Vietnam and Iraq

Since the beginning of the Iraq war, parallels between Vietnam and Iraq have been popular subjects of conversation, news analysis and scholarship. Google Vietnam and Iraq together, and there are more than 40 million hits.

The war zone parallels don’t work very well. While in both wars, the U.S. military found difficulty in adjusting to the notion that gains in territory don’t produce victory, there are few other similarities. The terrain and climate are different. The U.S. weaponry is dramatically different.

But if there are few comparisons between the two wars out in the field, the same does not hold true for the policy making that led to those wars. In both cases, ignorance, deceit and arrogance plagued the process.

It is possible, for instance, to read the Pentagon papers, the compilation of documents that spelled out how the Vietnam war was made, without finding a hint that U.S. officials ever understood that by partitioning Vietnam between north and south, they were cutting the north off from its food supply—the rice bowl of the Mekong Delta. No nation could tolerate such a thing, yet U.S. policy makers didn’t even know they were doing it to Vietnam, they just blundered in and wreaked havoc.

That ignorance extended to the culture of Vietnam. When the United States installed a Catholic dictator over a Buddhist nation, it intruded into the religious culture of Vietnam. Sound familiar? When Buddhists reacted to the dictator’s repression with protests and self-immolations, an astonished President Kennedy said, “Who are these people? Why didn’t we know about them before?”

Vietnam was also characterized by deceiving the public. Sound familiar? One director of the Saigon office of the U.S. Information Agency, John Mecklin, was told in 1962 to portray the war as “something less in reality than it is” so that the public would not understand the cost or consequences of involvement. Those who insisted on reporting the facts saw their patriotism questioned. The U.S. government informed the public of attacks at sea by the Vietnamese on U.S. ships, one of which turned out to be imaginary. The government never informed the public of earlier U.S. attacks on Vietnam that provoked the clash at sea.

Most of all, to ignorance and deception was added arrogance. In Vietnam, as in Iraq, U.S. officials kept talking about the messianic U.S. mission in the world, of forcibly showing other nations the wisdom of our ways. Even some critics of involvement in Vietnam were unable to let go of this zealotry. Robert Kennedy spoke of “our right to the moral leadership of this planet,” as distressing a comment as John McCain’s Pax Americana in Iraq—"use of [U.S.] power for moral purpose,” McCain calls it.

The world has no need of our moral leadership, particularly since our immoral use of power in so many nations is there for all to see. We, on the other hand, have much to learn from the rest of the world, and this zealotry gets in the way. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once said the U.S. Peace Corps served the useful purpose of letting affluent young Americans learn from Indian villagers, the exact opposite of the purpose U.S. officials gave the Corps.

Our nation cannot learn from our mistakes or from the rest of the world until our officials abandon their arrogant and offensive view of the United States as messianic moral leader.