It’s been a repetitive phenomenon of these last years–when fears about disaster (or further disaster, or even the farthest reaches of disaster) in Iraq rise, so does the specter of Vietnam. Despite the obvious dissimilarities between the two situations, Vietnam has been the shadow war we’re still fighting. The Bush administration began its 2003 invasion by planning a non-Vietnam War scenario right down to not having “body counts,” those grim, ridiculed death chants of that long-past era. His administration, as the President put it before the November mid-term elections, wasn’t going to be a “body-count team.” But the Vietnam experience has proven nothing short of irresistible in a crisis. Within the last month, after Bush himself bemoaned the lack of a body count in the vicinity, the body count slipped back into the news as a way to measure success in Iraq.
And that was only the beginning. With the recent plummeting of presidential approval ratings and the dismal polling reactions to Bush’s “new way forward” in Iraq, the Vietnam scenario is experiencing something like a renaissance. Sometimes, these days, it seems as if top administration officials are simply spending their time preparing mock-Vietnam material for Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. The recent “surge” plan, for instance, brought that essential Vietnam vocabulary word, “escalation,” back into currency. (It was on Democratic lips all last week.) Even worse, the President’s plan was the kind of “incremental escalation” that military commanders coming out of Vietnam had sworn would never, ever be used again.
In any case, when Republican Senator (and surge opponent) Chuck Hagel questioned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the E-word last week, she denied it was an appropriate moniker. Here’s what she suggested instead. “I would call it, Senator, an augmentation that allows the Iraqis to deal with this very serious problem that they have in Baghdad.” (And, of course, Stewart promptly pounced…)
But that, too, was only the beginning. Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, called the President’s plan “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, just appointed senior military commander in Iraq in charge of the Baghdad “surge,” turned out to have written a doctoral thesis, much publicized last week, entitled “The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era.” (“Don’t commit American troops, Mr. President unless… You have established clear-cut, attainable military objectives for American military forces… [and] you provide the military commander sufficient forces and the freedom necessary to accomplish his mission swiftly…”)
Part of the plan Petraeus is evidently to put into effect involves an urban version of what Los Angeles Times reporter Julian E. Barnes labels “a spectacular failure” of the Vietnam War, the “strategic hamlet” program in which whole communities were to be sealed off from the “insurgents” of that era. For Baghdad, the military is now redubbing these — with another obvious bow to Stewart’s show — “gated communities.” (“‘You do it neighborhood by neighborhood,’ said the Defense official. ‘Think of L.A. Let’s say we take West Hollywood and gate it off. Or Anaheim. Or central Los Angeles. You control that area first and work out from there.'”)
Fears that Iraq’s collapse into civil war (or a U.S. withdrawal) might knock down other states in the region like so many ten pins, as former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski reminded us in a Washington Post op-ed, “Five Flaws in the President’s Plan,” brought another Vietnam classic back to the fold: “the (falling) domino theory.” With the President’s latest threats against Syria and Iran–“We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We’ll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq…”–yet another oldie but goodie from that era has reappeared: “hot pursuit”: As in pursuing the commies (or Islamo-fascists or Shiite renegades or al-Qaeda terrorists) across the Cambodian or Syrian or Iranian border. And speaking of Cambodia, Congress did at one point prohibit the use of funds to pursue war in that country, exercising its constitutionally guaranteed power of the purse, a thought that only in the last weeks has made it back from the critical wilderness into the mainstream as a respectable, debatable position for any politician.
But perhaps it’s no more complicated than this: In a world in which self-determination and nationalism are bedrock values, once you’ve tried to occupy a country, whether under the banner of anti-Communism or anti-Islamo-fascism, whether claiming to be in support of the “Free World” or “freedom” itself, it may no longer matter which counterinsurgency tactics you use or strategies you adopt, or whether you count bodies or not. Once you’ve taken such a path — as long as you don’t make the decision to withdraw–you may always find yourself in that limited land of options that we like to call “Vietnam.”