discomfort (2007-02)


Is there anything to the comparisons?

by Steve Dupree

Despite the frequent comparisons, Iraq is clearly not Vietnam. There are, of course, the obvious differences, which include the fact that South Vietnam is largely tropical rainforest, while Iraq consists largely of deserts and the fertile lands around and between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. (Some have claimed that the area between these two rivers is the location of the biblical Garden of Eden.) Dust storms are the bane of Iraqi weather, and I'm told that for many, the monsoon season in Vietnam is nearly unbearable.

Other easily discoverable, but largely unknown to geography-challenged Americans, differences are physical size and population.  During the height of the Vietnam war, the population of the country was somewhat less than 20 million. Iraq, on the other hand, had near 25 million at its last reliable census/estimation. Iraq is roughly two-and-one-half times the geographic area of South Vietnam. In fact, Iraq is much closer in size to the state of California than it is to the old nation of South Vietnam.

So yes, they are very different places, and these are very different wars. Why then, do we insist on making said comparisons? For the same reasons that scientists still do preliminary medical research on mice, rats, pigs, dogs and monkeys. Even though they are different from humans, there is still enough similarity so that much can be learned, and humans might be spared some measure of pain and suffering that would result from having the experiments carried out on them. 

Unfortunately, there seems to be a downright aggressive refusal among the national (mis)administration to learn any of the lessons that a study of the history of the Vietnam conflict could teach us. Our army was far superior, in my best opinion, to the army of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong; however, they had more willingness to accept casualties. I strongly suspect that this was because they believed they were fighting for their nation and their freedom, so largely on the determination of their insurgents, the Viet Cong, they were able to prevail over the superior force. (This really isn't so different from the conflict that was undertaken to establish our own nation. Our local insurgents prevailed over a superior force by using guerrilla tactics, subterfuge, terror, international assistance and tacit, if not overt, local support.)

The situation in Iraq is different, but there are enough of the same elements to derive some pretty important lessons, if only we were willing. One important comparison of the two conflicts that I put off making involves the size of the U.S. force in each. Even though South Vietnam was by far the smaller of the two countries, in 1968 we had roughly 540,000 American service people in country. Five hundred forty thousand! In Iraq, with much more land area and a significantly larger population, there are approximately 140,000 troops there currently. Feel free to ask current and Vietnam-era troops and officers if they think that current soldiers are four times better. 

So the big save-the-war plan is to add 20,000 to 30,000 troops in Iraq. Wow. Someone really believes that having one-third the number of Vietnam troops instead of one-fourth is going to make all the difference in the world. Allow me to add my voice to the chorus of those who would disabuse you of that illogical and unreasonable notion. What we are talking about here is the equivalent of the population of the city of Knoxville, Tenn., without the county, being tasked with the job of pacifying an area the size of California. It works out to little more than one Knoxvillian per square mile. That could work OK, so long as the Californians wanted to be peaceful. But since they have about 210 folk per square mile, there would be little chance of us controlling them against their will.

There could possibly be a specific operation that could benefit hugely from the addition of 30 thousand troops. However, if they are to be added to the general troop population, you would need to multiply them by a factor of 20 or 30 to see significant impact, and even then I would be skeptical of our national willingness to continue watching and supporting the maiming and killing of those whose primary crime is a willingness to serve their nation.

The surge you hear the Bush (mis)administration speaking of will be a surge in American funerals, a surge in wheelchair sales, a surge in the prosthetics manufacturing industry, a surge in published papers on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It will hopefully be a surge in Americans who are finally willing to ask “why” and not accept meaningless platitudes and outright lies as an answer. It will surely be a surge in disappointment at what passes for leadership in America.

Everyone who is in favor of that, raise your hand (and swear the Oath of Enlistment).