What may be remembered someday as one of the strangest moments of George W. Bush’s Presidency took place last week in Vietnam, when he chose to mention the American defeat there in the same breath as our failing occupation of Iraq. That comparison is often made by his critics, and often elicits irritated rebuttals from the White House. Yet now the President himself was explicitly drawing a connection between those misadventures—and drawing a lesson that could only dismay anyone who remembers what really happened during that war in which he so famously avoided serving.
Not long after he landed in the capital of Hanoi, the President explained that the American departure from Vietnam, more than 30 years ago, should teach perseverance in Iraq. “We’ll succeed,” he said, “unless we quit.”
Let us leave aside the witless irony of that remark, coming from a man who quit Vietnam before he ever got there, and whose political mercenaries later denigrated the service of John McCain and John Kerry. Instead let us consider the implications of what he said, and the price that he evidently believes Americans and Iraqis ought to be willing to pay for his geopolitical folly. For what he seems to be suggesting, particularly at a time when he has supposedly been chastened by his party’s midterm losses, is beyond belief—not only as policy but as historical judgment.
By the time the United States finally “quit” Vietnam, the human costs of the war were staggering. More than 58,000 Americans had been killed, or roughly 20 times as many as we have lost so far in Iraq. Estimates of the number of Vietnamese military and civilian deaths range upward from two million, including hundreds of thousands poisoned by the deliberate dropping of defoliants or killed by cluster bombs and napalm. (That doesn’t include the millions of Cambodians lost to the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, whose rise can be attributed directly to the expansion of the Vietnam War.) Nobody knows how many Iraqis have been killed so far, but the most careful estimates range from 30,000 to 250,000.
By war’s end, the financial cost of Vietnam to the United States Treasury, updated for inflation, reached nearly $600 billion. The average monthly expense of fighting the war in Iraq, which was supposed to cost us nothing, is considerably higher than the monthly cost of the Vietnam War. If the war continues for another few years, the total bill will be more than a trillion dollars.
Even Henry Kissinger, who was willing to dispatch Vietnamese civilians by the thousands, now admits that the President’s stated objectives in Iraq are beyond reach by military means. But according to the President, what we have to learn from Vietnam is that we must not “quit.”
To understand why that attitude is so demented, it might help to picture Mr. Bush in Hanoi. There he sat, talking with Vietnam’s government officials and Communist Party chiefs, beneath a gigantic bronze bust of Ho Chi Minh, the late revolutionary who drove the French and then the Americans out of his country. Now we know that all of the reasons why we spent so much blood and treasure fighting Ho were completely mistaken. The domino theory of Communist expansion throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific was wrong. The notion of an international Communist movement bent on world conquest was wrong. The idea that Communist ideology could best be resisted by military action was wrong.
But he still thinks we shouldn’t have “quit.”
While Vietnam is far from free, as Mr. Bush might have learned if he had strayed from his controlled tour, its economy is rapidly changing, and political reform may be on the horizon as well. Our policy toward Vietnam, endorsed by both the Clinton and Bush administrations, is to encourage freedom with trade and aid.
The question that hawks (and chicken-hawks) should be obliged to answer is whether they truly continue to believe that we should have stayed in Vietnam. If they answer affirmatively, then the next question is how long, and at what cost, and until how many were dead? It is a question that ought to be posed not only to President Bush but also to his would-be successor, John McCain, who still insists that we could have won the Vietnam War—if only we had been willing to accept and inflict many more casualties. Paradoxically, the Arizona Senator, who suffered torture as a prisoner of war, spent years promoting normalized relations with Vietnam, where he too hopes for peaceful reform.
Both Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain still believe that we should be willing to accept and inflict more casualties in Iraq—so perhaps should they also be asked how long that war should continue, and what price in lives and dollars would still be consistent with “victory.” If 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese were not enough, then how many do they think should die in Iraq before we seek a negotiated conclusion?