When it became apparent after 9/11 that the US would strike back not just at the tendrils of terror but also at the roots of terror—regimes like Afghanistan’s Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—I wondered if my countrymen had the stomach and stamina for what was to come. This is, after all, the land of fast food and FedEx, which helps explain why the quarter-century before 9/11 was marked by a series of push-button, almost-bloodless wars. In the shadow of Vietnam, each mini-war conditioned the American people to expect less blood and less sacrifice than the previous conflict. And this, in turn, conditioned the American military to be overly cautious, leading inevitably to more low-risk, low-impact wars. In Iraq and Afghanistan, that cycle has ended.
For all its imperfections and mistakes, the Bush Administration did try to prepare the American people for what their military now calls “the long war.” Bracing a shell-shocked nation for war, President Bush warned that “Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” In a letter to Congress soon after the attacks that maimed New York, he explained, “It is not possible to predict the scope and duration of these deployments [or] the actions necessary to counter the terrorist threat to the United States.” Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld added that the War on Terror would be “distinctly different from prior efforts.” Then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz talked about “ending states that sponsor terrorism.” Then-Navy Secretary Gordon England dryly concluded, “This is not going to be a short program.”
In other words, the American people should have gotten a sense of what was coming: a long, hard war. In its early hours, I called it a “colder war” because it would blend all the killing and suffering of traditional warfare with all the tension and uncertainty of the Cold War to produce something different than before, something that could challenge a country with a short memory and even shorter attention span—a colder, harsher strain of conflict.
But I found reason for hope in a most unusual place—the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century French writer whose Democracy in America remains one of the most revealing and inspiring assessments of the civic and political vitality of the United States ever written. In Tocqueville’s view, citizens in democracies are not inclined toward war because they are focused on personal pursuits and interests. This makes democracies susceptible to surprise and even defeat at the outset of war, especially after a long period of peace. But once the people are affected by war and roused “from their peaceful occupations,” according to Tocqueville, “the same passions that made them attach so much importance to the maintenance of peace will be turned to arms.” The war is thus transformed from an affair of state and statesmen into a national mission, an all-encompassing struggle against the enemy.
Sure enough, the months and years began to click by, and the American people stayed the course—even as the liberation of Kabul gave way to pitched battles in the Hindu Kush, counterinsurgency operations in and around Kandahar, stability operations to prop up Hamid Karzai, the still-fruitless search for bin Laden, the frustrating phony war in Pakistan; even as the fall of Baghdad gave way to the hunt for and capture of Saddam, which gave way to a multi-sided postwar war, which paved the way for the costly tactical mistakes at Abu Ghraib and Fallujah and Sadr City, mistakes that mirror the costly strategic mistakes of prewar planning and postwar preparation.
Through elections in America and Iraq, public support for the war held. Support held even as US casualty figures grew, passing grim milestones—500 dead, then 1,000, then 2,000, then 3,000, then 3,500.
But with ghosts of Vietnam haunting the generation of policymakers now in power—and my generation largely lacking the perspective of history, a perspective which helps remind us that America’s enemies think beyond the next poll or news cycle or instant message—support for the Iraq War is quickly evaporating now, perhaps reaching that magical tipping point.
So does this mean Tocqueville is wrong? In other words, why isn’t this great democracy digging in rather than nervously looking for the exit sign? Robert Kaplan helps solve the conundrum in his recent essay in The American Interest. “Middle class democracies,” he writes, “fight two kinds of wars well: little wars fought by professional warriors that garner little media attention, and big wars that may rouse the whole country, in spite of itself, into a patriotic fervor.”
Iraq is neither, he explains. Rather, it is “an in-between war that creates the worst combination for a non-warrior democracy: one in which the public is keenly aware of the worst details, yet has no context in which to assimilate them and is otherwise unaffected.”
Indeed, we know so much yet know so little. We are drowning in information—about the war and Michael Vick and iPhones and Paris Hilton—but we seem to lack knowledge and wisdom. If all this information produced real knowledge, and if we could apply wisdom to all we know, perhaps we would be more patient. Perhaps we would recognize that Iraq is just one front in a much wider war. Perhaps our leaders would realize that quitting now would only compound past mistakes and defer a far greater sacrifice to future generations. Perhaps they would realize that the enemy is not on Capitol Hill or in the Oval Office, but rather in Sadr City and Anbar Province and Waziristan. Perhaps they would even admit that Iraq is not Vietnam.
To be sure, there are similarities between Iraq and Vietnam. There are also very real, very significant dissimilarities between the two wars. First, the differences:
- Vietnam was an undeclared war. Iraq is not. In fact, the president asked Congress for authorization to go to war in Iraq—both in 1990 and again in 2003. The 2003 war—or if you prefer, the culmination of the war that began 13 years earlier—was pre-authorized by 296 House members and 77 Senators. They may wish they had voted differently now—or that their constituents would just forget what happened in October 2002—but these facts remain.
