In 1926 the French surrealist, Rene Magritte, painted an unmistakable pipe and labeled it, in careful schoolboy script: “This is not a pipe.” In 1991 George Bush began a war in the Persian Gulf which, he insisted, was not Vietnam. Iraq, he pointed out, is a desert; Vietnam was a jungle. Moreover, Iraq was not Vietnam because this time the US would win.

It was at this point that Iraq became Vietnam. The difference between Iraq and Vietnam, according to the president and his men, did not lie in their histories, cultures, political ideologies or geographies, but only in what the US had not done to one and would most certainly do to the other.

“Iraq is not Vietnam” embodied the willful, indeed necessary, indifference to the specific historical realities of both countries. To say “Iraq is not Vietnam” insisted that if the US did X, then Y would happen. The US did not do X (what the US purportedly did not do I shall discuss in a moment) and therefore it did not prevail in Vietnam. It would do X in Iraq and would win. The only variable in this system was America — its will, its history, its power.

What do the war makers think they have learned from Vietnam? In their view, the trouble with the Vietnam war was not that the US intervened, but that the US lost. In addition to betrayal by the media and the peace movement, the problem lay in having, as Vice President Quayle put it, “asked [US forces] to fight with one arm tied behind their backs.” [1] Victory in Iraq will serve as a fixative for this lie. Who will ever forget the Iraqi targets in the cross-hairs of fighter-bombers, the endless lines of tanks moving on Iraqi forces, the endless lines of demoralized Iraqi prisoners going the other way? Surely the Vietnamese, faced with similar military majesty, would have surrendered in equal numbers. Who will remember what the Vietnamese actually faced?

In Vietnam, the US military fought with both hands and both feet and all its teeth. There were over half a million American troops, an equal number of regular Republic of South Vietnam forces, and over 60,000 Allied soldiers. The military alone chose targets in South Vietnam and bombing, which began in 1962, continued without presidential interference for the whole of America’s war. In the North, it is true, targets were more restricted. Nevertheless, it is not the case, as Gen. William Westmoreland recently claimed, that the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972 was the only unrestricted bombing of North Vietnam during the war.

Nor is it the case that the 1972 bombing frenzy was responsible for the Paris peace accords. “Just imagine,” Westmoreland muses, “what would have happened if we had used that kind of bombing after our military victory at Tet.” [2] What indeed? The Christmas bombing had no effect on the negotiations; Hanoi had been bombed before. Two years earlier, before Tet, Harrison Salisbury had already reported on the damage to residential areas of Hanoi and Haiphong; the city of Vinh and many other cities and towns were leveled long before 1972, and then the rubble was bombed again. In some areas of the North, people lived entirely underground in the late 1960s, emerging at great risk to transplant and then harvest their rice. “A grain of rice, a drop of blood,” was a common saying. Between 1964 and 1973, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were hit by 15 million tons of explosives, about half dropped from the air — that’s the equivalent of 700 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. This includes 400,000 tons of napalm and 19,114,000 gallons of herbicides. Twenty-five million bomb craters testify to our presence — this on an area one twenty-fifth the size of the United States. On South Vietnam alone, 3,621,000 tons were dropped, another million tons on the North, one and a half million on Laos, one half million on Cambodia. Three tons of bombs were dropped on just one village in Long An province in 1966. The effect on Tet seems to have been minimal, since in 1968, Long An served as the staging area for attacks on Saigon.

Hard Truth

On other words, Vietnam was not spared US military prowess. Short of obliterating the country, it is difficult to see what more could have been done. Such political constraints on the use of force as did occur (the ones usually named are lack of public support and the danger of Chinese intervention) are part of the business of making war. No country wages war in some pure military vacuum where it can act without any constraint other than the might of its weapons. “The hard truth,” Tom Wicker concluded, “is that the [Vietnam] war was lost because it could not be won — not by any military means acceptable to an American public that endured the loss of more than 50,000 lives, untold treasure and its own political innocence.” [3]

President Bush and the military insist that what they have learned from Vietnam is how to fight a war: fast, hard, massive. But the major lessons have been not so much how to fight as how to market a war. Here, of course, media cooperation was essential. Early in the war, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf pointed out that inflated “body count” figures had led many Americans to distrust military press briefings. There would be no body counts in this war. Thus, through over a month of bombing and a week of ground fighting, no estimates of Iraqi losses were ever offered, nor did the press demand them. The result was a televised war relatively innocent of dead bodies; a war that, except for the bombing of the Baghdad shelter and the desperate oil-soaked cormorants, would not spoil one’s dinner. Indeed, the wildlife allegedly destroyed by Iraq’s “ecological terrorism” substituted for images of humans wounded by American bombs.

