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Narendran Sairam

Advanced Placement United States History


June 7th, 2010
Mrs. Jessica Bowen
End of year Research Project

The Parallels between the war in Vietnam and the ongoing war in Iraq

It is a well known idea that history repeats itself and the ongoing war in Iraq can be seen as

one example of this. Although staged in completely different times, under vastly dissimilar

conditions, the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq have numerous things in common. Beginning

with the motives for both wars, these similarities extend to include everything from similar assault

strategies, economic results to public opinion voiced by the people for both wars.

The war in Vietnam started out as a way to curb communism. When North Vietnam became a

communist entity, motivated by the idea that if one nation fell to communism others will follow suit,

the United States sent the Military Assistance Advisory Group to prevent the rise of a massive

communist empire in Asia. As part of this assistance effort, the United States sent planes to aid the

South Vietnamese against the Viet Cong and the Military Assistance Advisory Group was to train the

South Vietnamese soldiers in aerial tactics.1

The involvement of the United States was not appreciated by the North Vietnamese and to

show their disapproval, on August 2nd, 1964, three communist boats attacked the USS Maddox which

was a reconnaissance vessel stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin. In response to this provocation,

Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7th, 1964.2 This resolution granted the

president of the United States, who was Lyndon B Johnson at the time, unlimited power and

resources to “take all measures necessary” 3 to keep the communists at bay.

This marked the complete immersion of America in Vietnam. The origins of the war in Iraq

also known as Operation Iraqi Freedom(OIF)4 are very similar in ideology. Before the war began on

March 20, 2003, United States and United Kingdom indicted Iraq with the possession of Weapons of

Mass Destruction (WMDs). In 2002, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1441,
which called for Iraq to completely cooperate with UN weapon inspectors to verify that Iraq was not

in possession of WMD.5 After a through inspection there were no WMDs found but the inspectors

were not able to verify that their threat had be neutralized. With the security of the world in jeopardy,

a multinational force dominated by United States, the policeman of the world, entered Iraq to find

any evidence of WMDs.

It is clear that both, the Vietnam War and OIF have similar motives. While the war in Vietnam

was started to prevent the world from becoming a communist empire, the War in Iraq was started to

save the world from possible destruction. In both cases, a war is started to protect the world from a

threat that might plunge the world into chaos.

Aside from the motives, very close parallels can be observed in the military strategies

employed in the two wars. While the weapons used by the soldiers of the Vietnam War seem

primitive in comparison to the weapons of today, the way the weapons are used is very similar in the

two wars.

There were two types of wars that were waged extensively during both of these wars: ground

based and aerial. The strategy for ground based fighting consisted of two parts during the Vietnam

War. The first part was search and destroy. The American troops hand in hand with the South

Vietnamese troops, based on intelligence provided by aerial reconnaissance, went out and destroyed

opposing Viet Cong forces.6 In the Iraq war, more or less, the same strategy was followed. The

multinational army, led by the United States and United Kingdom, based on aerial reconnaissance

was ordered to search and destroy or at least disarm any WMDs. The second part of the ground

based fighting consisted of reconnaissance. Most of the reliable intelligence that was gathered and

used in the war against North Vietnam was put together by ground reconnaissance missions. Nine or

ten man teams equipped with the revolutionary Nikon SLR 7 cameras (Appendix B) were sent out to

gather information on the whereabouts of the Viet Cong. Surprisingly enough, the same MO is

followed by the troops in Iraq today despite advanced technology like Global Positioning systems
and satellites. Troops equipped with precise and powerful cameras infiltrate areas occupied by

factions like Al-Queda and gather information on potential targets (people) or target sites (WMD

sites). The first Reconnaissance Battalion (Appendix C), part of the 1st Marine Division of the United