- Iraq, unlike Vietnam, is America’s unfinished business—not France’s. By invading Kuwait in the summer of 1990, Saddam left the defenseless Saudis with two options—cut a deal and surrender, or allow the Americans to dig in. The Saudis chose the latter, hopeful that the American deployment would be short and small. Of course, those hopes weren’t realized. The initial deployment of a few hundred troops swelled to some 600,000 in preparation for Operation Desert Storm. Kuwait was liberated and Saddam was weakened, but Washington declared a ceasefire before the American juggernaut could destroy key units of the Republican Guard, which were vital to Saddam’s survival. Deflecting criticisms of the war’s untidy conclusion in their book A World Transformed, the elder Bush and his national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, argued in 1998 that shutting down the ground war at the hundred-hour mark was the right thing to do. “The United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land,” they concluded. Of course, that’s effectively what happened, at least in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and his followers.
In a sense, occupation was inevitable after the war; perhaps the United States ended up occupying the wrong country. Since a wounded Saddam could not be left unattended and an oil-rich Saudi Arabia could not be left unprotected, US troops took up permanent residence in the Saudi kingdom. The presence of foreign troops in the Muslim holy land galvanized al Qaeda, which carried out the attacks of September 11, 2001, which triggered America’s global war on terror, which led inevitably back to Iraq, which is where America finds itself today.
- The loss of American life is considerably smaller in Iraq than in Vietnam. Iraq has claimed 3,646 Americans in four years of fighting. By post-Vietnam standards, these casualty figures are incredibly high. Of course, by Vietnam standards, they are mercifully low. The Vietnam War claimed 58,200 Americans. In Vietnam, as a USAToday analysis found, the US lost 18 men per day. In Iraq, that number is slightly more than two. After four years of warfare in Vietnam (1963-1967), 19,000 American troops had died. In fact, data from the National Archives show that the number of Americans killed in Vietnam dramatically increased for five straight years: 118 killed in 1963, 206 in 1964, 1,863 in 1965, 6,143 in 1966, 11,153 in 1967, 16,592 in 1968. In Iraq, the grim toll has held remarkably steady, and in fact is beginning to fall—860 killed in 2004, 845 in 2005, 814 in 2006, and if current trends hold, less than 750 in 2007. Of course, the fact that the death toll is falling is of no comfort for 750 families. For those who fight and die, war is not a matter of sterile arithmetic, but of shattered limbs and broken bodies, of dreams ending and nightmares beginning.
- The US is not alone in Iraq. Today, there are 25 countries with military forces on the ground in Iraq, in addition to the US. In Vietnam, America was virtually alone. To be fair, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand sent contingents, and Canada sent an all-volunteer force.
- Speaking of all-volunteer forces, every American serving in Iraq is a volunteer. They are not there under compulsion of the draft. They are not there simply to survive 12 months and get home. They are there because they want to serve their country. In fact, many of them want to serve in Iraq: Some of the highest reenlistment rates in the Marine Corps and Army are found among divisions that have served multiple tours in Iraq.
But there is another side to this point: The American military is sacrificing in Iraq, military families are sacrificing in Iraq but the American people are not. Unlike Vietnam, which directly affected a large swath of the country due to the draft, the war in Iraq is an abstraction for most Americans. They haven’t been asked to sacrifice for it and they don’t want to hear about it. As Kaplan observes, “Americans as a people are ever further removed from any semblance of a warrior spirit as we grow increasingly prosperous and our political elite grows increasingly secular.”
As to the similarities between Iraq and Vietnam, a good place to begin is with the media:
- In Iraq and Vietnam, the media were both for the war and against it. In his essential history of the Cold War, The Fifty-Year Wound, Derek Leebaert recalls how The New York Times hawkishly promoted the war during the Kennedy presidency. “The cost is large,” the Times declared in spring 1963. “But the cost of Southeast Asia coming under the domination of Russia and communist China would be larger still.” By 1967, the Times would change its tune, perhaps hoping that its readers had succumbed to amnesia by then.
In the same manner, the Times and other major print and television media outlets, once upon a time, supported the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Recall the sober analyses before the war and breathless cheerleading during the high-speed march to Baghdad. But as liberation gave way to looting, and looting to a “long hard slog,” the media turned against the war they helped promote. A study conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs traces the steady downward spiral of Iraq reporting: in 2003, 51 percent of reports were negative; by late 2003, it was 71 percent; in 2004, it was 84 percent; in 2006, it was a stunning 94 percent.
