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Iraq vs. Vietnam
Is there a danger of repeating
The same Mistakes?

Commentary by your Webmaster
C. Douglas Sterner
November 1, 2003

Lately more and more the question has been arising, "Is the war in Iraq turning into another conflict eerily reminiscent of the conflict in Vietnam?"  As a veteran of that earlier war, the question doesn't bother me as much as the most common answers--answers given often by other veterans of the war in Vietnam, designed to distance events in Iraq from seemingly similar events in Vietnam.  In fact, the war, the nature of building the peace, and the process of turning control of Iraq over to the Iraqi people are very much like our efforts in Vietnam--which makes me quite proud of our young people who now carry the torch of freedom I was once privileged to carry and defend.

The first American soldiers to serve in Vietnam were Special Forces advisors, sent to help a people who desperately required outside assistance to turn back a sweeping tide of oppression.  The motto of the Special Forces is "de oppresso libre", translated "To Free the Oppressed".  For the soldier at least, that was the purpose for our service and, I believe, an admirable one.

The threat of WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) was the reason touted for the invasion of Iraq, and to date, no solid proof of this threat has been found.  What IS quite evident is the oppression and tyranny under which the Iraqi people lived during the regime of Saddam Hussein, and indeed the true outcome of our sweeping victory over his forces has freed the oppressed.

I believe the primary reason many try to distance the Vietnam War from the current conflict is because the war in Southeast Asia is an embarrassing era of American history for all too many citizens.  I can't help but wonder WHY it should be thus.  Consider this:

Please pardon me then, if I fail to understand why it would be wrong for the valiant warriors of a new generation who have swiftly and soundly defeated their enemy and freed an oppressed people, to identify with those of us who fought in Vietnam.  They have continued our own legacy well, and proved themselves  to be the finest combat troops in history.  That they would do all that they have done, and accomplish all that they have accomplished on behalf of others is above all, most admirable.

The most obvious reason to distance the war in Iraq from the war in Vietnam is the embarrassing BELIEF that We Lost That War.  If indeed this is true, something of which I am not yet personally convinced, please understand that the war was not lost by the men and women who served in Vietnam but by the American public at home who lost patience with the cost of winning that war.  It is a matter of human nature, not unique to Vietnam.

During World War II United States Marines conducted their first major assault (after Guadalcanal) against 4,800 Japanese, well-entrenched at Tarawa.  It was an incredible victory at a VERY HIGH COST:  3,300 American casualties including 900 dead.  It presented a major dilemma to military war planners who feared photos of the heavy casualties sustained by the Marines would extinguish the fire in the belly of the American public and force an outcry against further such assaults in the Pacific.  Images such as this suddenly brought the reality of war home to a public that might mentally swap the horror of Pearl Harbor for this new understanding that victory, no matter how glorious, is not earned without great sacrifice and bloodshed. 

Fortunately for the United States, and for the world, the American public in general understood that this war was personal--that the price had to be paid abroad or we would ultimately suffer at home.  Unfortunately there was no such perception in the American public at large during the Vietnam War.  Images of the heavily casualties sustained during the Tet Offensive took precedence over what should have been great PRIDE in the great heroism of the American soldiers and marines who turned back that offensive and virtually broke the back of the enemy forces.  The American Public demanded an exit strategy to "get our boys home NOW!"--and let the chips fall where they may as far as the Vietnamese people were concerned.

When I arrived in Vietnam in the summer of 1970 American forces were involved in a process call the Vietnamization of the War--the transfer of responsibility for fighting Communist aggression in South Vietnam over to the Vietnamese.  It was an admirable concept, similar in many regards to the mission now being undertaken by our forces in Iraq of helping these people build up their nation, raise a police force and military, and ultimately become capable of defending themselves.  It was a process I was a part of until my return home in 1972.  I am convinced that it was a process that could have been successfully achieved, but only through a period of many years, not just the four or five that we committed to it following Tet '68.

Ultimately, South Vietnam fell to the enemy.  Not however, because of any lack on the part of the soldier.  We won every battle--except for the battle at home--the battle to convince the American public that we had taken to heart the words of President Kennedy "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty."  (Note that the President did not limit this mission to the preservation of these only at home--he recognized the fact that our world has become a very small place and that we ARE our BROTHER'S KEEPER.)

Of course, I for one, am still not convinced that we lost the war in Vietnam.  The fact that American soldiers were willing to fight and sacrifice for fourteen years in a small country thousands of miles from home,  I believe, halted the spread of communism in the region.  I also believe that our efforts were instrumental in degrading the power of the Soviet Union (which provided massive support to the North Vietnamese) to the point that their fate was sealed when they moved into Afghanistan.  The chain of events moved very quickly from that point.  I often describe the legacy of the Vietnam Veteran by saying in many of my own speeches, "When you view the shattered ruin of the Berlin Wall, thank a Vietnam Veteran.  That is the symbol of our victory."

