Memorial Day had me thinking about memories and how events shape us each day. Iraq is no Vietnam, and every war is different from each other war, but we can definitely learn something by looking at them together. With the fall of Ramadi to ISIS… well, really the entire history of the terrorist group in Iraq has had me in knots about my service there in 2004. I recently retweeted another veterans story of losing over 100 soldiers from his brigade there and how it affects those who had fought so hard to teach the Iraqi army, etc. how to defend itself and maintain civil order. Here is the tweet;
Watching Ramadi fall to ISIS tears me up. 103 people from my Brigade died there. Not typo. I’m 24, dumb, & in combat. pic.twitter.com/EBs20w8zvL
— captain nemo (@PlunkettPrime) May 15, 2015
ISIS has destroyed that in towns across Iraq, and it makes me wonder (among many other things that I won’t get into in this blog post) whether there is any use in comparing Iraq and Vietnam. The reason I wonder this is not to compare generations, as though one generation of veterans is greater than another. (That was the absolutely atrocious and backhanded compliment to the WWII generation at the expense of Vietnam veterans) Rather, I am trying to make sense of my experience of losing ground we fought for by seeking groups with similar experiences. In Vietnam, there was a slow decline in the conflict before the final withdrawal of troops on April 30, 1975. One way to tell that story is that the North Vietnamese Army then overtook South Vietnam, which means maybe then the Vietnam generation of vets could commiserate with my generation in watching the places and people they fought for being lost to ‘the enemy.’
The one thing that keeps me from jumping into that scenario is that the NVA was allied with the Vietcong, which was a popular southern uprising originally organized against the French colonial occupation. When the Americans jumped in and France jumped out, “the people” of Vietnam largely saw the US as the next occupier. Widespread corruption of the South Vietnamese government and reckless violence by the Americans never did them any favors in the public’s eyes. So when the North retook the South, it was at least more complicated then the situation in Iraq. The NVA and Vietcong at least had some moral ground to stand on, being a force working to unify their country and liberate the Vietnamese from western nations (which had displayed themselves to be a terrifying occupying force).
ISIS was never very popular in the everyday Iraqi’s eyes. From their genesis they have used very savvy social media messaging, playing off religious sympathies in order to emphasize their side of the story, but that isn’t the same as having had popular support more or less from the get go. In Iraq, ISIS terrorized Iraqi people as well as American interests. In Vietnam, the Vietcong were more discretionary, though not without violence to people who remained in South Vietnam over the course of the war. When cities have been ‘retaken’ by ISIS, it has been with a different power differential than in Vietnam. Of course, the years of collaboration by the South in American activity could very well have made them enemies in the eyes of the North.
Has history repeated itself in such a way as to make more direct parallels between the two conflicts? As a veteran watching people and land I fought for be lost to renewed violence similar enough to that which Vietnam veterans experienced to make a comparison? What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments, I’d love to hear what people think.