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Published on December 6th, 2014 | by Ross Arthur Griffith
Image © In Public Domain.

GIs in Vietnam

The Spectre of Vietnam

I vividly recall in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 someone saying that Iraq could not turn into a quagmire like Vietnam. This was because – and I quote  –  “Vietnam was a jungle which concealed the Viet Cong, while Iraq is a desert; there is no cover for guerrilla warfare”.

Roughly speaking, the War on Terror, with its various sub-genres (the War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War, drones, Syria, ISIS etc) has reached into its fourteenth year. There is no sign of this low-grade conflict coming to an any time soon; indeed, it will probably last for the rest of our lives. For comparison, the active involvement of the US in Vietnam lasted approximately twenty years, with the most intense phases of the fighting lasting under ten.

It is time for a comparison between the Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan Wars. In the US, Vietnam is the subtext and and subconscious demon lurking beneath all discussion and frames the perception of our current quagmire. There are thus two separate discussions here: the role of Vietnam as a ghost that haunts the baby-boomers and must be excised, and an actual compare-and-contrast between the two conflicts. Intuitively, we understand that there are remarkable similarities, yet with a number of quite distinct differences.

Vietnam left deep scars on the American psyche. We lost when we had never lost before; we where defeated by a small, poor, elusive enemy. This had both cultural and political repercussions. In the popular imagination, remorse and misunderstanding reigned over the treatment of GIs returning from Vietnam. Sabotage and betrayal from the left has been insinuated. The acknowledgement that Vietnam was a disaster is confused with ideas over the Cold War and its ultimate meaning and value. The Baby-Boomer generation (roughly those born between 1945-1960) was shaped politically by the twin events of Vietnam and the ’60s counterculture.

Politically speaking, intervention in Vietnam was necessary consequence of the logic of containment and the infamous “domino theory”. However, what started in the late ’40’s and early ’50s as simply a hard-nosed anti-Russia policy turned into an ideological struggle for the fate of the planet. To justify the massive military expenditures that the containment required, a witch hunt was necessary: containment could never be justified by Russian expansionism, it needed a moral imperative of “communism versus capitalism”. Enter the Red Scare. Joe McCarthy, and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Ultimately, trust was lost between “people” and “government”.

The Gulf War of 1996, and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are attempts by the Baby-Boomer Generations (psychologically and emotionally speaking) to reenact the Vietnam War and to get it right. To win. The Gulf War restored America’s military faith itself, yet was incomplete as Saddam remained a festering problem. Again, in a psychological sense, he had to be removed “to win” as it were. The foreign policy discourse behind the War on Terror, namely, neo-conservativism, was itself a product of the Vietnam era. The broad strokes of the logic behind both wars are essentially similar. Both seek to replace one government with another. In contemporary jargon, this is “regime change”.

A case in point would be the “Support our Troops” campaign.  At first blush, this campaign takes the relatively harmless form of bumper stickers. tee-shirts,  and care packages of cookies and hand-woven socks. However, this campaign is both an exercise in pointless flag-waving, and implicitly acts to discourage political speech. By harkening back to the poor reception of soldiers returning from Vietnam (which both those on the Right and Left were responsible for), the contemporary political debate (Does Saddam have WMDs? And does this justify an invasion?) was stifled.

Behind the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan is the neo-conservative fantasy, born of the experience of WWII and reinvigorated by the fall of the Berlin Wall, of American triumphalism; the idea that democracy and neoliberal economics will effortlessly produce a thriving society, regardless of time or place. It is the idea that American power, then apparently at its zenith, should be deployed vigorously to bring peace and democracy to the entire globe.

The experience of Vietnam, the great example of the flaws of neoconservative reasoning, had to be redeemed, to be done right. In this light, September 11th simple offered the justification for setting the gears of “regime change” in motion. A bloated military budget has to be justified somehow.

The actual fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan bears a remarkable number of similarities with the fighting in Vietnam (obviously one does not need to have a jungle to fight a successful guerrilla campaign). There are the same problems characteristic of asymmetrical warfare. Fighting takes the form of ambushes and chronic insecurity (i.e., areas which have been “pacified” quickly become active again). The same frustration that characterised the French in Algeria and the US in Vietnam resulting in torture and prisoner abuse.  There is the same war for “hearts and minds”, the eerily parallel of the training of local troops (“Vietnamization”) to maintain security  and take over combat operations. But these forces never hold in battle, (as has been seen during ISIS’ breakout battles) because they have no actual loyalty to what is effectively a puppet government. This puppet government rules only the capital city, Baghdad, like Saigon.

Overwhelming military force is unable to defeat the guerrilla network. This is largely because there is no opposing military presence: the “terrorist” or guerrilla fighter that mounts the highly ambush, or tosses the grenade into the barracks is during the day a simple farmer or labourer. Western armies attempt to subdue the very sinews of the society itself. Thus these “police-action” interventions into these incredibly poor societies represent an oddly myopic attempt to treat symptoms instead of the underlying problem (which is of course poverty generated by globalisation, ignorance, and corruption).

So asymmetric warfare is similar across decades and continents, and despite advances in technology and changes in ideology. If we accept that a large part of the psychological and emotional motivation (look at the age and background of those making the decision to go to war) behind Iraq/Afghanistan is a reenactment of Vietnam, then we are able to understand that the War on Terror is as much about domestic problems and interests groups in the US than it is about Islamic extremism.

The point I would like to make is that the War on Terror is deeply compromised as an actual war. It is simply not a “war”. It is closer to a propagandistic label (along the lines of “The Great Patriotic War” for Russians) for a complex series of social pressures and policies. The demand and need for oil; the increased activity of the intelligence agencies, the psychological need to redeem America from the Vietnam quagmire, and the need to justify high levels of military spending are all interlinked and “part-and-parcel” to what the War on Terror is really about.

To conclude, I do not discount the threat of terrorism. And far from advocating no action at all, I am insisting we understand the real nature of the treat of terrorism. Terrorism is simply an expression of larger, systemic problems; it is not an enemy that can be defeated in military terms. It is one thing to tighten the inspection of cargo ships, quite another to invade foreign countries, torture, and generally make a mess of things in the name something that is sinisterly ambiguous, like “national security”.

Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Originally from Olympia, Washington State, I am currently an intellectual history MA student at the University of Sussex. What interests me is 'big picture' questions: the area where psychology, economics, history, and politics deeply interact.

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