If there is one facet of the war in Iraq that I hope does NOT mirror the war in Vietnam, it is the reaction of the American public.  Casualties are a tragedy--the death of every American is cause for concern and reflection on our cause.  But casualties are the by-product of war, the necessary ingredient for victory.  We can not let the cost of winning this war obscure the images of 911, or the price that we will pay if we don't stay the course, steel our resolve, and insure that evil is confronted and dealt with wherever it raises its ugly specter.   

Doug Sterner


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I don't agree with this article because it gives the impression that you are proud of what u did in Vietnam. I for one am ashamed at how that war came about and I do believe that the Iraq war if not stopped will become similar. I do not agree with making people fight for something that they don't believe in. I also have witnessed what it does to our soldiers when they return and I do not believe that our current troops need to go thru the years of side effects that it causes.
Allie  Alliedollface(a)   Blaine, MN

Mr. Sterner- congratulations on an outstanding website. I just got done viewing the PBS special on the Medal of Honor winners, and I found your website from there. As it's Veteran's Day, I salute you and all other Americans who have defended not only our freedoms, but tried to do the same with many others around the world. I enjoyed your treatise on comparing Iraq and Vietnam, and I agree with most of it. Not being a military man myself (high school teacher), I am, however, an ardent student of military history and my family has some military ties going back to the civil war. I personally think the comparison between the two conflicts bring into focus the one thing that i think really bothers people; the thought of Americans being picked off one by one by guerilla war. I do agree with one thing, now that we are there, we need to do what we didn't after Tet, apply uncompromising force. It will save many lives later on.
spencer dolloff <>
grand rapids, mi USA -
What does carpet bombing vast areas of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have to do with fighting for freedom? The decision to partake in the Vietnam fiasco had more to do with Cold War chess and anti-Asian sentiment than a heartfelt need enable the Vietnamese to free themselves from an oppressive regime. I serve 45 days a year on reserve duty (infantry) in the IDF. I make a living making educational multimedia in Jerusalem. During the past 3 years, terrorists have made getting to and back from work quite unnerving (over 150 dead on the route my bus takes to work). I have served in Gaza and don't really want to talk about it. Despite the difficult times here in Israel, I would never participate in an action that idescriminately hurts the goodguys with the bad. If a Mai Lai would happen in Israel, I would turn my weapon against my own command. Fighting for freedom requires moral accountability. Carpet bombing is morally unjustifiable.
eli bialik <>
Israel -
eli, I guess that is a question you asked. What does carpet bombing vast areas of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have to do with fighting for freedom? You tell us! What does supporting a country that does not treat it citizens fair have to do with freedom. Where soldiers shoot children for throwing rocks! you tell me eli? Rolling tanks into homes killing innocent woman and children is unjustifiable. Mr. Israel go build your wall!
To Eli Bialik; Mr. Bialik, I was there in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, as a green beret officer, just as I would go now if Israel were in trouble. You have apparently watched too many Hollywoood left wing movies about Vietnam. Mr. Sterner's opinion was the best I have ever read on the subject. There are no Vietnam veterans I know of who would condone or allow a May Lai massacre. We are raised with morals in this country, too. Most Vietnam veterans are hard-working, upright, moral citizens, and not the stereotype misfit that the liberal media or liberal Hollywood portray us to be. Incidentally, carpet-bombing was done in suspected enemy locations, not in heavily-populated civilian areas. If you ever get the privilege, happiness, and freedom of becoming a "completed Jew" by accepting Y'Shua as your personal Saviour, you will learn that He taught us not to look for the splinter in our brother's eye, with a board sticking out of our own eye.
Don Bendell <>
Canon City, CO USA -
Dear Sir: I find myself in agreement with Mr Dollof in the fact that most people do not want to see their loved ones picked off one by one in a guerilla type warfare,which always favors the attacker not the defender. I believe that it was Sun Tsu who said "A great country cannot afford to wage a little war." It is too bad that it has to come down to war but if it does then it is well to go into it "tooth and nail". The casualty rate wil be less in the long run. I personally wish the American people,and the soldiers,sailors.marines and airmen all the best,as I am sure you know only too well what it is like to be always looking over your shoulder day in and day out. God bless. Sincerely Stephen A. White
Stephen A. White <>
St.John's, NL. Canada -
This is not the place for personal attacks or religious witnessing.
Carrollton, Ga USA -

I DO NOT agree with this article because it sounds like not only does the author support the Vietnam war, but he also supports the Iraq war, which i do not support. I mean seriously- THERE ARE REASONS WHY NO WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION HAVE NOT BEEN FOUND YET!!! IT'S BECAUSE THEY DON'T EXIST!!! this war was only created so Bush could impress his daddy and I personally think that if he wants this war to continue so badly, we should strap him with an AK-47 and let him go fight his own war. (my inspiration: Eminem's "Mosh" song)
Holly EMAIL: prluv16(at)  Chicago, IL


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