Senator John Kerry has been comparing the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and indicating that they are very similar; his conclusion is its time to get out. Not for the first time, Kerry is dead wrong. There are indeed similarities, but — not withstanding what we read and see in the media — there are important differences as well. Let me offer a blunt appraisal. It is not regarded as polite to mention it — almost no one does — but most of the grunts in Vietnam were draftees; in Iraq, they all volunteered.
On the Vietnam Memorial in Washington are about 58,000 names; in Iraq, the total number of KIAs is lower than the number of Americans killed on 9/11.
Those are pretty big differences. As for the similarities, they do, as I said, exist — but they don't bolster Kerry's case for withdrawal. The central similarity is that both wars were defensive efforts against a global foe. We were right to fear the expansion of totalitarian Communism. We lost that battle — actually the South Vietnamese Army lost it two and a half years after we disengaged — but we won the war. Wars, after all, are won by the party that triumphs in the final showdown: The Soviet Union has disappeared, and its satellites deorbited. In Iraq, our foe is jihadism, which likewise seeks global domination. To think that they can't achieve this against a technologically superior West is simply a failure of imagination: One terrorist with a smallpox virus might be able to wipe out half a population.
Another similarity has to do with our domestic politics. President Lyndon B. Johnson lost no opportunity to explain why we were in Vietnam: from major speeches to arrival and departure statements for important visitors. I was on his staff from mid-1966 to the end, and at parties and dinners in Washington I would repeat the president's rationale with gusto. Many times, people would respond, "Gee, I wish LBJ would explain it that way." Sound familiar? President George W. Bush always talks about Iraq — yet we keep hearing the same line: "Why doesn't he explain the war?" With the exception of one paragraph (on the "ownership society") Bush's Second Inaugural was entirely devoted to the rationale for the war. It's worth reading: a magnificent speech, right in the American grain, one that will be remembered for as long as liberty is an issue on this planet. And the rationale has not changed.
Like Vietnam before it, the Iraq war is often blamed on "neoconservative" ideologues (or their counterparts then) which is to say, people who think the game of purveying liberty is worth the candle of commitment.
In both wars, critics asked: "What's the plan? What's the exit strategy?" And in both cases, the appropriate answer was: Dunno; we'll have to play it by ear and see what develops in the fog of war.
In both wars, much of the media coverage was crazed. My Lai involved a few hundred people, Abu Ghraib fewer than that. But these events dominated news coverage, which tended to ignore the larger meaning of what was going on.
In both wars, we were told our actions would hurt us in the eyes of the world. And so they did. Unfortunate. But we ended up as the exceptional nation, Number One, more influential than any nation in history, the City on a Hill, hearing anti-American language which boiled down to "Yankee go home and take me with you."
The basic truth about our mission in Iraq is the same as that about Vietnam: We're doing something important and positive in the world.
Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He served on the LBJ White House Staff and is the author of a forthcoming book tentatively titled "Persuasive Neocon: Tales That Explain the Mindset Shaping America and the World."
By Ben Wattenberg
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online