States Army played a major role in ground reconnaissance during the Vietnam War and continues to

do so today. 8

As far as aerial warfare is concerned, retired United States Colonel Robyn Read puts it

simply and elegantly when he says that “air power can be grouped into two categories—destructive

action and constructive action.9”. The Air Force in both wars serves two major purposes. One, it is

used to attack and obliterate strategic enemy locations during phase three (Check Appendix A) of the

war and two, it is used to resupply troops and refuel vehicles throughout the war. In 1985, president

Johnson authorized an air force program called the Rolling Thunder. The mission of this organization

was to bomb all the known bases of the Viet Cong. In response to these bombings, the Viet Cong

began designing surface to air missiles or SAMs. These SAMs introduced to the Vietnamese by

Russia were quite effective but were not enough to stop the destruction brought about by Rolling

Thunder. A similar pattern is observed in the war against Iraq. Iraq's air force is considerably small

and consists of approximately 50 aircrafts and about seven hundred men10 and the most common

ways of inflicting damage in Iraq is conventional bombing (the use of massive bombers like the B-

52), So in order to defend themselves against the incoming threat of the allied flights, the Iraqis rely

on SAMs, just like the North Vietnamese. In both cases, after bombings, SAM sites were the first to

be rebuilt. SAM sites were crucial to the survival of the North Vietnamese and Iraqis because they

served as their primary defense against a strong aerial offense mounted by the United States. As far

as the constructive part, the air force is used to primarily resupply the ground troops, transport them

and rescue them. For most of these operations, the United States Military, instead of fast and

destructive jets, used maneuverable and precise helicopters. During the Vietnam War, Bell Company

designed the Bell UH-1 Huey and hoped to sell about 500. Instead about 1500 of these helicopters
were sold and used in the war2. Fitted with high caliber weapons and equipped to transport fifteen

people at a time these aircrafts were perfect for air lifts and drops11. In the Iraqi war, helicopters are

used much to the same end. Helicopters like the Chinook with a bigger passenger capacity and the

Black Hawk with more fire power, drop and pick up troops12. During both wars helicopters played a

crucial role in search and rescue as well. In fact, for 18 hours on April 29, 70 Marine helicopters

evacuated 1,000 Americans and 7,000 Vietnamese from Saigon to aircraft carriers in the South China

Sea. The largest helicopter evacuation in history closed the book on America’s most disastrous

overseas action2. According to a study done by Arleigh A. Burke, in the Iraq War, in 2007 alone over

a million troops had been airlifted from and dropped into enemy territory by helicopter and over six

million pounds of supplies have been dropped to help the ground troops13.

Seeing from the ends achieved by the two wars, it is clear that they both took similar paths. In

both cases, America, allied with other nations, uses its military power to attack a nation that poses a

significant threat to the peace of the world. Land units, relying heavily on ground and aerial

reconnaissance, attacked the Viet Cong in Vietnam and similarly, ground troops led charges against

factions and protected WMD sites based on air and ground reconnaissance in Iraq. The Air Force

also plays a similar and critical role in both cases. While jets and bombers like the McDonnell FH-1

Phantom and the B-52s in Vietnam and the F-22 Raptor and the B-12 in Iraq blasted away at enemy

camps and SAM sites, helicopters like the Bell UH-1 Huey in Vietnam and the Chinook in Iraq

dropped troops and supplies and aided in rescue missions that helped save a lot of lives.

Another aspect of the wars that is similar is the spending and economic policies. The US

government alloted massive spending for both of these wars and for the relatives times at when they

were staged, the wars led the nation into a massive deficit. The fifties and the sixties were marked as

periods of a booming consumerist economy 21. As the war began, factories that manufactured

consumer products began making products for the military22. For example the Dow Chemical

Company, a chemical company that manufactured fertilizers and plastic, began manufacturing highly
effective napalm 23, the hydromatic division of General motors began manufacturing weapons like

the M16 rifle28, The Wyman Gordan company, a company that specialized in forgings, castings and

engines, helped forge titanium bodies for the planes that took part in the bombings of the Rolling

Thunder programs29. This involvement of commercial companies in the war resulted in two things.