By the end of the war, it had become possible to believe that the enemy were not people at all, but machines; that the tanks, buses and cars which jammed the highway out of Kuwait City had fled on their own, that their charred hulks contained no human remains. There was thus a purity to the US victory that seems to have successfully masked its savagery.

In Vietnam, reporters quickly learned to treat military press briefings with the respect they deserved: the five o’clock follies, they were called. Reporters understood it was the task of the military to report victory; it was the reporters’ task to find out what was going on. I do not mean to romanticize the role of the press in Vietnam. The overwhelming majority of reporters supported the war, and their criticisms were usually tactical. But those criticisms served as a source of information. Reporters made clear the cavernous abyss between what the US military and State Department wished the public to believe and what they saw to be the case. That abyss was called the “credibility gap.” People began to treat government handouts with an unprecedented degree of skepticism.

The military was careful not to allow this process to recur in the Gulf. “Three Pentagon press officers,” James LeMoyne reports, “said they spent significant time analyzing reporters’ stories in order to make recommendations on how to sway coverage in the Pentagon’s favor.” Reporters who asked “hard questions” were warned that their “anti-military” attitude would count against them. On-camera TV interviews were stopped in the middle if the press officer did not like what was being said; reporters who filed stories on troop doubts about the war found their access to senior military men curtailed and the soldiers themselves were subjected to close questioning by their officers. [4]

In this war, generals, retired generals, admirals and retired admirals were given endless hours of TV time to speculate, point with pointers, describe in sensuous detail the operation of this or that piece of weaponry. The Middle East experts of choice, like the military men, supported the president’s policy. The “other side,” the peace side, received some air time, but in proportions that effectively marginalized it.

Kicking the Syndrome

Vietnam is the negative template for the Gulf war. Discomforting moments in the Gulf can be read back against the past and reversed. One curious example is an account Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf gave of the second biggest weekend in the general’s life (the first, of course, was the launching of the ground war). In August 1965, the general told R. W. Apple, Jr., he had been pinned down at a Special Forces camp in the Vietnamese highlands near Pleiku. “Then a major assigned as an adviser to South Vietnamese forces, [Schwarzkopf] found himself surrounded by thousands of Vietcong and North Vietnamese troops advised by Chinese Communist officers.” Despite “constant pounding of enemy mortar and heavy machine-gun fire” Schwarzkopf and his men held out, albeit reduced to eating rice and fish sauce. In this story, the American is the besieged, but he holds out. Indeed it takes “thousands” of the enemy to pin him down. His presence is explained by the assertion of a matching “alien” force — the Chinese Communists. [5] It does not matter that no history of the war, however pro-American, has ever alleged that in 1965 the NLF and the North Vietnamese had Chinese advisers in the field.

For the past 20 years, many of us have struggled against one and another revisionist version of the Vietnam war. This was important not only because we cared about history, but because we knew that the Reagan and Bush administrations were making an enormous effort to overcome the reluctance of the American public to use military force as an instrument of policy. That reluctance was named the “Vietnam syndrome.” Policymakers once believed it might be cured by small, concentrated doses of military action — Libya, Grenada, more daringly, Panama.

This, finally, is what the Gulf war has been about. As the president put it in a “spontaneous burst of pride” on the day after the ceasefire in the Gulf, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” [6] The humiliation of Saddam Hussein is intended to wipe out the “humiliation” of American defeat in Vietnam. The extent to which the Vietnam syndrome was a form of protection against military adventures was acknowledged by Rep. Dante Fascell, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee: “Right now, there is no ‘Vietnam syndrome.’ It’s behind us. We know now that the American people are willing to go to war and to win. And, in the rest of the world, there is great respect not only for the power of the US but for the Western values that we have been espousing for so long.” [7]

Iraq, it turns out, was not Vietnam after all. It was World War II. It’s there in the iconography, from August through March. First, Saddam Hussein, his mustache a valuable prop, was introduced as the new Hitler. The enemy was not only very, very wicked, he was also very, very strong — fourth largest military force in the world — armed with unspeakable chemical weapons and a multitude of superbly trained troops (all, we now learn, exaggerated). [8]

Kuwait’s 650,000 people stood in for all of occupied Europe and the policy of unconditional surrender was revived. At war’s end, American troops were greeted in Kuwait as liberators, welcomed home as conquerors. Meanwhile, military hardware, whose usefulness and expense a majority of Americans had begun to question, have proved their value and, as a side benefit, the superiority of US to Soviet arms was demonstrated without the unpleasantness of a US-Soviet war.

