The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Iraq v Vietnam: the analogists are at it again!

Another example of the art of the creative historical analogist brings me back to the topic.

In the CSM of August 27 we are given a very helpful checklist showing how Iraq is not Vietnam. (Naturally, that comparison is so odious that any war supporter would strive officiously to distinguish them.)

Amongst the telltales suggested are
The Vietnam war was fought in rice paddies and difficult jungle terrain. The continuing conflict in Iraq is confined mainly to the urban areas.
In Vietnam, the US fielded a valiant, but conscript Army. In Iraq, the volunteer US forces are better trained and experienced, with a new generation of wonder weapons.

Wonder weapons, huh...

Now, fighting the temptation to be picky about factual accuracy - I'd always thought the technology gap in Vietnam was pretty large - one can identify at least a couple of problems straight off the bat:
  • at the purely military level, different doesn't necessarily mean easier - my understanding was that the great fear of US generals was that their Iraqi counterparts would drag them into dangerous and unpredictable urban fighting. (Though, of course, the numbers of Iraqis currently engaged in attacks against US/UK forces are vastly smaller than peak VC/NVA numbers.)

  • the political effect of military outcomes is likely, to judge from recent experience, to be much different - crudely, the body-count and deployment size thresholds for serious US political opposition to operations in Iraq are much lower than applied to Vietnam.

The assumption seems to be that it takes Vietnam numbers to produce the dreaded quagmire - and, the reasoning goes, since we don't seem in any danger of approaching Vietnam numbers any time soon, the quagmire threat can be dismissed as Weasels' Wishful-thinking.

Not to deny that there is a good deal of that about. But, I suspect, rather more on the side of the war-backers. As, for instance, in the CSM piece, which gives its recipe for quagmire avoidance:
First, support at home for the US effort in Iraq must not weaken...
Second, security must improve....
Third, reconstruction must accelerate...
Finally, Iraqis must step up to their responsibilities...

Get this guy some ruby slippers, stat!

Now, not all historical analogies are bunk - provided one accepts that they function not as the pier of a bridge but as water-tension, capable of supporting only the lightest and nimblest water boatmen (that's an analogy that needs work...). An analogy that purports to illuminate with the brilliance of a searchlight the whole field (or its main part) of a subject is likely to be a crude and embarrassing oversimplification, necessitating distortion of the facts of both the principal subject and that to which it is purportedly analagous. An analogy which purports to shed a pale and indirect light on a tangential element is, I would suggest, more likely to be of genuine help.

Try this one on for size: currently, the BBC are dribbling out their excellent 1964 Great War series; and, it seems to me, one of the key lessons one can draw from that war is the fact that any situation can become normal, however far removed from the previous state. Even by Christmas 1914, the numbers mobilised and casualties suffered were, I'd suggest, at levels that were never contemplated a year before by the populations engaged.

Looking back, the losses suffered in the war are now as inconceivable to us - from memory, around 750,000 British dead, 1.4m French dead. And yet the war machines in the main combatant countries (except Russia, of course) held together till the end despite the monstrous casualties; and, perhaps even more amazing, the political institutions in the democracies of France and the UK held together too.

(Recall that, in Britain in 1914, there had been the fairly imminent prospect of civil war over Irish Home Rule - thanks to Edward Carson and his Scots-Irish friends, as well as unrest over women's suffrage and bitter labour disputes. One word from the Kaiser, however, and these factions united to turn their ire towards him [1]. Some sort of message there for PNAC boys, perhaps?)

Neither pro-war nor anti-war folks can be assured that the current givens - acquis is the EU-speak term - will hold: on current evidence, US voters have a low acceptability threshold for US casualties - had the Najaf bomb casualties been US troops, one wonders whether the calls for withdrawal would already have started. But, with the increasing investment of US cash and prestige into the country, with the Sunk Cost Fallacy swinging into operation, we may find that threshold rising to accommodate the numbers of casualties being suffered.

As the song says, you never can tell....

  1. Mostly. There was a deal of pacifism in the Labour Movement (Ramsay MacDonald was in that camp, for instance), and the Pankhursts were split on the war.

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