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Vietnam as Analogy (for El Salvador 1981 and Iraq 2007)
August 27, 2007

As widely reported this week, President Bush compared the risks of withdrawing precipitously from Iraq to the circumstances that followed our withdrawal from Vietnam.

This analogy was widely criticized by historians and policy analysts, including Jeffrey Record, a professor of strategy at the United States Air Force's Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama. Record served as a U.S. military advisor in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War, is the author of 1998's The Wrong War: Why We Lost in Vietnam, and has gained a reputation as a general critic of drawing false analogies from historical precedent. (See, for example, his article "Perils of Reasoning by Historical Analogy: Munich, Vietnam, and the American Use of Force Since 1945."

Record has also criticized another element of the Bush anti-terrorism strategy—a failure to properly discern distinctions among various threats—likening it to a similar error U.S. policymakers made during the Cold War:
Sound strategy involves differentiation of threats and prioritizing of enemies. Lumping terrorist organizations, weak states that harbor and assist them, and rogue states together into a monolithic threat impairs the ability to discriminate and risks diversionary applications of attention and resources. During the first two decades of the Cold War, the United States treated communism as a centrally directed international monolith. In so doing, it failed not only to discern critical national antagonisms within the communist world, but also failed to recognize that communist insurgencies in the decolonizing Third World were first and foremost the product of unique local circumstances, requiring tailored rather than one-size-fits-all responses. The result of this strategic myopia was intervention and defeat in Vietnam. Failure to differentiate the threats posed by Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda is, likewise, a recipe for policy failure. (emphasis added)
As I've noted repeatedly here (see my Weekly commentaries for the month of June), the Bush Administration's neoconservatives have tried to analogize El Salvador and Iraq, basically claiming that our "success" in the former would point the way to "victory" in the latter. Not surprisingly, the chain of analogy doesn't stop there.

At the time El Salvador was erupting into a serious policy debate, especially with the change in direction proposed by the Reagan Administration as it took power in 1981 (see my Weekly commentaries for 8-13-07 and 8-20-07), the analogy on everyone's minds was Vietnam (though policy hawks proved incapable of not also referencing their singularly, one might say obsessively favorite analogy: Munich 1939; see the Record article referenced above for a rebuttal of such arguments). But how one interpreted the Vietnam analogy was crucial in determining how one saw the possible risks of military engagement in Central America.

For Democrats, the specter of Vietnam required them to resist presidential adventurism, and to examine critically all administration justifications for a more militarized course. Specifically, Democrats recoiled from the sort of one-size-fits-all anticommunism that Alexander Haig's globalist assumptions represented, believing, as the Carter Administration had, that local circumstances provided opportunities for diplomatic engagement and crisis management, and that a military "solution" risked ensnarling the U.S. military in another "quagmire."

For journalists, the Vietnam analogy prompted a circumspection on the part of government assumptions and justifications regarding the extent of any threat and the need for a military response (though they proved largely incapable of making that circumspection matter in any meaningful degree during 1981).

For the military, Vietnam brought a reminder that any use of troops to defend U.S. interests would need broad public support to sustain it.

But for Haig and others within the Reagan administration, Vietnam had a different resonance. They saw that war as a critical failure of American will, and believed that victory had been prevented because the troops had not been given "permission to win." They also believed that this circumspection about the use of military force was undermining American power, and was inviting Soviet aggression around the globe, specifically in Central America.

The Reagan team also dismissed the Vietnam analogy on the grounds that this time a vital national interest was at stake, since the threat was so close (which also provided the advantage of shorter supply lines, thereby reversing the disadvantage of Vietnam vis-a-vis the Soviets). Some also tried to argue that the Salvadoran rebels, unlike the Viet Cong, were really just terrorists with no support among the population—indicating to some that the Reagan team was as ignorant about Central America as their predecessors had been about Southeast Asia. Much of these objections, however, reduced to "an almost blustery self-confidence that this time we would win" (from William LeoGrande's Our Own Backyard, which goes on to say):
In truth, no reassurance could lay to rest the anxieties unleashed by Reagan's policy, because all the same reassurances had been offered in the 1960s during the early phases of Vietnam and had proved hollow.
But at the bottom of this continuing chain of analogy—from Munich to Vietnam to El Salvador to Iraq—lies an anxiety about American power that has created what Andrew J. Bacevich has referred to as "the new American militarism."

A self-described "Catholic conservative," and a former Army Colonel who served in Vietnam, he takes great pains to emphasize that he believes in the American military; does not equate American militarism with German or Japanese militarism (to cite two examples); and does not believe in a demilitarized foreign policy. But he believes that Americans—both liberals and conservatives, a point he stresses repeatedly—have grown too enamored with the use of military power, in distinct contrast to the republic's founders, who had an inherent suspicion of standing armies.

This reveals itself in several distinct ways:
  • The armed services have come to view military supremacy as the baseline of readiness, and anything less is evidence of falling behind. (In fact, in contrast to the aftermath of all wars up to and even including World War II, there has been no decrease in the size of the American military since the Reagan administration. The "peace dividend" expected at the close of the Cold War was almost immediately compromised by the first Gulf War, and the Bush-Cheney ticket, like Reagan before them, ran on a platform of returning to the armed services the respect and funding they believed the Democrats had undermined.)
  • American policy makers and the public have acquired a "greatly overstated confidence in the efficacy of force."
  • They have also come to equate military power with national greatness.
  • The public, partly in response to a belief that soldiers returning from Vietnam were shunned and abused by citizens, has now reversed course completely, to the point it now romanticizes soldiers, regards them as the nation's best and brightest, and even considers them as group set apart from average citizens as morally superior. (For an example of such reverence, read Robert D. Kaplan's Imperial Grunts, a brilliantly written and often compelling but frequently disconcerting book that not only reveals the American military at its finest, but exhibits an almost fawning admiration for men in uniform (though seldom women, interestingly), with a simultaneous and conspicuous contempt for people who have not shared the military experience—i.e., people like Kaplan himself before he began writing on military matters.)

In contrast, Bacevich argues for a military policy that is "realistic" and "balanced," terms he admits are sadly open to a wide variety of interpretations. However, given how deeply the new militarism has spread throughout the culture—in no small part because so few Americans actually serve in the military, and get their ideas about combat from movies—he doubts that a change in this mindset will come without a severe, if not tragic setback resulting from that militarism. He declines to offer an opinion on whether Iraq will serve as that catalyst, but he tends to doubt it, given the ability again of policy hawks to claim that the war was lost not because of a flaw in policy or military overreach, but because the policy was undermined by Bush administration errors and/or media and Democrat subversion of America's will to stay in the fight.

(For extended interviews with Andrew Bacevich, go to these links: cceia.org and globetrotter.berkeley.edu.)

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