November 1, 2004 © The Center for War, Peace and the News Media.
All Rights Reserved.

Iraq is not Vietnam--it is far worse

By Gareth Porter

WASHINGTON--In the national debate over whether the U.S. occupation of Iraq is doomed, defenders of the current policy insist that the Iraq War should not be likened to Vietnam.

As a historian of the Vietnam War, I agree that Iraq is very different from Vietnam. Prospects for overcoming the insurgency in Iraq are much worse.

In his commentary in the issue of withdrawal recently published in the Washington Post, Newsweek's Michael Hirsh compared Iraq and Vietnam and found reasons to hope for success in the U.S. occupation. In particular, he suggested that Iraqi insurgents have no equivalent to the "charismatic, legitimate leader" that Ho Chi Minh provided for the insurgents in South Vietnam.

This argument is loaded with historical irony. A Foreign Affairs article in early 1966 by an anonymous author (later revealed to be a prominent CIA official) claimed that the Vietnamese insurgents had no political legitimacy because they were "faceless," lacking leaders with any prominence in South Vietnam. 

But the strength of the insurgents' resistance to Vietnam's occupation by U.S. forces had nothing to do with the reputation or "charisma" their leaders. It was fueled by the anger of South Vietnamese peasants toward the oppressive, landlord-dominated Saigon government, and by their determination to expel yet another Western power seeking to impose its will on their country. Similarly, Iraq's armed resistance is driven by the shared anger of Sunni and Shiite populations at the U.S. occupation and the violence and humiliation it imposes on a proud people. 

Another argument in favor of optimism about the Iraqi occupation is that the Vietnamese Communists were more unified and much better armed and trained than are the Iraqi insurgents, and had abundant external material support that the Iraqis lack. But in urban guerrilla warfare, conventional military training and external support are unimportant--decentralization is actually a major advantage. In any case, the Iraqi insurgents have been able to maintain control over large parts of major population centers of the country, something the Viet Cong never achieved until the very end of the war.

Equally off the mark is the argument that an Iraqi government formed under U.S. protection will have more legitimacy than the South Vietnamese government during the U.S. occupation. This comparison ignores the fact that the Saigon regime had already been in power for a decade before the U.S. occupation began in 1965. Over that period, it had been able to build up a very large army and auxiliary military forces that the Communist leadership secretly acknowledged was, in strictly military terms, far stronger than the insurgent forces.

The Saigon regime held uncontested sway in the cities of South Vietnam, except for the brief penetration by the Communists during the 1968 Tet offensive. Moreover, the basic infrastructure of water, electricity and sanitation was intact in Saigon and other cities, and enormous U.S. military spending in the country trickled down to keep urban discontent under control. 

In contrast to the Saigon regime of the 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S.-backed authorities in Baghdad represent a mere shadow of a real government. That regime faces a sea of urban hostility. Its leaders are generally blamed for the chaos, violence and offense to Islam brought by the U.S. military occupation. Furthermore, the United States has failed to restore basic services or provide even minimal employment--unemployment remains a huge problem. That adds to the ferocity of resistance to U.S. forces and their Iraqi clients. 

A far more appropriate parallel with American political allies in Baghdad today is with the puppet Vietnamese regime set up by the French in 1949. That regime had no popular support and an army that the French could not trust. Like the present Iraqi regime after the "transfer of sovereignty," France's puppet regime controlled neither national security nor economic policy.

The real situation facing U.S. military operations in Iraq is so grim that only the most wishful thinkers and hardened ideologues could remain optimistic about imposing a U.S. solution on that country. Indulging in fanciful comparisons with Vietnam should be seen for what it is: a ploy to delay the inevitable decision to set a date for withdrawal.


Gareth Porter is a Foreign Policy In Focus scholar. His book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam," will be published in April 2005 by University of California Press.

© 2004. The Center for War, Peace and the News Media. All Rights Reserved. The Global Beat Syndicate, a service of The Center for War, Peace, and the News Media, provides editors with commentary and perspective articles on critical global issues from contributors around the world. For more information, check out

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