American Enterprise Online
April 8, 2004
By Alan W. Dowd

Spinning military setbacks into political points, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) has concluded that “Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam.” The images and headlines of the last ten days seem to support his contention: “Anarchy across Iraq,” howls one headline; “US Troops Fighting on Two Fronts,” squeals another; “Iraq on Verge of Civil War,” gasps still another. In fact, echoing the senior senator from Massachusetts, guerilla leader Muqtada al-Sadr just announced that "Iraq will be another Vietnam for America and the occupiers."

With due respect to Sen. Kennedy--and none at all to Sadr--the parallels to Vietnam don’t hold up. This guerilla counterattack may be bloody; it may be worrisome; but it is simply not a 21st-century Tet. Saddam’s leftovers and Sadr’s fanatics have no superpower supplier or patron, no safe havens, no popular backing. In fact, according to a Gallup poll, almost two-thirds of Iraqis say liberation from Saddam’s rule is worth the temporary privations of the U.S.-led occupation. An American Enterprise Institute-Zogby poll found that, in stark contrast to what the ghoulish scenes in Fallujah tell us, almost three in four Iraqis want Baath Party leaders punished; and fully 60 percent oppose an Islamic government in Iraq of the sort Sadr would install.  

Of course, polling numbers are of little comfort to US Marines and soldiers as they slog it out with those Iraqis who refuse to embrace a future where disagreements are settled by ballots rather than bullets.  

For their part, the American people are not yet fatigued by what the senator’s older brother might have called “a long, twilight struggle against terror.” Indeed, it’s possible that by this time next year, Sen. Kennedy’s Vietnam comparison may sound as silly (and politically motivated) as that of the Republicans who warned that Bosnia and, later, Kosovo would be Bill Clinton’s Vietnam. 

But that outcome is far from certain. Whether or not it is devolving into another Vietnam, Iraq is decidedly not what most US political and military leaders expected it to be a full year after the liberation of Baghdad. With pockets of Iraq exploding into full-blown combat and US troops dying at a drip-drip rate of about two a day (and sometimes by the dozen), the “peace” has proven more bloody and difficult than the war. As the editors of National Review cleverly put it last summer, “postwar is hell.”  

Yet this is a job that the US military can do. It specializes in going to hell and back. Indeed, the troops are making progress on the road from terror and tyranny to stability and peace. But it takes time and treasure—and blood. Some 620 Americans have died and another 3,400 have been injured since the long-paused war with Saddam Hussein resumed in March of 2003. The offensives and counter-offensives now underway in the southern half of Iraq promise to bring more casualties.  

By post-Vietnam standards, these casualty figures are incredibly high. Of course, by pre-Vietnam standards, they are mercifully low. That’s largely because America prosecuted its wars quickly and almost bloodlessly in the shadow of Vietnam. After Vietnam, the American people demanded short, painless wars. And the Pentagon delivered, each mini-war conditioning the American people and their political representatives to expect less blood and less sacrifice than the previous conflict. Thus, America’s wars came to be measured in weeks or days or even hours, not years. They were limited and quarantined within clear geographic boundaries. And the loss of American life could often be counted on one hand, minimizing the impact on the general population.  

This war is different. It began long before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, long before September 11, long before we knew we were in it. And it will take a long time to win. This war cannot (and should not, for that matter) be confined within the tidy boundaries on a map or waged from a safe distance. Terror regimes like Saddam’s Iraq and the Taliban’s Afghanistan have to be taken down at close range, and so do their stateless partners in the terror trade, lest we wish to relive that awful Tuesday morning in 2001. By fighting the enemy on his soil, the US armed forces are protecting ours. That’s what they are sworn to do. As Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld has explained, the mission of the US military is “first, to protect the homeland.” In an Age of Terror—when mass murderers scramble to build weapons of mass destruction and maim US cities—fulfilling that mission requires sending America’s sons and daughters to wage war in faraway lands. They must not fight and die in vain, but they must fight. 

Surely, Sen. Kennedy appreciates this.  

As we are learning in Iraq, this is a conflict that blends all the killing and suffering of traditional warfare with all the tension and uncertainty of cold war to produce something different—a colder, harsher strain of conflict.  

In this way, in the very newness of this “colder war,” Iraq is more reminiscent of Korea than Vietnam.  

In the autumn of 1950, after the US-led coalition’s stunning success at Inchon, liberation of Seoul, breakout from Pusan, and sweep toward the Yalu River, the end of the Korean War was in sight. But then something unexpected happened, as so often does in war: The Chinese launched a massive counterattack across the Yalu and from secret hiding places throughout North Korea. By winter, the US-led force was in full retreat and thrown back across the 38th Parallel, portending the beginning of a long, bloody stalemate—on the peninsula and indeed around the world. 

Like Korea in the century past, Iraq is a microcosm of a global war. Then, as now, success or failure hinges as much on the bravery of American troops and the deftness of American diplomacy as on the endurance and patience of the American people and their elected representatives. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed long before America cared a wit about Indochina or the Korean peninsula, “Among democratic nations, the private soldiers remain most like civilians; upon them, the habits of the nation have the firmest hold and public opinion has the most influence.”  

Both Korea and Vietnam validated de Tocqueville’s observation, and so will Iraq. We just don’t know which way. That’s up to the American people to determine.