Capsule Review

A Tale of Two Quagmires: Iraq, Vietnam, and the Hard Lessons of War; Vietnam in Iraq: Tactics, Lessons, Legacies, and Ghosts

In This Review

A Tale of Two Quagmires: Iraq, Vietnam, and the Hard Lessons of War
By Kenneth J. Campbell
Paradigm, 2007 160 pp. $62.00 Purchase
Vietnam in Iraq: Tactics, Lessons, Legacies, and Ghosts
By John Dumbrell and David Ryan (eds.)
Routledge, 2006 256 pp. $135.00 Purchase

The question of whether it is useful or apt to consider Iraq another Vietnam has already produced a significant literature. Here are two very different contributions. The first, by Campbell, brings the perspective of a Vietnam veteran who teaches international relations, which makes for an intriguing combination of war memoir, dispassionate political analysis, and angry polemic. The basic similarity claimed by Campbell is that the two wars were launched and sustained on the basis of deception -- about their necessity, about the actual progress in defeating the enemy, and about the methods used. He essentially wants another group of wise men and women to forge a new strategy, à la the Baker-Hamilton commission, except this time to advocate withdrawal.

The collection of essays by leading British and American academics edited by Dumbrell and Ryan also assumes that there is an underlying folly that connects Vietnam and Iraq, even if the two wars differ in the details. Crude analogical reasoning is by and large avoided. Instead, the contributors look for some enduring features of the U.S. approach to war and strategy that have manifested themselves in both conflicts, including the divergence between the claims made by political leaders when justifying combat and the reality on the ground. Like all collections of essays, it suffers from overlap and sudden changes of focus and style, yet it contains some fascinating details and insights on the role of politicians, the military establishment, public opinion, and private corporations. The main benefit of the book is to give the comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq historical context. The central lesson of Vietnam -- that there are limits to U.S. power -- is being learned again, but as the aftermath of Vietnam demonstrates, much depends on whether future foreign policy challenges require these limits to be respected or overcome.

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