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Has the United States Forgotten the Lessons of Vietnam in Its Occupation of Iraq?

Vietnam and Iraq: Contrasts and the Lessons

The United States of America waged a War of Choice, not of Necessity (Foradori et al., 2007). The claims of weapons of mass destruction have been discounted, the Orwellian claims of military democratization and liberation are still on test but one thing remains clear: that the lessons learnt during the Vietnam war clearly parallels the Iraq case and that the Bush administration has not placed due importance on the Vietnamese syndrome in foreign policy making.

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Despite arguments that attempt distance the experiences in the Iraq occupation and the Vietnam occupation, there are striking similarities that are currently driving the rethinking and eventual withdrawal of troops from Iraq soil. Against the wishes of the American public and the world at large to strike at Iraq, the Bush administration went ahead with the, dangerous, preemptive and infamous war (Schulzinger, 2006). The 9/11 attacks and the Weapons for Mass Destruction (WMD) euphoria acted as a stimulus for invasion. History attests to the fact that initially the Iraq invasion was but a continuation of American foreign policy interests. As such the liberation was not misconceived but mismanaged in the execution of a sound American doctrine of world supremacy and the unfinished Saddam Hussein equation during the Gulf war.

Conventional battle was won with much ease by April 2003 further confirming that America’s military supremacy had never been lost (Lynch et al., 2008). In military terms the war was but a brief affair that progressed to marked cessation of hostilities and installation of a democratic government to fill the post Saddam regime exit. However, the shadow of the war remains cast in form of military insurgency, uncertainty and political disorder (Danchev et al, 2005).The subsequent occupation which was against historical justice has proved that turning our backs to Vietnam lessons could at times be deadly, destabilizing and a direct affront to foreign policy. The facts on the ground attest that there are parallels between the invasion of Iraq and that of Vietnam. The continuous unforeseeable and utterly uncontrollable events buttressed with no WMD stockpiles and the spreading democracy through militarization calls for a rethinking of whether the Vietnam lessons are being ignored or simply disregarded as historical theatrics (Clark, 2005; Holmes, 2007).

Many of those who have been following the experiences in Iraq reiterate that an analogy exists between the Iraq war and the Vietnam War. The Iraq invasion has created another quagmire that is more complex than had earlier been envisioned. To extricate itself from the complex the war calls for an analysis of policy objectives and the long term effects of long term occupation on the foreign policy of the United States in Iraq, the Middle East and the world at large(Record et al, 2004). The Vietnam’s syndrome entry into the Iraq war was nothing but inevitable since the lessons from Vietnam continues to drive policies and public opinion on any use of military use of force abroad. To determine whether the lessons learnt in Vietnam re of any consequence to the Iraq war, it is prudent that a succinct contrast and similarity analysis between the two wars be carried out.

In the 1960s, Vietnam was a relatively stable country with a national identity that had been forged by centuries and centuries of fierce and successful military resistance to any foreign imposed rule, military occupation or domination. It such fierce resistances the Vietnamese has engaged western forces in a long and protracted irregular warfare through nationwide mobilization of peasant force and well conscripted forces. In Vietnam, nationalism and identity was firmly rooted in communist ideologies (Solheim, 2006). On the other hand, Iraq was a comparatively younger state overburdened with ethic and religious warring factions who threatened national security.

At the time of invasion the Vietnamese has a highly skilled, disciplined, experienced and operationally superior forces who were supported by external forces. Iraq politically isolated forces were militarily inferior to the superior U.S. war machine. Because of this the Vietnamese were able to engage the United States war machine in an insurgency that progressed to conventional warfare. The Iraq forces went the opposite direction. From a conventional conflict to the highly isolated, uncoordinated and scattered insurgency attacks punctuated with assassinations, ambushes, car bombings and sabotage against the U S and allies forces. The nature of the war also varied greatly, the Vietnamese waged a sophisticated, peasant based, centrally coordinated Maoist style insurgency that operated on three fronts. Moreover, the Communists had a clear antagonistic political, social and economic agenda to that of the United States. The Iraq insurgents had no political or ideological agenda that could marshal support and nationwide rebuttal of the United States attacks (Record et al, 2004).

In the Vietnam era, the extent of military action was restricted by the congress for fear of Soviet or Chinese military rebuttals. Excessive use of force on Vietnam could have led to a catastrophic mutual exchange of nuclear annihilation between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 2003, the United States enjoyed uncontested world military supremacy free from the fear of any military challenge. The extent of military deployment and loss of life is clearly incomparable to the Iraq war however; the war in Iraq is still far from resolution unless the new government puts into place policies that forestall any repetition of the Vietnamese syndrome (Solheim, 2006). The Vietnamese lessons are therefore only applicable on the political standpoint because they represent some pertinent lessons and warnings of eminent military failure if certain elements in American ideologies and world opinions are not adhered to.