The American people may be short-sighted, but they aren’t dumb. They know the media’s “build up to tear down” modus operandi. So it’s no wonder that a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 48 percent of the American public say media reports about Iraq are “not mostly accurate,” with another 12 percent unsure.
- In both Iraq and Vietnam, US intervention was fueled by an unrelated event. In Iraq, it happened in Manhattan. In Vietnam, it happened in Munich. Allow me to explain.
For good or ill, 9/11 changed the very DNA of US national-security policy. “Any administration in such a crisis,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis concludes in Surprise, Security and the American Experience, “would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security and hence strategy.” Was deterrence any longer possible? Was containment viable? Was giving repeat-offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt responsible? One by one, the Bush administration answered those questions. And the answer to each was “no,” which is why 9/11 led first to Afghanistan and then to Baghdad.
This is perhaps the most fundamental way 9/11 is linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: The latter did not plan or hatch the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same manner, the appeasement of Hitler at Munich at once had nothing and everything to do with how America responded to Stalin and his followers in Berlin, Korea, Cuba and Vietnam.
- Both Iraq and Vietnam represent local fronts in global wars—the War on Terror and the Cold War. Consider how the National Security Council assessed the Soviets and their communist kin in 1950. America’s enemies, NSC-68 concluded, are “animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, that seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.” The challenges ahead of America, the report warned, “are momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this republic, but of civilization itself.”
Their starting points may be light years apart—Leninism, after all, was an antitheist movement, while bin Ladenism is theocratic—but as bin Laden’s brutish designs remind us, their ending points are identical. In both cases, the enemy is a trans-national ideology that animates states and non-state actors. Lenin’s lies seduced anti-colonialists in Africa and the Middle East, elites in Europe and America, nationalists in Latin America and Asia. Likewise, al Qaeda’s tortured version of Islam transcends race, ethnicity, nationality and geography. The al-Qaeda terror network operates in 60 countries. But no matter where they come from or deploy to, al Qaeda’s killers and their partners in terror share the same objective, which, as former FBI director Louis Freeh plainly put it, is “to overthrow all governments which are not ruled by Sharia, or conservative Islamic law.”
- US intervention in Iraq is—and in Vietnam was—the right thing to do. In Vietnam, we know this because of what followed America’s withdrawal, in Iraq because of what preceded America’s intervention.
In 1975 alone, 130,000 Vietnamese would resettle in the United States. Today, some 2.5 million Vietnamese live outside their homeland. Why did so many flee? It wasn’t just because America or Canada were better. In fact, it was because Vietnam, like Lenin’s other victims, had turned decidedly worse. By 1977, Hanoi had imprisoned 200,000 South Vietnamese in reeducation camps and killed thousands more. Once the Americans were out of the way, Hanoi’s bloody revolution spilled into Cambodia and Laos. Historian Paul Johnson notes that the communist Khmer Rouge (backed by China) drove four million Cambodians from the cities in a mad attempt at collectivization. In the span of 18 months, a million Cambodians were dead, and the middle class in Laos was no more. By 1979, there were 220,000 Vietnamese troops occupying Laos and Cambodia.
As Christopher Hitchens has written, Iraq was “ruined and tortured and collapsing” long before America’s Abrams tanks thundered into Baghdad. “Tortured” is the operative word. Indeed, this is one of the very reasons why Saddam’s regime fell so swiftly. Saddam’s reign turned one of the Arab world’s most prosperous and promising states into a vast torture chamber. John Burns of The New York Times, writing before the war, concluded that “figures of a million dead Iraqis, in war and through terror, may not be far from the mark.” Saddam poisoned and starved his people; he imprisoned children for not joining his paramilitary gangs; he used Iraq’s oil wealth to reward his cronies, destroy his enemies, erect a gangster regime and acquire a vast arsenal of conventional and unconventional weapons. With those weapons he made war on four of his neighbors, killed hundreds of thousands of innocents, terrorized the region, turned the Persian Gulf into a giant ecological disaster area and threatened America.
“Iraq was headed straight for implosion and failure, both as a state and a society, well before 2003,” Hitchens argues. “The United States had to face the alarming fact that a ruined Iraq was in its future whether it intervened or not.”
- Finally, both Iraq and Vietnam triggered a period of self-doubt among Americans. If the post-Vietnam fallout is any guide, this is cause for concern. An inward-looking America is prone to act passively or avert its gaze from the dangers. Again, Kaplan’s words are instructive: “Simply never to get involved anywhere, except in the smallest deployments or in the bigger ones without the absolute certainty of a clean victory, invites defeat by an abdication from the responsibility that comes with power.”