Monday, August 21, 2006

Iraq and Vietnam

An entire cottage industry of blogs has sprung up that try to compare Iraq to Vietnam, from any number of political perspectives. Iraq is another quagmire; Iraq, like Vietnam, will be lost by the antiwar protesters; Iraq isn't even close to being Vietnam because we've had far fewer troops killed so far.

Most of it is noise. There are ways in which the two wars are comparable, but it's not the common ones you keep hearing.

While there is a rational argument to be made that Iraq is an unwinnable mess given our current resource allocation, the fundamentals of the situation bear little resemblance to Vietnam, where South Vietnam faced an insurgency/invasion backed by a dedicated nation state that was itself supported and protected by the Soviets and Chinese. That's far more resources and force than this insurgency will ever be able to apply.

Losing the war at home
This is a common trope, but it ignores two things.

1. Coverage of antiwar protesters tends to increase support for any given war, since many people are turned off by the often anarchic tactics of such protesters.

2. Policy and opinion shape each other. If a war is going well, antiwar protesters would be marginalized. If a war is going poorly, they gain credibility. The protesters themselves don't sway opinion very much; they are more a symptom than a cause of falling support.

Casualty rates
Comparing casualty rates is silly, as if every conflict carries the same geopolitical interest, or as if it's not worth complaining until we've flushed X number of lives down the rathole.

The only calculation that matters is this: Are our objectives achievable at an acceptable cost. That calculation is different for each conflict, turning as it does on the importance of the conflict and the scope and achievability of the objectives.

"They will have died in vain"
The silliest argument of all for reinforcing failure. We've already had people die in this war; if we pull out now we'll be saying they "died in vain."

In Vietnam we lost 58,000 soldiers -- not to mention the million or so dead Vietnamese combatants on both sides -- and lost. In the simplest analysis, we could have achieved the exact same result at far lower cost had we pulled out after the first advisor was killed back in the 50s. Arguably the result would have actually been better, because we would not have staked our national prestige on the conflict and not have had to endure the disintegration of our armed forces that followed Vietnam.

I'm not saying we should pull out every time the going gets rough. I'm merely trying to point out the absurdity of casualty comparisons or the "died in vain" argument. Using that logic, 58,000 people died in vain in Vietnam. Had we pulled out earlier, tens of thousands of people *wouldn't* have died in vain.

So what are the parallels to Vietnam? This: Both wars had at best a murky connection to any compelling national interest, were entered into without building and sustaining public support, undertaken with inadequate planning and fought with a flawed strategy.

As Churchill learned in the Dardanelles campaign during World War I, reinforcing failure merely creates an even bigger and bloodier failure. The relevant question here isn't "have we bled enough". It's "is our objective achievable at acceptable cost."

Given our refusal to sent sufficient troops to actually achieve our objectives, I think the first question is more relevant than the second. We have already decided there is a cost we are not willing to pay; and given that, our objective is not achievable.

And you can't blame the Dems for this one.

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