Guest Column: Iraq and Vietnam

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President George W. Bush, one of the two most famous pro-Vietnam War members of his generation to avoid fighting in that war, has finally accepted what he previously rejected: that there are parallels between the war he ducked out of and his violent occupation of Iraq. (The other best-known famous pro-war war avoider is Vice President Dick “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service” Cheney.)

Unfortunately, Bush has learned a far different lesson from Vietnam than many others have. “Whatever your position is on that debate [about how we got into the Vietnam War and how we left], one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields.’” Others have already corrected Bush’s predictably bad history. The killing fields of Cambodia began long before the United States exited Vietnam; American carpet bombing, starting in 1969, killed as many as three-quarters of a million people and created the opportunity for the murderous Khmer Rouge eventually to rule the country. Moreover, innocent Vietnamese were being slaughtered every day that the United States sustained the war.

Bush’s remarks betray a deeper misunderstanding of history. What he didn't learn from Vietnam is this: One good reason for not invading a country is that the invasion itself will create conditions that make leaving problematic. Occupation creates its own quagmire.

No one who thinks clearly about the matter actually believes that if the United States pulls out of Iraq, it will turn into a tranquil island in the troubled Middle East. Iraq was an artificial country created by Great Britain after World War I; when the British left, it took Sunni strongmen, including Saddam Hussein, to keep it unified by suppressing the Shi’ites and the Kurds. When the United States toppled Saddam’s government, the Shi’ites and the Kurds had their chance to get out from under the dominant Sunnis. There were scores to settle. The turmoil that has gone on ever since was predicted by war opponents. It was even predicted by the first President Bush and his war cabinet during the Gulf War in 1991, including his secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, who understood that invading Baghdad and overthrowing Saddam would have left the United States with the problem of trying to manage the unmanageable. In a 1994 interview with C-SPAN, Cheney defended the decision not to overthrow Saddam’s regime. “What are you going to put in its place?” he asked. He said regional instability would have followed with “pieces of Iraq fly[ing] off. It’s a quagmire.” The Bush administration in 1991 asked, “How many additional Americans is Saddam worth?” and it answered, “Not very many.” Cheney added, “I think we got it right.”

In light of this, it is outrageous that George W. Bush and Cheney use the prospect of chaos as a reason for the United States not to withdraw. They apparently now think staying in the quagmire is worth more American—not to mention Iraqi—lives. Why? They will point to terrorism, but once we realize that the invasion, occupation, and continued violence have recruited terrorists in record numbers, as even the U.S. government admits, this reason turns to dust.

The U.S. government cannot police other countries’ internal conflicts. It is an impossibility—especially in the Middle East. Staying in Iraq means more casualties for as far as the eye can see. So why stay? To forestall the casualties that would occur if the United States were not there?

There is at least one parallel between Iraq and Vietnam that holds up. In both cases, American presidents continued to send young men to kill and be killed long after the policymakers knew—or should have known—their political objectives were beyond reach.

There is going to be violence in any case. Let’s at least make sure the blood is not on American hands.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation ( and editor of The Freeman magazine.

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