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Two questions of legitimacy and sustainability of the war in Iraq are cases that are firmly analogous to the Vietnam case. Just like in Vietnam where they tried and failed to establish a legitimate government in South Vietnam, an indigenous, legitimate and democratic government created in Iraq is untenable if it is not supported by the Iraqis. The Vietnamese equation was but an American Cold War creation that war economically, politically and militarily dependent on the United States during its twenty year history. The Communists in their ideological expansion claimed that the Saigon state; created by the United States, was illegitimate.

The South Vietnamese tried in vain to defend their non communist political creation but with no success. Initially and through out the war, the Americans supported them to the extent of inevitable withdrawal after which they were left for themselves. The war proved to be politically and economically unsustainable in the end. The Iraq may soon become politically and economically unsustainable in the long run. With the increasing casualties and occupation financial burden that have surpassed $200 billion, the congress and public tolerance of the war will dissipate (Sculzinger, 2006). With no substantial direct foreign policy or economic benefits, the United States war machine will pull out and the Bush administration will shoulder the blame for not scrutinizing the Iraq invasion through the Vietnamese lens.

So long as the Americans occupy Iraq, the people will not develop the national identity reminiscent of a self installed government. The insistence on maintaining the soldiers in Iraq will only lead to further escalation of violence and sabotage attacks. Such developments are against the foreign policy and only occur because the bush administration failed to apply the lessons of the eight year occupation of Vietnam that led to the downfall of the South Vietnam puppet government.

Wars impact on the psychological, psychiatric and social functioning of soldiers and their families. From the Vietnam to Iraq, the similarities cannot be ignored. Protracted and enduring wars simply reduce the chance of recovery from post war trauma when veterans come home. While immediate reactions of the September 11 attacks were akin to the Vietnam War, the Iraq war has only served to heighten fears that post war trauma for war veterans will be worsened and yet findings were well available for policy makers (Scurfield, 2006). Additionally, in 2004, Journalist, Seymour Hersh released a detailed report of the level of mistreatment and torture of prisoners akin to the Vietnam War (Kassimeris, 2006).

While America continually fights for peace and respect of human rights, how then could such atrocities of war be repeated when Vietnam had so much of such unwelcome memories? (Sculzinger, 2006; Blight et al., 2005). Apart from physical injuries, potential suffering from repeated exposure to depleted uranium and the prevalent psychological damage. Just like psychological analysis of Vietnam veterans, soldiers from Iraq are suffering from stress related disorders (Presbey, 2005).

Historical Justification for the Use of Force in Foreign Policy in the Post Vietnam Era

From the post Vietnam era when American nationalism was deeply centered on the annihilation of the evil of communism by use of military force, the American leadership with the support of the military force regularly ordered military intervention on states that were Moscow’s sympathizers and proxies. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan employed military force in Grenada to and succeeded in overthrowing the pro- Cuban communist forces who had seized power. As a result Reagan boldly reiterated that they had brushed the Vietnam syndrome aside and affirmed that the American military power was superior and that it could be used to block any communist expansionism or expressionism in the Western hemisphere. Even though many countries criticized the United States for an act of aggression, the Grenada invasion; though of limited scope, marked the reemergence of Vietnam-like military intervention as a primary tool in United States foreign policy after ten years of post Vietnam inhibition of military force. (Barthomees, 2004)Just like Richard Nixon in then Vietnam military operations, Reagan could not be prevented from military occupation by legal constraints.

The Americans appreciated this success but the Nicaraguan military intervention presented a different scenario where the military had to fundamentally re engineer the politics of revolution in Nicaragua or risk being drawn into a quagmire analogous to the Vietnam invasion in the mid-1950s. When Bush senior assumed office, the Panama Canal became the next stop in propagating militarization of U.S. foreign policy. Unlike earlier revolutionary antics, Manuel Noriega was still on the CIA payroll but because of disrepute and the United States fear of embarrassment as they tried to install democracy in Panama, the Panamanians were urged and militarily empowered to overthrow him.

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The results that accompanied the overthrow were not like the Vietnam like quagmire and once again the American government succeeded to wish away the Vietnam syndrome. In 1991, the Persian Gulf War raised post Vietnam United States military intervention problematic issues. To offset his critics, the Bush Senior administration campaigned for public support and congressional approval that was predominantly built around giving the explanation as to why the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq was a threat to American foreign policy interests as well explaining that the circumstances were entirely unlike those in Vietnam (Borer, 1999).

