Iraq is Vietnam in reverse: Parallels exist, but the order is different

November 15th, 2004
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Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the French withdrawal from Hanoi. The last Foreign Legionnaires, Germans dragooned from postwar PoW camps, sang Lili Marlene as they boarded ship at Haiphong. The U.S. Marines who roared into Iraq last year–volunteers all–blasted Metallica from loudspeakers mounted on their tanks and helicopters.

With the fighting in Iraq intensifying following George W. Bush’s re-election, we can expect another round of comparisons between the two conflicts, replete with the usual cliches concerning quagmires, humanitarian catastrophes, losing hearts and minds, and politically untenable casualties.

We, too, believe Iraq is much like Vietnam, but it’s unfolding in reverse.

Vietnam began as a sleepy, agrarian, independent monarchy. It then suffered (French) occupation, rebellion, partition, humanitarian tragedy, more foreign intervention (American) and civil war before falling under a totalitarian movement that oppressed its people, massacred unbending minorities and invaded its neighbour. Finally, Vietnam degenerated into a creepy, retrograde oligarchy bypassed by the wider region’s emerging prosperity. There it remains.

Modern-day Iraq began where Vietnam is today–as an impoverished, parochial oligarchy. Iraq then metastasized into a totalitarian dictatorship that invaded its neighbours, gassed minorities and crushed internal dissent. Later, it experienced a brief civil war and de facto partitioning. Most recently, it was invaded and came under foreign occupation.

Today, Iraq is roughly where Vietnam was 55 years ago, when the French were battling the Viet Minh. If history continues to unfold in reverse, Iraq’s troubles may ease, and it might gradually emerge as a peaceful, independent country.

The French army’s offensive in 1847 ended Vietnam’s 900-year-old independence. France’s retreat 107 years later, and Vietnam’s official partitioning, triggered a humanitarian tragedy.

Iraq suffered its own atrocities and humanitarian tragedies well before last year’s invasion, including the gassing of the Kurds, the ruthless suppression of the southern Shiites and Marsh Arabs, and the exiling of a staggering 20 per cent of Iraq’s 24 million people. All under Saddam Hussein.

By contrast, the refugee camps set up in Jordan for the U.S. invasion remained unused, and millions of Iraqis have returned home.

Vietnam was a B-list player in the great corpse countdown of the 20th century. Still, the Black Book of Communism estimated Vietnam saw perhaps one million deaths over 50 years. The political blood really started gushing as the French were ejected.

Here, too, Iraq’s history is unfolding roughly in reverse–Saddam’s worst slaughter happening in the 80s and 90s. When the U.S. invaded, the bones of Saddam’s countless victims were in the ground. Mass graves have since revealed 300,000 to 400,000 victims.

Obviously, no analogy is perfect, and history isn’t predetermined. Will Iraq come to mirror Vietnam’s distant past, progressing into relative peace? We hope. One thing Iraq isn’t doing is unfolding just like Vietnam, as so many of Bush’s critics claim. Individual aspects are similar, but their significance and, above all, their order, are different.

Vietnam’s partitioning followed an international conference. Three countries were mandated to supervise an orderly division–then-Communist Poland, non-aligned India and Canada.

Not surprisingly, Polish and Indian monitors leaned shamelessly toward the Viet Minh, costing many innocent Vietnamese their lives. Far less well-known is Canada’s role. Vietnamese-Canadians who lived through this period recall that Canada was weak and ineffective in protecting civilians and aiding their safe movement to their chosen zone.

Saddam’s systematic corruption of the UN’s oil-for-food program and the UN’s complicity in its own debauching are well-known to readers of the Calgary Herald and other CanWest publications. Constant, then, is the international community’s eager self-abasement before dictators. So is the stance of Canadian Liberal governments, who see moral equivalence everywhere and regard multilateral process as more important than the outcome.

The “inevitable” victory of socialism in Vietnam was anything but, for recent scholarship and the testimony of refugees suggest North Vietnam was on the verge of collapse even as American resolve evaporated.

If the Bush administration stays the course in Iraq, it may succeed in replacing a horrific tyranny with a functioning constitutional republic. If it wavers, the reverse-ordered-history we observe may yet turn around, and Iraq could indeed go the way of Vietnam.

Calgary Herald

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