Firstly the consumerist attitude began to slowly fade and people began criticizing the governments

economic policies. Secondly, as most of the revenue was channeled to Vietnam, the dollar's value fell

and resulted in inflation. The inflation from 1953 to 1973 was about 2.53% 26. The same thing is

happening today. Many commercial companies are beginning to do projects for the military. In

todays war, two of the most vicious Iraq profiteers are Halliburiton (Appendix D) 24 and Bechtel.

Halliburiton is an oil company based in Houston, Texas that specializes in oil field services and

piping25. The company made 1.72 Billion dollars by fixing bases and laying fueling lines for them in

Iraq 24. Bechtel, a San Francisco reconstruction company was paid 2.4 billion dollars to aid in the

rebuilding of Iraq's fallen infrastructure30. As with the war in Vietnam, all the taxpayers' money

today is drowned in Iraq causing consumers to criticize the American Economic policy and causing

inflation. The dollar, since 2003, has inflated about 2.54% 26, a number startlingly close to the 2.53%

inflation during the Vietnam years.

In both cases the nation went into war with a consumerist face which fell because of the

American's involvement in the wars. As a result of this fall in consumerism, public opinion for the

wars was negative and the value for the dollar fell as money was being pumped out of the country.

Another economic factor that is obvious, is the two economic crises that followed the wars. As

a result of inflation and rising oil prices, the seventies were a decade of unemployment and long

lines at gas stations 21. The recession that the nation is now slowly recovering from is no different.

Overall, the economic policies that America held in Vietnam and holds today in Iraq are very similar

in that a majority of America's revenue was being channeled then and is being channeled now into a

costly war, resulting, initially, in inflation and ultimately in a recession.


As mentioned before, one of the most important similarities between the two wars, is public

opinion on the home front. There are three factors in each war that affect the public opinion:

economic blunders made by the government, military failures and moral and ethical values that were

shattered by some of the troops. While it is true that all wars have some form of opposition, these

two wars were immensely opposed by the public.

The war in Vietnam had a bad start. Even in the very beginning, only a little over fifty percent

of the population was supportive of the war. In fact, even before the Gulf of Tolkin Resolution was

passed and the United States dived into the war head long, people were against it. United States

Merchant Marine sailors protested the use of their ships to aid the Frech exit from Vietnam 27. As the

war dragged on into the economic downhill of the sixties, public opinion of the war took a plunge.

The inflation caused by the war angered the people at home but the events that really snapped the

public were the My Lai massacre and the Tet offensive. The Tet offensive was a series of attacks on

South Vietnam coordinated by the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese military. On January 31st,

1968, the first day of Tet, a day on which cease fire was to be observed, the combined forces of the

Vietcong and the North Vietnamese military attacked five major cities in South Vietnam. Despite the

fact the South Vietnamese and American forces retaliated quickly, the event greatly lowered the

morale of the soldiers and aided the plummeting public opinion curve31. Frustrated by this surprise

attack and the war in general, on the 16th of March 1968, soldiers of the 11th Brigade entered the

Vietnamese village of My Lai and with full permission from superior officers, slaughtered the people

of the village. In 1971, over 150 honorably discharged veterans testified to gruesome war crimes

and John Kerry bore witness to these testimonies. In his report to the U.S. Senate Committee on

Foreign Relations he writes “They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears,

cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut

off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of

Ghengis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the
countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very

particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.” 33 When news of

this barbaric behavior reached the people at home, ripples of disgust and hatred for the war flowed

through the nation32. Owing to these two events, public opinion from the end of 1967 to the end of

1968, dropped a good ten percent (Appendix E).

The failure of the post war economy was all so a source of dwindling public opinion. During

the war, due to excessive government spending and increased production, the US Federal debt

decreased but as soon as the war ended, the Federal Debt began to rise slowly. (Appendix F) this rise

in federal debt, as mentioned before, led to a recession which also contributed to the falling public

opinion.