For instance, during the invasion of Vietnam, the country was by and large a civil disorder between factors that struggled to control the government while Kuwait was basically a victim poised against an external aggressive force whole sole intention was territorial expansion. While the war in Vietnam was about creating a legitimate government, in Kuwait they attempted to restore the legitimate government (Barthomees, 2004). The political atmosphere also determined and constrained the extent of military force that could be applied in Vietnam. In the Kuwait situation, maximum force could be applied over a short period of time to guarantee a quick success. The Bush administration which was mainly constituent of Vietnam heroes convinced the public and the congress that they were going to use the lessons learned from the Vietnam defeat to launch a more successful operation and liberate Kuwait from Iraq invasion and subsequent occupation. When victory was achieved, President Bush Senior remarked that at last the United States of America had succeeded in kicking the Vietnam syndrome by winning the Gulf war.

Just like earlier successes, the Gulf war success only served to prove that the United States could employ military force in pushing for their foreign policy interests abroad so long as the president had rallied popular support for such an operation. However, the vast differences between these wars were never highlighted and so the Saddam Hussein problem remained largely ignored with primary focus being put on the transition from protecting Saudi Arabia(Operation Desert Shield) to liberating Kuwait(Operation Desert Storm)(Record et al, 2004).

Unlike in other revolutionary antics, the installation of a new government in Iraq was ignored for fear of a progression to a Vietnam-style occupation. Three questions seemed to drive the option of withdrawing the American troops. In case they were to establish a government, then who will constitute such a government? Would the Iraqis just like the Vietnamese rebel against a government installed by foreign occupiers? What would such a move do to the United States Middle East credibility? At the same time it was not certain whether the American populace would financially support such a massive and extended operation. Failure of getting a clear and substantive answer to these questions led to the decision to completely withdraw troops after the victory had been assured. The Vietnamese experience shaped the withdrawal and installed a lasting influence on foreign policy making(Barthomees, 2004). However, the Saddam Hussein equation still lingered on.

Arguments over the ideologies of communism socialism and capitalism have largely diminished but public support and congressional approval remains salient simply because each and every war must pass the Vietnamese lens scrutiny. A notable case is the 1992 Somali case where internal domestic disputes and clan wars had threatened food distribution network leaving millions and millions of Somalis with the prospect of imminent starvation. However, after the initial success, the United States forces became embroiled in the internal disputes between the warring factions causing the death of eighteen soldiers.

President Clinton ordered the withdrawal of troops to avert the re emergence of the Vietnam syndrome. Just like in Bosnia, these served to keep alive the Vietnam experiences in the minds of the public and in the hearts of the American policy makers. From such an analysis it can be favorably argued that through out the post Vietnam invasion the Americans have largely kept faith with the lessons learned in Vietnam in addition to the variant amalgam of lessons learn from each and every military intervention. The main lesson being that a legitimate government imposed by a foreign military occupier can not guarantee peace and stability unless the citizens of that country create it themselves(Record et al, 2004).

The New Government and the War in Iraq: Righting the Wrongs

Continued occupation and support for American policies in the Middle East and in Iraq specifically stems from the belief that military occupation is the only option of pushing for American policy interests and ensuring the continued supply of cheap oil from the Gulf(Clark, 2005). While many Americas are wary of a long term stay into the Iraq soil, there is an innate agreement among the American people that stability in the Middle East is a prerequisite to continued flow of oil into the United States. Complete withdrawal could only be seen as an invitation to an economic suicide. However, this insistence on the economic suicide theory is but a dud since the Middle East is almost solely dependent on oil as their major source of revenue and in any case they will have to seek a market for that natural resource(Briody, 2004; Clark, 2005).

Another economic argument that serves to buttress an American presence in the Iraq is the notion of fighting terrorism and ensuring that those who support terrorism and terrorist acts either through policy frameworks or through financial support need to be prevented from doing the same. Additionally their presence ensures support of oil infrastructure from terrorist attacks(Crane et al., 2005).

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The changed political landscape that has been stimulated by the successful election of the Democratic Party nominee President elect Barrack Obama is bound to change the situation in Iraq. President Obama opposed in the invasion and occupation of Iraq because he believed that the war would divert America’s attention on more pertinent issues like the war in Afghanistan and winning the war on terrorism and terrorist acts. As the next president of the United States of America, policy makers are prepared for a drastic and dramatic shift from the troop surge that signaled the ,end of the Bush era and a scheduled and quick withdrawal of troops from the Iraq soil.

