The Vietnam Analogy

SYNOPSIS:

Iraq isn't Vietnam. The most important difference is the death toll, which is only a small fraction of the carnage in Indochina. But there are also real parallels, and in some ways Iraq looks worse.

It's true that the current American force in Iraq is much smaller than the Army we sent to Vietnam. But the U.S. military as a whole, and the Army in particular, is also much smaller than it was in 1968. Measured by the share of our military strength it ties down, Iraq is a Vietnam-size conflict.

And the stress Iraq places on our military is, if anything, worse. In Vietnam, American forces consisted mainly of short-term draftees, who returned to civilian life after their tours of duty. Our Iraq force consists of long-term volunteers, including reservists who never expected to be called up for extended missions overseas. The training of these volunteers, their morale and their willingness to re-enlist will suffer severely if they are called upon to spend years fighting a guerrilla war.

Some hawks say this proves that we need a bigger Army. But President Bush hasn't called for larger forces. In fact, he seems unwilling to pay for the forces we have.

A fiscal comparison of George Bush's and Lyndon Johnson's policies makes the Vietnam era seem like a golden age of personal responsibility. At first, Johnson was reluctant to face up to the cost of the war. But in 1968 he bit the bullet, raising taxes and cutting spending; he turned a large deficit into a surplus the next year. A comparable program today the budget went from a deficit of 3.2 percent of G.D.P. to a 0.3 percent surplus in just one year would eliminate most of our budget deficit.

By contrast, Mr. Bush, for all his talk about staying the course, hasn't been willing to strike anything off his domestic wish list. On the contrary, he used the initial glow of apparent success in Iraq to ram through yet another tax cut, waiting until later to tell us about the extra $87 billion he needed. And he's still at it: in his press conference on Tuesday he said nothing about the $50 billion-to-$70 billion extra that everyone knows will be needed to pay for continuing operations.

This fiscal chicanery is part of a larger pattern. Vietnam shook the nation's confidence not just because we lost, but because our leaders didn't tell us the truth. Last September Gen. Anthony Zinni spoke of "Vietnam, where we heard the garbage and the lies," and asked his audience of military officers, "Is it happening again?" Sure enough, the parallels are proliferating. Gulf of Tonkin attack, meet nonexistent W.M.D. and Al Qaeda links. "Hearts and minds," meet "welcome us as liberators." "Light at the end of the tunnel," meet "turned the corner." Vietnamization, meet the new Iraqi Army.

Some say that Iraq isn't Vietnam because we've come to bring democracy, not to support a corrupt regime. But idealistic talk is cheap. In Vietnam, U.S. officials never said, "We're supporting a corrupt regime." They said they were defending democracy. The rest of the world, and the Iraqis themselves, will believe in America's idealistic intentions if and when they see a legitimate, noncorrupt Iraqi government as opposed to, say, a rigged election that puts Ahmad Chalabi in charge.

If we aren't promoting democracy in Iraq, what are we doing? Many of the more moderate supporters of the war have already reached the stage of quagmire logic: they no longer have high hopes for what we may accomplish, but they fear the consequences if we leave. The irony is painful. One of the real motives for the invasion of Iraq was to give the world a demonstration of American power. It's a measure of how badly things have gone that now we're told we can't leave because that would be a demonstration of American weakness.

Again, the parallel with Vietnam is obvious. Remember the domino theory?

And there's one more parallel: Nixonian politics is back.

What we remember now is Watergate. But equally serious were Nixon's efforts to suppress dissent, like the "Tell It to Hanoi" rallies, where critics of the Vietnam War were accused of undermining the soldiers and encouraging the enemy. On Tuesday George Bush did a meta-Nixon: he declared that anyone who draws analogies between Iraq and Vietnam undermines the soldiers and encourages the enemy.

Originally published in The New York Times, 4.16.04