A Follow-Up on Vietnam and Iraq

Twice during the last week, Deacon commented on an article by Phillip Carter and Owen West in Slate, in which they drew a comparison between Iraq and Vietnam, arguing in particular that American casualties in Fallujah were comparable to those sustained in the three-week long battle for Hue.
I can’t speak for Deacon, but, especially given that the Carter/Owen piece appeared in Slate, I assumed that the authors were trying to tar the Iraq war (unfairly, as Deacon argued), with the “Vietnam” brush. Thus, I was surprised and gratified when we got this email today from Owen West:

Powerliners–I just returned from vacation to find some emails questioning an article I co-wrote with Phil carter for Slate magazine comparing Vietnam casualty rates to Iraq. That’s not unusual. A few of my Iraq articles have generated a high response rate. What’s strange about it is that some of the emails are from the right; normally I get killed by the left and embraced by the right. Several cited a critique you men had authored on Powerline so I figured I’d try to clear up the question of intent, assuming we’ll never agree on the statistics.
From what I read on your site, we’re on the same side. I strongly supported the decision to war with Iraq and strongly support our continued involvement. I served in OIF I and am in regular email contact with several Marines. They were in large measure the genesis of the article. That is, they wanted folks here to know how tough the fight is over there. Morale is high, willpower will not fade, and they are doing excellent, necessary work, kicking in opposing teeth whenever they get the chance. But it’s not easy.
The short article tried to relay this opinion: for the individual infantry foot soldier, duty in Iraq, 2004 is risky…almost as risky as duty in Vietnam, 1966. We just do a better job today saving lives. It was not a commentary on the decision to fight the communists in Vietnam (which I believe was the right call). It was simply an attempt, however tiny, to call attention to the fact that our soldiers are in a real “shooting war” and deserve our full support. That’s reflected in the conclusion.
This war will last a long time. I could go on and on about infantrymen (i’m one) not enjoying the same marginal advantage on the battlefield as other specialists (pilots, tankers, ship drivers) but I don’t want to bore you. Vietnam was used as an analogy because it was our last shooting war and because it is lodged in our memory. The men who volunteer for Iraq are every bit as courageous as those who volunteered for Vietnam. Both groups had worthy causes and both groups should be lauded. My father is a member of the latter. I am sorry that many people (made clear in some of the letters your critique inspired) associate the proper noun “Vietnam” with “mistake.” I don’t.
Anyway, we disconnected on this one but it happens. Thanks for your work on the blog supporting the war and the warriors.

Interesting. I confess that my reflexive responsive to the Vietnam analogy, so common on the Left, was negative; but a close reading of the Carter/West article shows that, while less explicit, it was consistent with the perspective West outlines above. Putting aside the statistical issues, on which I think Deacon made some good points, we don’t question for a moment that infantrymen serving in Iraq today are facing conditions every bit as dangerous and demanding as those that confronted their forebears in Vietnam and elsewhere, and deserve every bit as much respect.
DEACON adds: I agree. But the problem isn’t so much that people equate Vietnam with “mistake” as they equate it with “defeat.” Or, as Dafydd ab Hugh put it: “The problem is that, regardless of [Mr. West’s] intent, the meme ‘Iraq = Vietnam’ has been obsessively promulgated by the Left, and to a single purpose: to wrongly taint the word Iraq with failure, as the word Vietnam has been wrongly tainted with failure.” That’s why I felt it was important to contest the suggestion that the fatality levels of the two conflicts are comparable.
UPDATE: Phillip Carter writes:

I’d like to second my friend Owen’s note to you regarding the intent behind our Slate piece (“Iraq 2004 Looks Like Vietnam 1966”).
The point of the article, as summed up in the lead paragraph, was to attempt a cross-generational comparison of warfare so that we could tell today’s warriors that they really are engaged in a tough fight. We intentionally abstained from a number of the more politicized comparisons people have made between the two wars, and from any larger commentary on the war. I think that reasonable people can disagree over our use of the statistics we used, and our methodology. That’s why we stated our numbers and our assumptions up front — so that people could disagree with our methods, and replicate our numbers using factors of their own choosing. The point was to say that today’s combat is not somehow less dangerous because we’re fortunately suffering less casualties. Instead, we are suffering fewer fatalities today because we’ve gotten smart about body armor and forward medical care, partly due to lessons learned in Vietnam. And so, combat today may be just as dangerous as in years past.
I think you all provided some very enlightened comments about our piece, and some worthy critiques. But I object to your reflexive response to the Iraq/Vietnam analogy. For better or worse, Vietnam remains seared in our national consciousness. It’s what many people remember as the last big shooting war for the U.S., where casualties came home to every community in America. We only wanted to relate today’s experience to that historical one, and to show that today’s smaller community of all-volunteer warriors was facing a tough fight too.


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