The current war in Iraq is very similar. Just like in Vietnam a little over fifty percent of the

people thought that the war was worth it, when it started in 2003. Since 2004, the public opinion has

be constantly reducing due to the economic misery bought upon the nation due to increased debt and

loss of jobs, and questionable actions on the part of the troops. Beginning in 2004, reports of intense

physical abuse and psychological manipulation have been filed against many UN officers. One of the

most infamous sites of torture and inhumane conduct is the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq also known as

the Baghdad Correction Facility. These acts committed by the 372nd Military Police Company were

made widely public on April 28th, 2008 and caused public shock. People were appalled at the

atrocities committed by the people that they thought were civilized34. Also, this war was worse for

the nations economy than the war in Vietnam. While the war in Vietnam improved the economy a

little bit, before plunging the nation into a recession, the war in Iraq was bad for the nation from the

start. As of 2008, 522 billion dollars were spent in the war. In addition to that, as a consequence of

the recent recession, over a million jobs have been lost35. This economic pain inflicted upon the

people of the United States and the horrible torture methods inflicted upon prisoners by America

soldiers had the same effect as the post war recession and the My Lai massacre had on the American
public. That is, both resulted in drastic drop in public opinion for the wars and made people strongly

opposed to the war.

While it is easy to see that the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq have some obvious

differences such as in venue and the specific amounts of money spent ion each war, they are have

numerous generic similarities. Some of the similarities that are easiest to see are the motives for the

war, economic problems raised by the wars, assault and reconnaissance strategies and the opinion

held by the public for the wars. As far as motives go, both wars are started in order to protect the

world from serious threats: the United States entered Vietnam to keep communism contained and it

entered Iraq to get rid of the WMDs that Iraq allegedly possessed. The military strategies used by the

United States in both wars are analogous in that both hold ground and ariel based fighting to be

crucial. The ground troops were primarily used for search and destroy missions in both wars and

sometimes were used to gather accurate photographic reconnaissance. The Airforce was also an

essential part of both wars. Playing both constructive and destructive roles, the Air Force, on one

hand, mutilated and maimed enemy sites in both wars and on the other hand, refueled, resupplied

and rescued troops who were in the heat of the war. On the part of the enemy, there is a similarity as

well. Both the North Vietnamese and the Iraqis had a comparitively weak air force and so, in order to

defend themselves from the rains of fire the American bombings bought, they both used surface to

air missiles or SAMs. These SAMs played an exclusive, crucial and important part in the aiding the

enemy of America in both wars. When the progression of the wars is observed, another trait stands

out quite clearly: less than ideal economic conditions. Both wars, led to a decline in economic

conditions and eventually, a recession, due to similar reasons. As more and more of the commercial

business companies of the United States got involved in the wars, the consumerist face of the

American public, at the respective times, frowned at the American government. These economic

disappointments, in addition to quiestionable actions of the American soldiers during both wars,

especially the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the news of the Abu Gharib prison tortures in Iraq,
led to the last similarity: a waning public opinion for the wars.
Appendix A

There are four phases to any given war and they are defined as follows as follows1:
• Phase one: during this phase a crisis is defined and a plan is proposed.
• Phase two: during this phase an upper hand is sought after by assessing the theater and
improving defenses. During this phase a final peace offering is made as well.
• Phase three: during this phase decisive attacks are made. It is essentially a brutal showdown
of forces.
• Phase four: establish civil control, a stable government if necessary and pull out.
Appendix B

Source: http://www.militaryphotos.net/forums/showthread.php?61603-Marine-Recon-Vietnam
Appendix C

http://www.businesspundit.com/the-25-most-vicious-iraq-war-profiteers/iraq-halliburton/
Appendix D

Source: http://www.pollster.com/blogs/IraqWarWorthIt-thumb-600x450.png
Appendix E

60

50

40

Percent of Population that


30 agrees with war.

20

10

0
1965 1966 1967 1968 1969 1970 1971

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opposition_to_the_U.S._involvement_in_the_Vietnam_War
Appendix F

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