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Iraq and Vietnam are militarily and politically very different conflicts

By Leanne Piggott - posted Friday, 16 April 2004

The anti-Coalition insurgencies by parts of the Sunni and Shia communities in Iraq have triggered a renewed outbreak of the 'V'-word in the Western media. 'V' for Vietnam, that is. Even Australia's Federal Opposition leader, Mark Latham, has indulged the current media penchant for making comparisons between the ongoing conflict in Iraq and the long-concluded Vietnam War. With one exception, these comparisons in regard to the recent insurgencies do not stand up to serious analysis. They signify either wishful thinking by an obsessively anti-American faction of politicians, journalists and academics, or a poor knowledge of history.

The first point of difference lies in the modest operational capability of the Iraqi insurgents compared with those in Vietnam. In Vietnam, Vietcong insurgents seeking the overthrow of the pro-Western South Vietnamese Government had the armed and financial backing of a neighbouring state, North Vietnam. North Vietnam, in turn, was backed by a superpower, the Soviet Union. This meant that military and other material could be supplied to the insurgents in South Vietnam in a continual chain that could be disrupted but not broken. The US and its South Vietnamese allies did not at any time control South Vietnam's borders with North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

In contrast, no superpower, no State and no Ho Chi Minh trail support the current insurgency in Iraq. Neither the insurgents, nor any external State sponsor, control Iraq's borders or penetrate those borders at will.


Certainly, remnants of the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein have no shortage of weapons and ammunition left behind by the regime. Small numbers of foreign insurgents have also been able to penetrate the Coalition's security screen along Iraq's borders. This, however, cannot begin to compare in scale and consistency with the continual flow of external support to the Vietcong.

There are also critical political differences between the conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. The Iraqi people are an agglomeration of many ethnic and religious groups. There have never been comparable religious or ethnic divisions in Vietnam. The importance of this distinction lies in the differing attitudes of the various Iraqi communities towards the presence of Western-led forces in their country. The Kurds strongly support that presence. The Sunni minority, who were the big losers when Saddam was toppled, are the most active and bitter opponents of the Coalition. The Shi'ites, who make up the largest group, are split. Only a small, radical faction of the Shi'ite community supports the insurgents.

In contrast, American forces in Vietnam were confronted with a population, in both the north and the south, among whom there was widespread sympathy for the insurgents. The majority of Vietnamese belonged to the peasant class who stood to gain from many of the land reform and other policies of the anti-US forces. Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader of North Vietnam, was a popular nationalist figure. He had led the Vietnamese in their fight against foreign domination by the French in the early 1950s and by the Japanese during World War II. In both ability and popularity, Ho was light-years ahead of any contemporary Arab leader.

In only one significant way are the two conflicts similar - the way in which they have been reported by the media. In early 1968, the Vietcong launched the Tet Offensive and succeeded for a short time in occupying the American Embassy in Saigon. They also captured the old imperial capital of Hue and held it for some weeks. The intensive television coverage of these events led many people in the West to believe that the insurgents were winning military control of South Vietnam. In fact, the opposite was true.

Militarily, the Tet Offensive was a disaster for the Vietcong insurgents. The Americans had previously been unable to flush them out of the towns and villages where they had blended in with the civilian population. In the Tet Offensive, the Vietcong decided to come out into the open and, as a result, took a hammering. This point was largely overlooked by the media at the time.

The current insurgents in Iraq have similarly emerged into the open and, as a consequence, have sustained painful military losses. In the process, however, they have created a degree of instability and speculation about a potential civil war. These factors have become the natural focus of the media and therefore seem more threatening than they really are. Like the Vietcong before them, the Iraqi insurgents are hoping to convert their military losses into a political victory, courtesy of reporting and commentary that is at times emotive, confused and gullible.

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Article edited by Kirsten Storry.
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This article was published in the Newcastle Morning Herald on 14 April 2004.

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About the Author

Dr Leanne Piggott lectures in Middle East Politics at the University of Sydney and is director of Academic Programs of the Centre for International Security Studies. She is the author of A Timeless Struggle: Conflict in Land of Israel/Palestine (forthcoming, Science Press).

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