Getting Away from the “Quagmire” Cliché

Many Americans look no further into their past than the Vietnam War for instructive analogies about Iraq. They had better search further.

While comparisons of Iraq with Vietnam may stir Howard Dean’s supporters to send him their milk money, they obscure rather than clarify what’s needed to “win the peace” in Iraq.

The Vietnam experience justifiably impels Americans to question Pentagon statements, presidential promises and the need of armed intervention overseas. Understandably, a “second Vietnam” is a sequel no American wants to see. But Vietnam is not a particularly useful experience on which to draw in the case of Iraq.

The Vietnam War was fundamentally different from Operation Iraqi Freedom. It pitted Americans and South Vietnamese against the Soviet-supported North Vietnamese and their Vietcong guerrillas. Many Vietnamese viewed their fight as a war of independence. In Iraq, on the other hand, coalition forces and Iraqi police face domestic and foreign terrorists committed not to independence but actually to blocking Iraq’s road to democratic self-rule.

The obsession with avoiding “quagmires” helped create many of the problems America now faces. Fear of getting bogged down led Americans to flee Beirut in the 1980s and Somalia in the 1990s. It also influenced President Clinton’s profligate use of cruise missiles and high-altitude bombing tactics, which worked against Serbia in 1999 but killed many civilians. In 1998, American missiles demolished empty tents in Afghanistan and mistakenly destroyed a medical facility in Sudan. These actions told terrorists the United States lacked the will to engage in a ground war because it still suffered from what President George H. W. Bush called the “Vietnam Syndrome.” They were right — before Sept. 11, 2001.

To find a truly instructive analogy to the current situation we have to look all the way back to a war that warrants only a paragraph or two in most high-school textbooks: the Mexican War of 1846-1848. In that war, Americans for the first time occupied a nation different in language, religion and basic cultural assumptions from their own.

Americans discovered in Mexico that mixing religious rhetoric with military action is foolish and dangerous. Many in 1847 blamed the Catholic “monster which is miscalled religion” for Mexico’s unstable and sickly democracy. This sentiment resulted in calls by evangelical Protestants to proselytize Mexico not just in the name of a “pure Gospel” but also of democracy.

So convinced were Mexicans that the U.S. Army would destroy their religion that to avoid guerrilla attacks and unrest American generals issued proclamations guaranteeing Mexicans, “Your religion, your altars and churches . . . shall be protected and remain inviolate.” This worked.

Yesterday’s anti-Catholic sentiment is not unlike today’s argument that Islam and democracy simply cannot mix. It also calls to mind Gen. William Boykin’s inflammatory statement — in 2003 — that “my God [is] a real God,” whereas Muslims worship “an idol.” Influential Southern Baptists like Albert Mohler have even called on Christians to exploit Iraq’s occupation by sending missionaries there. These men seem unaware their rhetoric leads some Iraqis to believe al-Qaeda’s accusation that America seeks to destroy Islam.

Anti-Islamic rhetoric, like anti-Catholic invective, is protected as free speech in the United States. Americans are free as well to call on President Bush immediately to bring American troops home for fear Iraq will be a “second Vietnam.” However, the fact that such statements are protected speech makes them no less irresponsible. The former only fuels terrorists’ ability to attract new killers while the latter reassures them their attacks are breaking American will.

Iraq will not be the last time some Americans attempt to shoehorn a military conflict into a “one size fits all” Vietnam analogy. In Operation Desert Storm, Bosnia, Serbia and Afghanistan, Americans voiced similar fears. Yet each of these “second Vietnams” proved so different from their specious label as to make such comparisons more efforts in panic than in reasoned analysis. Notably, all were military successes.

If we want comparisons that are meant to instruct Americans and not just incite them to partisan political action, we must look elsewhere in our history.

When American troops left Mexico in 1848, they left it in disarray. Besides illustrating the good sense of understanding and taking seriously Iraqis’ fervent religious beliefs, the Mexican War reminds us of the need for a real victory in Iraq, not the quick-exit end anti-war protesters call for.

Bush claims he intends to make Iraq a stable, secure and democratic force in the troubled Middle East. Such an outcome would demonstrate American will power. It would save future American lives and ensure that those lost remain honorable sacrifices and not become wasted deaths. A democratic Iraq is the only victory worth having.

John C. Pinheiro is associate professor of history at Aquinas College. He is the author of "Manifest Ambition: James K. Polk and Civil-Military Relations during the Mexican War" (2007).

January, 2003