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Comparing Vietnam to Iraq & Afghanistan

Updated on January 23, 2012

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A classic Vietnam era anti-war song

Can "Humanitarian" Wars Be Won?

When it became clear that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were going to drag on for a while, the inevitable comparisons to Vietnam began. In some basic ways, however, the current wars bear little resemblance to Vietnam. The rugged terrains of Iraq and Afghanistan are nothing like the tropical rainforests of Vietnam. Insurgents in the current conflicts seem to have far less domestic and international support than the Vietcong once had, and they have not been organized as single, united forces. Also, the number of American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan combined are only 1/10 (so far) of those killed in Vietnam.

Still, there are some eerie similarities. Like in Vietnam, The United States has been fighting against enemies who can be very difficult to locate and properly identify. These insurgents, like the Vietcong, recognize that they cannot take on the United States military in a “conventional” war. So they infiltrate communities, blend in with the civilian population, and are content to harass American soldiers (and the population in general) with quick hit-and-run strikes and booby traps. They know that they do not have to win in a conventional sense. They also know that when Americans kill civilians, it plays into the insurgents’ hands. So all that they need to do is inflict enough casualties and drag these conflicts out long enough to convince the United States that the costs are too high. In other words, they have to do the same thing that the Vietcong was able to accomplish.

This is why some would say that continued U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are ultimately pointless. Like Vietnam, these conflicts cannot be won. Others, however, disagree. Part of the reason that our efforts in Vietnam failed, they would argue, was that the American public did not adequately support the efforts of the military. And this lack of support went beyond the efforts of the liberal media and of those anti-war hippies. The federal government, partly out of fear of public opinion, asked the military to fight this war with “one hand tied behind its back.” For fear of inflicting excessive civilian casualties, soldiers could not root out and destroy communists as aggressively as necessary. Also, due to concerns about possible domestic and international reactions, restrictions were placed on bombing targets, with the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi being a particularly important “off-limits” potential site. If enough of the public had recognized that “war is hell,” but you must fight to win, then the results may have been different. To those who maintain this view that Vietnam was winnable, history may be repeating itself in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I agree with those who say that lack of public support was a big part of America’s failure in Vietnam. Anti-war protestors, in fact, would take this as a compliment. In theory, it is also possible that more aggressive action could have led to a different result.  This is assuming, of course, that over a half million troops, double the tonnage of explosives that were dropped in all of World War II, and the extensive use of chemical agents were just not enough. Still, there is an even more fundamental problem with this line of reasoning, a problem that also applies to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Vietnam, the United States’ basic justification for involvement was to stop the spread of communism. Part of this effort, like the Cold War in general, was to protect and promote American interests. (A world full of communist nations, after all, is bad for business.) However, the United States also claimed that defending South Vietnam from communism would make that country a better place. So there was a humanitarian component to this war, a component that can lead to big trouble. After all, the more damage that the United States did in South Vietnam, the harder it was to argue that these efforts were helping the people of that nation. In a sense, the United States, through its stated policy objective, doomed itself to failure. At some point, the infliction of excessive death and destruction would make it impossible to declare any legitimate victory.

In World War II, the United States was not fighting against Japanese and German soldiers in an effort to make those countries better places. The goal was to defeat their military forces and destroy their capacity to continue fighting. World War II was unimaginably horrific, but it was also much simpler than a war like Vietnam. The enemy’s military forces were more easily identified, and the United States felt justified in targeting their civilian populations and using all of the firepower at its disposal.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resemble Vietnam much more than World War II. In both places, like in Vietnam, the United States initially used national security as the justification for fighting. Afghanistan had terrorist training camps that were harbored by the Taliban government, and Saddam Hussein (supposedly) had “weapons of mass destruction.” Over time, however, particularly in Iraq, the United States justified its efforts with humanitarian language: liberation, promoting democracy, etc. Now, like in Vietnam, the United States is trying to win wars while appearing to help people, fighting against insurgents who are difficult to distinguish from civilians. With such unrealistic stated goals, it may already be impossible to ever declare victory.

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    • Freeway Flyer profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Swendson 

      6 years ago

      I'm not sure what the mosque at ground zero has to do with this article. As far as what I think about the war on terror in general, here is another hub:

      https://hubpages.com/politics/911-Terrorism-Your-E...

    • profile image

      Ibethere 

      6 years ago

      So I have read the comments and agree with many but the question is, what would you have done after 911? I am not saying that America has not had it's own agenda througout the past wars, but doesn't every country? It just depends on how it is presented whether it is accepted or not. We tend to chose presidents on charismatic talents rather than their views or what they support. Maybe if we stop and look at what they really believe in before we vote them in, things may change.I do not believe that letting Muslins rule here is the answer to our problem. For every mosque they are able to build, it is considered a victory to the terrorists. Do I think that all Muslins are terrorists? Alsoutely not, anymore than I beleive everyone that claims to be a Christian is a Christian.However, I do not agree that building a mosque near ground zero should be considered. That is a slp in the face to the many Americans that died that day to try to rescue others in the twin towers.

    • tiffanddom profile image

      tiffanddom 

      7 years ago from Camp Lejeune, NC

      I agree with everything you are saying.

