The Iraq-Vietnam Comparison is Easy to Make But False

Last Monday, we published “What the Fall of Saigon Teaches Us About the Latest ISIS Offensive” by Jeong Lee and Stephanie Chenault, who showed many similarities between recent events in Iraq and the fall of South Vietnam. To give the readers of a second, different perspective, we selected a commentary by Joseph Trevithick, who believes this comparison is inaccurate. We hope that both articles will motivate our readers to think about just how similar the two situations might be based on these viewpoints – there is no “right” or “wrong”.

Joseph Trevithick is a freelance journalist and researcher. He is also a regular contributing writer at War is Boring and a Fellow at

A soldier from the Commando Battalion of the Iraqi Army's 17th Brigade during a training exercise in 2010 (Photo: U.S. Army).

A soldier from the Commando Battalion of the Iraqi Army’s 17th Brigade during a training exercise in 2010 (Photo: U.S. Army).

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s dramatic triumph over Iraqi security forces last month is upsetting for the United States and worrisome for the country’s neighbors. Washington has been compelled to respond not only to this new crisis in southwest Asia, but also to domestic political attacks over the recent historical record. Now, comparisons to the American debacle in southeast Asia some four decades ago are being added to the mix.

The rapid disintegration of an American trained foreign military in the face of a determined opponent make a comparison to the collapse of South Vietnam quite appealing. Iraq’s weak political institutions only make it easier to link the two case studies. However, the two situations are fundamentally different when scrutinized in depth.

Firstly, Iraq and Vietnam simply occupy very different geopolitical spaces. The Vietnamese as a distinct ethnic group had a long and significant history prior to French colonization, marked by aggressive territorial expansion and consolidation. The “Vietnamese Empire” had both successfully absorbed the Kingdom of Champa and ejected the Angkor Kings from the Mekong Delta by the nineteenth century. Imperial Vietnam had established borders and treated its neighbors at least as equal – and often as inferior.

Conversely, Iraq has far less in the way of national identity or cohesive history, having been carved out of Ottoman territory by the British and the French following World War I. Saddam Hussein’s regime consolidated and held power largely by playing the country’s powerful Sunni, Shi’ite, and Kurdish communities against each other. The country’s borders, full of hard lines and sharp angles, show little appreciation for any traditional boundaries.

Iraqi troops from the 6th Regional Commando Battalion are inserted by helicopter during a combined training exercise with American forces in 2011 (Photo: U.S. Army).

Iraqi troops from the 6th Regional Commando Battalion are inserted by helicopter during a combined training exercise with American forces in 2011 (Photo: U.S. Army).

This separates the basic goals of the belligerents in both cases. North and the South Vietnam both understood that they were locked in a battle for the fate of a single nation. Neither regime disputed the country’s existing history or was keen to cede any territorial claims. On the other hand, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is fighting a multi-front war to establish a new regional entity based on their own interpretation of the historical record. They offer an extremely specific religious ideology unhindered by borders rather than advocating any sort of broad-minded national program.

Iraq’s political situation is also significantly different from South Vietnam in 1973. South Vietnam’s head of state changed 10 times in 20 years. While weak, Iraq’s institutions look robust and stable compared to the Republic of Vietnam. Since 2003, Iraq has had only three prime ministers. In Vietnam, the transfers of power were also often marked by violence. The most notable case being the murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.

General Dương Văn Minh, who led the coup against Diem and ordered his execution, manged to become head of state four separate times. On the other hand, the Shi’ite dominated security forces are likely the only thing keeping Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in power in Iraq. Maliki has also worked on appealing to his base just like Saddam Hussein did, as well as calling upon regional allies to help out.

Maliki’s appeal, no matter how limited it might be, is not something that should be dismissed out of hand either. Unlike South Vietnam, Iraq’s government offers a political program that is designed to appeal at least to the country’s Shi’ite majority. The program will likely persist even if Maliki is forced out. This is unlike South Vietnam’s political establishment, which was fractious and inept, prone to violence against itself, and offered a program that could appeal only to those in power.

Iraq’s military also appears to be regrouping in spite of serious concerns about its capabilities. Kurdish forces also appear to be holding their own against ISIS. By contrast, North Vietnam’s renewed push southward in December 1974 never let up. The North’s People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) was closely matched with the South’s Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in terms of personnel and equipment. Whatever North Vietnamese troops might have lacked in technical experience, they made up in discipline and determination. The PAVN also benefited greatly from various advanced weapons – notably long-range artillery and air defenses – to rout their ARVN opponents and keep them on the run.

Soldiers from the South Vietnamese Army sit on top of a captured North Vietnamese Army Type 59 tank during the 1972 Easter Offensive (Photo: U.S. Army).

Soldiers from the South Vietnamese Army sit on top of a captured North Vietnamese Army Type 59 tank during the 1972 Easter Offensive (Photo: U.S. Army).

ISIS has none of these advantages and cannot afford to have their advance burn out. The Sunni fighters are outnumbered approximately 35 to one and having no significant heavy weapons. The insurgents have repeatedly gloated about equipment captured from retreating Iraqi forces, but it remains unclear just how much of it they will actually be able to use. Iraq may well be able to use sectarian support and foreign military assistance to fight the movement to a stalemate even if they cannot defeat the movement outright.

This potential for a drawn out conflict is perhaps the most significant difference in the end. Iraq has already lasted longer than South Vietnam did after the withdrawal of American combat troops. Washington has also reengaged militarily in Iraq and looks set to expand this new support if need be, which it did not do in Vietnam in 1975. The Joint Forces Land Component Command – Iraq is a division-level task force led by a two-star Army general that could theoretically control over 10,000 US troops. Would pundits be more inclined to make alternative comparisons to the Pentagon’s role in beating back the 1972 Easter Offensive if Obama authorized American airstrikes?

Lastly, Maliki’s regime has just not yet collapsed and he has not fled the country like Nguyễn Văn ThiệuNguyễn Văn Thiệu. The crisis in Iraq has not reached its final outcome, whatever it might be. Comparing the current situation to what happened in South Vietnam might be a little presumptuous in general.


This entry was posted in English, Iraq, Joseph Trevithick, Security Policy, Terrorism.

1 Response to The Iraq-Vietnam Comparison is Easy to Make But False

  1. Fritz Kälin says:

    Of course you will find many, many differences between Iraq and South Vietnam – and you would find even more differences between ISIS and the North Vietnamese Army. The interesting linkage between those two wars is the U.S./western support for the local governments and their forces (police and military).
    The decisive point is that the training, doctrines and equipment provided by the U.S. did not enable the local forces to stand their ground against an attacker who fights with far less ressources. Let’s not forget that their enemies, the NVA as well as ISIS, were also to a large extend depending on ‘foreign aid’ – but somehow they were able to adapt that aid more efficiently.
    Adding to this is the gruesome fact, that ISIS is receiving its support most likely from countries which are considered ‘allies’ of the United States, while the biggest enemy of ISIS seems to be America’s nemesis, Iran. In Vietnam, the local enemy (NVA) was at least supported by America’s global enemies (USSR/ China).

    Whatever will happen in Afghanistan around the year 2016, there is no doubt that the Tajiks in the north – like the Kurds today – will be able to defend their own territory although their forces receive hardly any ‘western aid’.

    If we consider the West (or at least our interest outside the West) being threatened by sunni extremists we should start thinking about our lack of effectiveness whenever and wherever we are fighting them the way we taught ourselves to fight.

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