for the same principal reason it failed in South Vietnam: inability to create a political order commanding popular legitimacy. Nor should open-ended domestic political support be taken for granted. The late President Richard Nixon once remarked: ?When a president sends American troops off to war, a hidden timer starts to run. He has a finite period of time to win the war before the people grow weary of it.?147 As of this writing, the U.S. forces have just entered their second year in Iraq. If one were to follow the Vietnam War analogy, U.S. forces are in the spring of 1966--still 2 years away from the Tet Offensive, and almost 7 years away from the final U.S. military withdrawal from the conflict. However, the decisionmakers of 1965 could take for granted more sustainable levels of public support precisely because they did not, in contrast to the decisionmakers of 2003, have the cautionary experience of the Vietnam War behind them.

5. Policymakers also should not take for granted the absence of hostile external state intervention in Iraq. The absence of a North Vietnam analog in Iraq could change, depending on the course of events. For example, Iran, which has strong state and theocratic interests in Iraq that have so far been well-served by the U.S. destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime and the subsequent disorder in Iraq that has tied down U.S. ground forces that might otherwise have been available to threaten regime change in Teheran, is well-positioned to sponsor accelerated chaos in Iraq.148 Iran has no interest in the resurrection of a powerful Iraq, and certainly not a democratic, pro-Western Iraq, and it has enough Revolutionary Guards and intelligence operatives to ?get tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites on the streets to protest the U.S. occupation.?149


1.Commentary on the Iraq War and its aftermath bulges with favorable and unfavorable references to the Vietnam War analogy. See, for example, Robert L. Bartley, ?Iraq: Another Vietnam?? Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2003; Elizabeth Becker, ?In the Ranks, Similarities Between Vietnam and Iraq,? New York Times, November 2, 2003; Max Boot, ?Forget Vietnam?History Deflates Guerrilla Mystique,? Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2003; Robert J. Caldwell, ?Iraq is No Vietnam,? San Diego Union-Tribune, November 9, 2003; Hank Cole, ?Iraq War Bears Resemblance to U.S. Efforts in Vietnam,? Colorado Springs Gazette, December 9, 2003; ?Facts Fail to Support Iraq-Vietnam Comparisons,? USA Today, November 7, 2003; Howard Fineman, ?Echoes of Vietnam Grow Louder,? Newsweek, October 29, 2003; David Gelernter, ?Don?t Quit as We Did in Vietnam,? Los Angeles Times, November 9, 2003; David Gergen, ?The Fierce Urgency of Iraq,? U.S. News and World Report, October 13, 2003; Bradley Graham, ?Is Iraq Another Vietnam Quagmire? No and Yes,? Washington Post, October 5, 2003; Richard Haloran, ?Vietnam Syndrome Resurfaces in Iraq,? Honolulu Advertiser, February 15, 2004; Victor Davis Hanson, ?Then and Now,? National Review, December 8, 2003; Seymour M. Hersh, ?Moving Targets,? New Yorker, December 15, 2003; John Hughes, ?Why Iraq is Not Like Vietnam,? Christian Science Monitor, August 27, 2003; Michael Ignatieff, ?The American Empire (Get Used to It),? New York Times Magazine, January 5, 2003; Robert G. Kaiser, ?Iraq Isn?t Vietnam, But They Rhyme,? Washington Post, December 28, 2003; James Kitfield, ?No, It?s Not Vietnam,? National Journal, November 22, 2003; Stanley Karnow, ?Do Not Compare Iraq with Vietnam,? Boston Globe, April 20, 2003; Richard Leiby, ?Iraq Vs. Vietnam: The Scorecard,? Washington Post, March 21, 2004; Gordon Livingston, ?Iraq?s Chilling Echoes of Vietnam,? San Francisco Chronicle, November 30, 2003; Sandra Mackey, The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein, New York: W. W. Norton, 2002, p. 396; John Maggs, ?Too Much Like Vietnam,? National Journal, November 22, 2003; Michael Mandelbaum, ?Iraq Doesn?t Fit Vietnam Picture,? Long Island Newsday, October 31, 2003; Dave Moniz, ?Monthly Costs of Iraq, Afghan Wars Approach that of Vietnam,? USA Today, September 8, 2003; Dave Moniz, ?Some Veterans of Vietnam See Iraq Parallel in Lack of Candor,? USA Today, November 7, 2003; Walter Pincus, ?A Quagmire? More Like a Presidential Fixation,? Washington Post, August 31, 2003; James P. Pinkerton, ?Bush?s War Strategy Looks Like a Steal of Nixon,? Long Island Newsday, November 18, 2003; Thomas E. Ricks, ?For Vietnam Vet Anthony Zinni, Another War on Shaky Territory,? Washington Post, December 23, 2003; Thomas E. Ricks, ?Marines to offer New Tactics in Iraq,? Washington Post, January 7, 2004; Sally Satel, ?Returning from Iraq, Still Fighting Vietnam,? New York Times, March 5, 2004; Evan Thomas, Rod Nordlinger, and Christian Caryl, ?Operation Hearts and Minds,? Newsweek, December 29, 2003-January 5, 2004; Mike Turner, ?The Only Way Out is Forward,? Newsweek, September 12, 2003; Craig R. Whitney, ?Tunnel Vision: Watching Iraq, and Seeing Vietnam,? New York Times, November 9, 2003; George C. Wilson, ?Beware a Phoenix Rising from Iraq?s Ashes,? National Journal, December 20, 2003; and George C. Wilson, ?Iraq in Not Vietnam,? National Journal, April 12, 2003.

2. Harry G. Summers, Jr., Vietnam War Almanac, New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985, p. 113.

143. Richard Morin and Dana Milbank, ?Support for Bush Falls on Economy and Iraq,? Washington Post, March 9, 2004; John Harwood, ?Economic Fears May Threaten Bush?s Job,? Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2004.

146. See Anthony Cordesman, ?The Facts We Must Face,? Washington Post, April 4, 2004.

147. Richard Nixon, No More Vietnams, New York: Avon Books, 1985, p. 88.

148. See David Ignatius, ?What Iran Wants in Iraq,? Washington Post, February 27, 2004.

149. Ibid.