VANTAGE POINT: Analogies at War: Comparing Iraq and Vietnam

Talk of a U.S. exit strategy in Iraq inevitably raises familiar, unflattering comparisons to Vietnam. But looking back at America's intervention in Vietnam can be valuable, especially since the major challenge facing the United States is to establish a stable and powerful Iraqi military to provide a secure environment for nation-building.

Specifically, the U.S. Army's initial unwillingness to integrate South Vietnamese soldiers into their military plans, and their later inability to motivate them to take over the fighting, tells us what to avoid in Iraq.

The old Iraqi army fell apart in April 2003 as American soldiers marched on Baghdad. As the insurgency grew and American casualties mounted, the Coalition Provisional Authority started putting the army together again. Many of the same soldiers came back to sign up—it was only at the higher levels that officers were purged in the de-Ba'athification process. Both Iraq and the United States have an interest in strengthening a purely Iraqi force.

Although the U.S. Army is keen to have Iraqi forces take over the thorny tasks of establishing order and defending the country's borders, Washington wants to leave the region in friendly and reliable hands. A transfer of responsibilities to a stable Iraqi army would ease the political pressure on the Bush administration. More important, it would greatly enhance the legitimacy of the government that the Iraqis finally elect. Yet how can the New Iraqi Army establish order when the Americans haven't?

President Bush calls the comparison of Iraq with Vietnam a "false analogy" and accuses those who use it of sending the wrong message to the enemy and to the troops. Likewise Congressman Richard Baker calls the analogy "wrong, disturbing and dangerous."

In fact, Vietnam does not make for a good comparison with Iraq—but the differences are informative. The most striking difference between the two situations is in the sequence of war and nation-building. In Vietnam, the United States attempted nation-building under the South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem's administration for nearly a decade before intervening directly with ground troops; in Iraq, a short and overwhelming display of force preceded nation-building. Moreover, the Americans were facing a much stronger adversary—including an organized army—in Vietnam.

Beginning in 1969, the Nixon administration implemented its policy of "Vietnamization": withdrawing U.S. troops while simultaneously turning over to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) the fighting and the pacification efforts. By 1973, the ARVN was the strongest army in Southeast Asia, boasting more than a million soldiers and toting the most advanced weaponry, thanks to U.S. Army programs such as Enhance and Enhance Plus. However, unimpressive performances during the joint U.S.-ARVN incursion into Cambodia, Operation LamSon719, and the 1972 Spring Offensive testified otherwise. Finally, on April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to communist forces. Where did Vietnamization go wrong?

From the entry of American ground forces in 1965, South Vietnamese forces were made to feel marginalized in defending South Vietnam. This was mainly due to the U.S. Army's belief in the 1965-69 period that the South Vietnamese troops were essentially irrelevant to victory or defeat. Not only were the ARVN equipped with inferior weapons, underpaid and given poor housing compared to their American counterparts, they were relegated to so-called pacification missions. U.S. soldiers had more respect for their enemies, the Vietnamese communist forces, than for their allies in the ARVN and the Regional/Popular Forces (RF/PF) whom they referred to as "Ruff-Puffs." Training and communication were beset with linguistic, social and cultural barriers. By the time the ARVN started replacing U.S. soldiers in 1969, it was too late to induce the South Vietnamese to adopt what had come to be regarded as U.S. strategic goals, rather than South Vietnamese ones.

Now, in Iraq, a window of opportunity is still open for Americans. According to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the United States wasted the whole first year in half-hearted attempts to create effective Iraqi military and police forces. The bulk of the army is made up of soldiers who were fighting Americans a few months ago. Ethnic and religious divisions among the men, and their legacy of service under an autocrat, make it difficult for them to attain modern professional military standards. However, the Iraqi people are much less distrustful of the New Iraqi Army (NIA) than they are of occupying U.S. forces.

The Multinational Security Transition Command, set up late last year, must focus on the NIA's esprit de corps. It is not too late to incorporate and integrate Iraqi forces in strategic planning and operations, so that they have a stake in securing a stable Iraq. Otherwise, the Iraqi army will soon be overwhelmed by the size and hostility of the growing insurgent menace.

The Vietnam analogy has too often been deployed in times of political conflict in the United States. But the comparison can be useful. If we learn the right lessons from the mistakes in Vietnam, we need not be condemned to repeat them in Iraq.

The authors are pre-doctoral fellows at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, which is part of the Stanford Institute for International Studies. Lien-Hang Nguyen is pursuing a doctorate in history from Yale University, and Karthika Sasikumar is pursuing a doctorate in government from Cornell University.