Friday, August 24, 2007

How similar are Iraq and Vietnam?

In a very interesting rhetorical move, President Bush recently invoked Vietnam and its legacy as a reason for the United States to stay in Iraq. Of course, comparing Iraq and Vietnam isn’t all that original; critics of the war have been using the “V” word to attack Bush’s open ended military commitment to an apparent quagmire from the very beginning. The following is the first installment of a series of blog entries comparing the two conflicts and how the comparison affects the popular debate about the war in the United States.

The national crisis in Iraq and Vietnam were both the product western/imperial attempts to do what was “best” (best for the maintenance of imperial influence) for the respective people of those nations. On the ground, however, these arrangements manifested themselves in very different ways, differences which are crucial to understanding the nature of the conflicts. Although both situations are the products of their imperial legacy, the differences on the ground far outweigh the similarities.

In Vietnam, the country was artificially partitioned, first by the French, and then again after WWII by the United Nations with the support of the United States and the Soviet Union. Predictably, the struggle to unify what had been artificially divided manifested itself in the form of Vietnamese nationalism through Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, and its inheritor organizations, the North Vietnamese Army and the National Liberation Front. Although there were ethnic and political differences within these organizations, the Vietnamese largely viewed the struggle as an expression of their nationalistic desire to expel the French and the Americans by overthrowing their puppet, the South Vietnamese government.

In the case of Iraq, the situation is almost exactly opposite. The country was artificially unified under one government with the support of the winners of WWI. Iraq’s government historically has been either subordinate to or heavily dependent on a foreign imperial power, whether it was the Ottomans or the English. Internally, the country has been subject to ethnic and religious tensions between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis and has often been a pawn in geopolitical chess matches between England, France, Persia (Iran), Turkey, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The result is that the Iraq has never been a “nation” in the true sense of the word and Iraqi governments have either been grafted onto the landscape by foreign powers or have been the product of coups (often with foreign support) and ruled in spite of the population not because of it. Therefore, Iraqi nationalism barely exists and is not a significant factor in the conflict.

The absence of Iraqi nationalism makes the respective wars very different. In Vietnam, the lines between those who supported the South Vietnamese government and those who didn’t were very clear—there were two sides to the conflict, either you supported a unified Vietnam, or you didn’t. The situation in Iraq is infinitely more complicated. There is no equivalent to the NLF in Iraq. Instead there are dozens of localized militias and political groupings with conflicting agendas, many with foreign patrons, who spend as much time fighting each other as they do fighting the American occupiers. Although some of these groups support a unified Iraq, they have different visions of what “Iraq” should look like ethnically, religiously, and politically—a secular plural society, a Sunni dominated caliphate, a Shia dominated Islamic Republic, or some permutation in between. And of course, many do not support a unified Iraq, preferring ethno-religious based partitions.

In both Iraq and Vietnam, the United States has put itself in the very awkward and unenviable situation of defending a government which lacks popular support, and in both situations the United States has continued to commit troops until this government is stabilized, which could mean indefinitely. The nature of the insurgency, however, is so dramatically different that to argue Iraq is “another Vietnam” is deceptive and detrimental to understanding the situation.

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