This move is supported by the need to establish a timeline(six months according to the president elect) in which the military forces in Iraq will be withdrawn, refocus troops to the fight against terrorism with the sole purpose of completely destroying Al Qaeda and its terror networks, encourage free trade and investment between the Middle East countries and the United States of America and most importantly follow the example of the Gulf war. The U. S. should also acknowledge that in their spread of democracy and democratization of states , they cannot in any manner impose liberal democracy by establishing a legitimate in Iraq that is not supported by the Iraqis.

However, abandoning Iraq is not as easy it seems because it must entail a structured and gradual withdrawal of troops that not only respects the political atmosphere but also scuttles the Islam fascists claim to victory. Abandoning Iraq without a long term solution might create a training ground for Islamic extremists and fundamentalists. Such a move is likely to be detrimental to United States security and stimulate a new wave of radicalization of Islam. The move to withdrawal should only be tenable when the Iraq forces have built the capacity to contain the Islamists and guarantee security to US security and economic interests(Gaffney, 2006).

In the interest of American foreign policy in the Middle East and the world at large, military occupation of Iraq must be ended possibly before the quagmire degenerates into a more unpleasant and embarrassing situation. Moreover, long term presence of American garrisons in Iraq not only creates more dissent due to foreign occupation but also undermines the legitimacy and credibility of the democratic government. Just as in Somalia and Bosnia, the continued presence of the American troops will only increase their chances of being embroiled in ethnic and religious feuds. While it can be argued that their presence prevents the escalation of war between religious and ethnic factions, it only serves to suppress these emotions of discontent instead of offering any real long lasting solution to the domestic dissent or rebellion(Ricks, 2003). Resources at waste in Iraq could then be used to respond to genuine security threats elsewhere. Ever since the war in Iraq began its escalation, the financial burden and the loss of lives to the United States citizens have been enormous(Lynch, 2008). There is need to revisit the main objective of invasion of Iraq. At the beginning of the war, Marc Grossman the undersecretary of State and Political Affairs was quoted saying that the United States operation of Iraq was only to liberate the Iraqis from continued dictatorship and oppression by Saddam Hussein and neither was the United States interested in occupying or taking control of the Iraqi economic resources (Allawi, 2007). Long term occupation is simply economically unsustainable.

List of References

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  3. Blight, G. James., Lang M. Janet. (2005). The Fog of War: Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara – p.199
  4. Briody, Dan. (2004). Halliburton Agenda: The Politics of Oil and Money. From Vietnam to Iraq. John Wiley & Sons Inc. p. 142
  5. Borer, A. Douglas. (1999). Superpowers Defeated: Vietnam and Afghanistan Compared. p.112
  6. Clark, R. William. (2005).Petrodollar warfare: Oil, Iraq and the Future of the Dollar.p.110-134
  7. Crane, H. Edward, Boaz, David.(2005). Cato Handbook on Policy. Cato Institute
  8. Danchev, Alex., Macmillan, John. (Eds). (2005). War and Democratic Politics
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  10. Foradori, Paulo.,Rosa, Paolo., and Scartezzini, Ricccardo. (Eds). (2007). Managing a Multi Level Foreign Policy: the EU IN International Affairs. p. 127-129
  11. Gafney, J. Frank. (2006).War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War For a Free World. p. 28-30
  12. Holmes, Stephen. (2007).The Matador’s Cape: America’s Reckless Response to Terror. p. 228
  13. Kassimeris, George. (2006). Warrior’s Dishonor: Barbarity, Morality and Torture in Modern Warfare. p. 12-17
  14. Lynch, J. Timothy. (2008). After Bush: The Case for Continuity in the American Policy.
  15. Presbey, M. Gail. (2007). Philosophical Perspectives on the “War on Terrorism.” p. 186
  16. Ricks, Thomas E. (2006). In Iraq, Military Forgot Lessons of Vietnam. Early Missteps by U.S. Left Troops Unprepared for Guerrilla Warfare. Washington Post, 2006; Page A01
  17. Record, Jeffrey., Terrill, W. Andrew. (2004). Iraq and Vietnam: Differences, Similarities and Insights.
  18. Scurfield, Raymond. M. (2006). War Trauma: Lessons Unlearned from Vietnam to Iraq.
  19. Schulzinger, D. Robert. (2006). A Time for Peace: The Legacy of the Vietnam War. p. 199-203
  20. Solheim, O. Bruce. (2006). The Vietnam War Era: A Personal Journey. p. 192

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"Has the United States Forgotten the Lessons of Vietnam in Its Occupation of Iraq?" StudyCorgi, 25 Oct. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "Has the United States Forgotten the Lessons of Vietnam in Its Occupation of Iraq?" October 25, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "Has the United States Forgotten the Lessons of Vietnam in Its Occupation of Iraq?" October 25, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Has the United States Forgotten the Lessons of Vietnam in Its Occupation of Iraq?" October 25, 2021.


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