The Magazine

The Incurable Vietnam Syndrome

Distorting our foreign policy for three decades and counting.

Oct 19, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 05 • By MAX BOOT
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President George H.W. Bush thought that after the victory in the Gulf war we had "kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." How wrong he was.

The syndrome was on full display during the 1990s, when pundits and politicos rushed to compare American interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo, which resulted in no American casualties, to the worst military defeat in our history. Announced a military analyst in the Los Angeles Times on June 3, 1995: "If you liked Dien Bien Phu, you'll love Sarajevo--this policy is nuts." The analogy industry really hit overdrive in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq. "Echoes of Vietnam Grow Louder," a Newsweek headline ominously proclaimed on October 29, 2003. The next month, a New York Times article began, " 'Quagmire,' 'attrition,' 'credibility gap,' 'Iraqification'--a listener to the debate over the situation in Iraq might think that it truly is Vietnam all over again." Howard Dean certainly thought so. He told Dan Rather, "We sent troops to Vietnam, without understanding why we were there     and it was a disaster. And Iraq is gonna become a disaster under this presidency."

Iraq was difficult, but hardly an irretrievable disaster and certainly not a Vietnam-size disaster. After six and a half years of war, the United States has lost over 4,300 service personnel in Iraq--a sobering and substantial figure but still 13 times fewer fatalities than we suffered in Vietnam. Just as important, all indications in Iraq are that we are winning.

But, rest assured, a history of being consistently wrong has not deterred all those Boomers who came of age in the 1960s from once again evoking the specter of you-know-what to warn against involvement in Afghanistan. Actually the "Afghanistan as Vietnam" meme is hardly new. The late R.W. Apple Jr. of the New York Times notoriously wrote a front-page article with that very headline on October 31, 2001. In portentous Times-speak, Apple wondered:

Could Afghanistan become another Vietnam? Is the United States facing another stalemate on the other side of the world? Premature the questions may be, three weeks after the fighting began. Unreasonable they are not, given the scars scoured into the national psyche by defeat in Southeast Asia.

He was right about one thing: The questions were premature. A few weeks later the Taliban government was toppled. Thereafter we were spared "Afghanistan as Vietnam" tropes until the comparison returned with a vengeance amid the Taliban's gains this year. Newsweek kicked things off with a cover article on February 1 on "Obama's Vietnam." More recently, retired general and erstwhile presidential contender Wesley Clark wrote in an op-ed in the New York Daily News, "The similarities to Vietnam are ominous." Senator John Kerry, who seems to mention Vietnam in every other breath (did he have some connection to the conflict, one wonders?), proclaimed on October 1, "The fact is that we've been through this before. You know, in Vietnam, we heard the commanding general on the ground saying we need more troops. We heard the president of the United States say if we just put in more troops, we're going to see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Barack Obama, however, hasn't been saying anything about light at the end of the tunnel. The president, who (mercifully) came of age after the Vietnam war, seemingly put the kibosh on these mindless comparisons on September 15 when he said, in response to a question, "You never step into the same river twice. And so Afghanistan is not Vietnam." Yet the evocation of Vietnam keeps cropping up among the president's aides and supporters, who warn, as E.J. Dionne did in an October 5 Washington Post column, that involvement in Afghanistan could harm the president's domestic agenda as badly as the Vietnam war harmed LBJ's Great Society. It has been widely reported that the "must read" book in the White House now is Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam by Gordon Goldstein, a study of the Kennedy-Johnson national security adviser and his role in the war. And a Times of London correspondent wrote on September 24 that "one senior official" in the White House, while speaking to him, "introduced the word 'Vietnam' into a discussion of Afghanistan."