      I do think that there is progress being made. The Afghani troops are taking over little by little. You are absolutely right, the cultural barriers is what's keeping us from ending this thing right now. Its all a matter of who's there. Once a Centralized government can actually reach all of these ordinary people then we will see a real change. No sane afghani is going to be for a central government that has no influence in there town. Voting for a central government in a Taliban controlled town would be suicide for an Afghani. Clear out the Taliban and immediately have influence on the town that has recently evicted the Taliban. The central government has to have something to offer than just control.

    • Freeway Flyer profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Swendson 

      7 years ago

      Yes, from what I have heard, the Taliban have far less support both internationally and internally then the Vietcong had. Afghanistan, however, is not a place with a strong tradition of centralized government. It's more of a tribal society. So it might be possible to minimize somewhat the threat of terrorist attacks originating in Afghanistan. But it will be hard to overcome the geographic and cultural barriers to centralized rule.

      Of course, you have been there, so you probably know more than I do. Did you get the sense that progress was being made?

    • tiffanddom profile image

      tiffanddom 

      7 years ago from Camp Lejeune, NC

      Yeah i believe that's true. I think that setting a central government in Afghanistan will be much easier than it was in Vietnam. Correct me if im wrong, the VC were much more organized than the Taliban are. Clearing out the Taliban seems much less difficult due to there lack of resources and communication. Talibans Chain Of Command doesn't seem very efficient in relaying orders aswell.

    • Freeway Flyer profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Swendson 

      7 years ago

      Wasn't that essentially the objective in South Vietnam? The goal was to prop up the South Vietnamese government and clear out the Vietcong resistance. Part of the problem in both cases was that the general population did not have a lot of respect for the central governments that we were trying to support.

    • tiffanddom profile image

      tiffanddom 

      7 years ago from Camp Lejeune, NC

      I dont think the United states wants a military victory in Afghanistan. Its much more than that. We are trying to give a central Afghani government control of the entire country. To do that we must clear out huge pockets resistance so that the ANP and ANA can maintain control.

    • Freeway Flyer profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Swendson 

      7 years ago

      Yes, the "insurgents" in these nations will most likely outlast the United States, and some form of decentralized government in both places is probably the only thing that is sustainable.

      The United States likes to claim that it has noble motives in its actions, but like all nations, my country's government acts out of perceived self-interest. Americans also tend to think that brute force is the best means toward achieving security. Maybe we have seen too many movies (and not read enough history books about the countries where we intervene).

    • wingedcentaur profile image

      William Thomas 

      7 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Good Day Freeway Flyer

      This is another good and thoughtful hub, as always. I am appalled at this talk of Vietnam having been "winnable," and reports claiming that certain soldiers and/or officers purportedly lamenting the "fact" that they had to fight the war "with one hand tied behind their back."

      Where does that line of "reasoning" stop? If only the American forces in Vietnam had been allowed to use "tactical" nuclear weapons.... blah, blah, blah.

      I know you know this, Freeway Flyer, but war itself is the loss and it represents a failure of politics and diplomacy (indeed, it seems that what passes for "politics" and "diplomacy" is ofetn the cause of war -- for example, I hear the Unocal firm was very upset with the Talban for not approving the pipeline project... "Either you accept our carpet of gold, or we will bury you under a carpet of bombs," a U.S. representative reportedly said in early 2001).

      One thing we tend to forget about Saddam Hussein of Iraq is that he was Washington's darling in the 1980s. We sponsored him, armed him, backed him in the war against Iran, etc. One thing empire does is elect relays or clients to do their bidding, but once the client makes one "wrong" move its --- chop, off with your head; and that's why Hussein met the fate he did.

      I don't think the United States will achieve a military victory in Afghanistan. As the great Peace negotitator, the so-called "Father of Peace and Conflict Studies," Johan Galtung says, "There is no capitulation in Islam. It doesn't exist."

      You have one point five billion people committed to the idea of defending Islam from the Western infidel..... They are not going to give up. I think the solution will be something like Professor Galtung and other competent observers lay out: a regional conference involving the much-maligned Iran, Pakistan, China, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Syria, etc. Their task will be to guarantee the territorial integrity and security of Afghanistan, and see to the development of the country; and negotiations will most probably have to include the Taliban.

      As for Iraq, Galtung predicts that it will dissolve. It was never a real country in the first place he says. It was an artificial creation of (I think) "Lawrence of Arabia" and others during the early twentieth century, I guess for the purpose of insuring British access of Iraqi and Middle East oil primarily.

      Take it easy and thanks for the interesting read.

    • Freeway Flyer profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Swendson 

      7 years ago

      Imposing a system of government by force does not work particularly well. It reflects American lack of interest in the histories and cultures of the places where we intervene.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      7 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      The United states is always doomed to failure in these "interventionist " wars because they are not welcomed by the people of the countries they invade. They are always treated as occupiers, rather than liberators. Also they have the unfortunate habit of tryong to foist their, "Republican" form of government on societies where it is not wanted by the people. The initial problem in Vietnam was caused when the Americans backed a fraudulent plebiscite to oust the legitimate ruler Emperor Bao Dai. The situation in Afghanistan would be a lot better now if the Bush administration had not twisted the Afghan's arms to accept the puppet Hamid Karzai. The Afghans wanted the restoration of the monarchy. It would have given the country a focus of loyalty, which a "Presidency" can never do. Unfortunately since the time of Woodrow Wilson, american governments have been trying to spread their form of politics around the world like a virus. When will they ever learn?

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