Once upon a time, the United States went to war in a far-away nation about whose history most Americans knew little or nothing. The president, who hailed from Texas, argued for war based on incomplete information and outright distortions which were, it turns out, known to be such by many people serving within his own administration. Some critics argued that this war was a risky distraction from a broader, more important conflict. The president, asserting that the war was indeed necessary for the protection of American lives and the promotion of American values, claimed otherwise. Congress overwhelmingly granted the president the authorization he requested. Promising a quick and relatively inexpensive victory, the president commenced the war with few international allies and without authorization from the United Nations. Although ordinary Americans tended to support this war at first, it proved over time to be a profoundly divisive conflict, and over time public confidence eroded as the body count mounted and the light at the end of the tunnel grew farther and farther away…
This is an excerpt from the lecture I give in my History 132 survey, right about the time we begin studying — for the two days we can devote to it — the Vietnam War. After this introduction, I remind my students of Darwin's warning that analogy may be a "deceitful guide," and I explain why we should be exceedingly careful about the links we draw between present and past wars. More on that in a moment. I bring this issue up because Steve Gilliard
, Marc Cooper
, Dennis Perrin
and a raft of others bloggers were brutalizing one another last week, among other things over the question of whether the Iraq War is now a greater disaster than the American war in Vietnam. On this issue, Gilliard and Perrin spoke in the affirmative, while Cooper argued otherwise. Gilliard, writing on May 3
, argued that
The Iraqis are better armed than the Vietnamese were. Every Iraqi platoon goes into combat with automatic rifles and rpg's. They have military training. They control the highways, the have negated the use of airmobile tactics and kept US forces penned up in their bases. Americans can't even go out for a beer and a hooker.
Oh, if Iraq was like Vietnam, the US would have a professional Army to fight besides and control of the cities. Helicopters could be used freely and US units could be stationed all over the countryside. And there would be real Iraqi leadership. No, Vietnam would be a step up. Because we would control the highway to the airport.
But as to the rest of it, mistreating veterans, combat refusals, corruption, well it's 1970 all over again.
About a week later (and in response to a post by Perrin) Cooper disagreed, arguing that such comparisons are
demonstrably false, if only by the lesser magnitude of death in Iraq…a far lesser magnitude. War is evil. A war that kills 3 million people is more evil than one that kills 100,000. Or am I missing something? The whole formulation is beside the point. (Yes, there is some sort of wondrous political point to be scored by proving, say, that Bush is worse than Nixon. A game, by the way, we don't have the luxury to play).
Perrin then shot back
The death toll in Vietnam is from a 13-year-period. We're only in year two in Iraq, which, if we make a direct comparison, is 1964 Vietnam-time. Millions weren't dead by that point, but the slaughter was underway. And as Gilliard stated, Saigon was never the free-fire zone that is Baghdad today. American GIs and journalists could move about the capital more or less freely, which is not the case in Baghdad. I caught Russ Feingold on the radio yesterday. He was in Baghdad a few months ago, and he said that even in the Green Zone, everyone wore helmets and flack jackets. Far from focusing solely on the "bad news," as Fox-watchers insist the Liberal Media does, Feingold said that if anything, the American press is "under-reporting" the madness in Iraq. It's that fucking bad. Go back and read press reports from Saigon in 1964, and see which situation is worse.
After that, the exchange got nasty. Whatever else one might have to say about this particular dispute — the posts (and subsequent comments) are all worth reading, as are their various other links — it's worth mentioning that historical analogies are only useful insofar as they assist polemical exchanges like these. Three years ago, those who endorsed Bush's policies were apt to invoke the legacy of World War II as the sanctifying touch for the war against terrorism; certain neoconservatives were rather more fond of mentioning the Cold War, which Norman Podhoretz always described as World War III. Dissenters were labeled "appeasers" or "fifth columnists" and were taken to the woodshed, to be clubbed with reminders of Neville Chamberlain, the League of Nations, or Henry Wallace. Now, with the violence in Iraq escalating, opinion polls
indicating widespread American dissatisfaction with the war, and with no end in sight, the Vietnam analogies — boosted by the 30-year anniversary of Saigon's fall — have their obvious appeal
We should not be detained long by the question of whether World War II offers the “correct” historical analogy to the war on terrorism, or whether the Vietnam analogy works well in our discussions of Iraq. All historical analogies are fallible in one sense or another because they emphasize certain aspects of the past while suppressing others to achieve the right fit. Yet we're probably incapable of living, thinking, or teaching without them, and for very good reasons (including the need to write polemics). Anyone who teaches or writes about history must be attuned to the connections between present and past, and as tools for developing that sensitivity, analogies are no more or less problematic than any other rhetorical device.
There are profound risks, however, in comparing the Iraq War (or the broader war on terrorism) with World War II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, or any other conflict. First of all, such comparisons — while creating the effect
of historical context — are usually deeply ahistorical; measuring the wars in Iraq and Vietnam against one another may be useful as a thinking exercise, but it does very little to illuminate the actual causes and consequences of American foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asia. Moreover, such comparisons tend to remove those earlier wars from their own proper place in the flow of history, encouraging a certain forgetfulness there as well. Do we learn anything new about the American war in Vietnam by comparing it with the current war in Iraq? Probably not. Instead, these analogies serve best as mood lighting, with "World War II" and "Vietnam" serving as the positive and negative poles in the ongoing disputes about American national virtue and the wisdom of its contemporary policies. Given that most of us are not asked to think in very complicated ways about the past, my suspicion is that wartime analogies tend to work as a substitute for
rather than as a supplement to
critical thought. And because our perceptions of World War II and Vietnam are such touchstones for various claims about the meaning and mission of the United States, it becomes quite difficult to invoke those histories without suffering immediately from certain forms of amnesia.
The second, related and more serious problem with wartime analogies is that they typically function only by erasing the historical vantage point of those people most immediately victimized by these wars — in this case, the Vietnamese and Iraqi people themselves. The Vietnam War analogy, for instance, only makes sense when seen from a particularly American vantage point. This repeats all the usual tendencies in American culture, which lead us to overstate the centrality of "our" experiences to all the wars in which the US has fought. (Indeed, one of the best-selling textbooks on the Vietnam War is subtitled, without any apparent sense of irony, "An American Ordeal.") In any event, I suspect very much that ordinary Iraqis are not inclined to see this war as "their Vietnam," just as the people of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos might not think of the wars in Indochina as "an American ordeal." It's important than Cooper, Perrin, Gilliard and others continue to highlight the consequences of this war for Iraqi civilians, in defiance of the conventional narcissism and against the appalling recommendations of some in the media that these consequences not be covered
. Undoubtedly, however, the catastrophic civilian body counts in Iraq over the past two weeks — to say nothing of the past two years — are perhaps reminders of other histories that Americans would do well to learn and recall.