At the end of World War II, Henry Luce declared the beginning of the American century. At the end of the Gulf war, Ben Wattenberg, of the American Enterprise Institute, welcomed the beginning of the “second American century. We are the most influential nation in history,” Wattenberg boasted, “We’ve beaten the totalitarians of the right, then the left and now the bandits, all in a half century’s work.” [9]

But for all that, Iraq was neither Vietnam nor World War II. It was itself: It was a war fought not to end all wars, nor to make the world safe for democracy, but rather to make the world safe for war itself. “This is going to be the defining moment for America’s role in the world for a decade or more to come,” said Les Aspin, chairperson of the House Armed Services Committee, “How we come out of this will determine whether we can or cannot still call on force to achieve our goals abroad. How we come out of this will determine whether we can or cannot use the United Nations to achieve our goals … It will establish who we can work with, and how.” [10] Or, as Bush elaborated to a reporter: “I think when we say something that is objectively correct — like don’t take over a neighbor or you’re going to bear some responsibility — people are going to listen.” [11]

And if they do not? Recognizing this country’s failing economic health and either unable or unwilling to deal with that, the US leadership has decided that the only way to restore the country to global power is through force of arms. “We owe Saddam a favor,” a former member of Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers was told in mid-October. “He saved us from the peace dividend.” [12] And it will be more difficult to bar the way to future military interventions.

This is only in part due to the success of American arms in Iraq; it is also the result of the undigested meaning of the Vietnam war. For much of Congress and the press, the lessons of Vietnam were that the American public would not for any length of time tolerate an undeclared, unilateral US war with high American casualties. The administration ticked off this list of requirements and met them all: Bush secured the UN support through a combination of bribe and threat, parlayed success in the UN into success in Congress, ignored opinion polls that up to and including the January 15 deadline favored economic sanctions, and launched an unparalleled air war against Iraq. By ignoring Iraqi efforts to negotiate, Bush could deliver to the public a total military victory at very low cost in American lives.

But the shame of Vietnam was the intervention, not the defeat, and not only the intervention but the punishment the US has meted out to Vietnam ever since. The US goals in Vietnam were what we opposed, not the failure to meet them. After the Russian war in Afghanistan, the Soviet foreign minister told his legislature that the government had “violated the norms of proper behavior,” gone “against general human values,” taken the decision for war “behind the backs of the party and the people.” After the American war in Vietnam, President Jimmy Carter said that the destruction had been “mutual,” while President Ronald Reagan assured the nation that it had been a “noble crusade.” No American president or secretary of state acknowledged that the US had invaded Vietnam secretly and deceptively, fighting a war of immense violence in order to impose its will on another sovereign people. Coming to grips with this reality has never been on the check list of prerequisites for renewed military interventions. The barrier against war provided by the Vietnam syndrome, always partial, now is altogether down.

“We won the [Vietnam] war after we left,” Gen. Westmoreland boasted recently. “Today, Vietnam is a basket case.” [13] The US, Tom Wicker has pointed out, “is not really number one in anything but military might, which is not always usable or effective.” [14] The US can destroy Iraq’s highways, but not build its own; create the conditions for epidemic in Iraq, but not offer health care to millions of Americans. It can excoriate Iraqi treatment of the Kurdish minority, but not deal with domestic race relations; create homelessness abroad but not solve it here; keep a half a million troops drug free as part of a war, but refuse to fund the treatment of millions of drug addicts at home. Westmoreland’s dictum may this time be reversed: we shall lose the war after we have won it.


[1] New York Times, January 26, 1991.
[2] New York Times, January 23, 1991.
[3] New York Times, January 26, 1991.
[4] New York Times, February 17, 1991.
[5] New York Times, February 25, 1991.
[6] Maureen Dowd, “War Introduced Nation to a Tougher Bush,” New York Times, March 2, 1991.
[7] Wall Street Journal, March 1, 1991.
[8] Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, chief of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that no stockpiles of Iraqi arms had been found behind Iraqi lines. Wall Street Journal, March 1, 1991.
[9] Wall Street Journal, March 1, 1991.
[10] Washington Post, January 20, 1991.
[11] New York Times, March 2, 1991.
[12] New York Times, October 16, 1990.
[13] New York Times, January 25, 1991.
[14] New York Times, February 27, 1991.

How to cite this article:

Marilyn Young "This Is Not Vietnam," Middle East Report 171 (July/August 1991).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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