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The Vietnam War and the War on Terror in the Middle East were both prominent military conflicts with American overseas involvement that share eerie similarities. Despite being half a century apart, the patterns of ideological, political, and strategic involvement call for an analytical comparison. The biggest factor connecting these conflicts is the presence of an ideological factor driving practically every aspect and decision. As a result, the popular theory of historical recurrence begins to emerge. The Vietnam War and the War on Terror are similar in circumstance, structure, and chains of causality that have led to long-term domestic and global geopolitical impacts.
Ideology and Starting Point
The United States involvement in Vietnam was mostly political at first through providing military aid and controlling a puppet government. With the fall of China to Communism, the U.S. feared a domino effect that would lead to the conversion of Indochina to the ideology as well. The starting point of U.S. involvement is the Gulf of Tonkin attack that led to a confrontation between an American navy destroyer and North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The war was a proxy war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union which backed the Vietcong. It was an ideological confrontation over the spread of the political influence of Communism as the ruling paradigm in South East Asia (Short, 2014).
The starting point for the War on Terror is considered to be the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and other locations which led to the deaths of thousands. It presented the real threat of terrorism and a rising force which directly threatened America and its values. Furthermore, the decision to invade Iraq was based on accusations that the state sponsored terrorism and was producing weapons of mass destruction. Terrorism was a hidden threat which would not be defeated by overthrowing a government as was evident after the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. The War on Terror was not as clear-cut as the Vietnam War because of the complexity of the terrorist organization networks that had very few leaders or a constant base of operations. The main propagated narrative was that the war is protecting American values and freedom against groups of radical Islamic extremists (Dionne, 2003). In words, the wars are inherently similar as the opposition of American democratic principles against inherently oppressive regimes. However, during the Cold War, the conflicts were motivated by political ideology while the War on Terror has become a deeply socially and religiously ingrained with severe repercussions for the regular population.
Since America had invested such significant resources into the war, the federal administration believed that withdrawal was not an option. The Anti-war movement was massively rallying around the idea that the burden, both human and economic, fell on the shoulders of the working class and the poor. In the depth of uncertainty, Lyndon Johnson considered it to be political suicide for the administration, party, and Cold War policy as a whole to surrender Vietnam to communist influence. As a result, the administration acted in the only way it could win, which was to increase troop presence and use aggressive tactics. However, that often resulted in more casualties due to the lack of strategic planning as desperation mounted (Foner, 2017). Towards the end of the war, the process of Vietnamization was instituted which would gradually withdraw U.S. troops and allow South Vietnamese forces to assume control. Nixon had to bear a significant political burden for the war’s losses and eventual failure through the decision to withdraw.
In 2001, George Bush was facing falling ratings and criticism. However, the declaration of the War on Terror actively gathered political support. As a result, for a time, the United States government was politically united in this mission. However, it led to a shift of balance in power and abilities that the federal government now maintained. The infamous Patriot Act allowed to collect intelligence. The US sought to establish control of its interests in the Middle East (White House Office of Communications, n.d.). Although the swift removal of local governments disrupted terrorist networks, it led to an underground type of resistance. The government saw no other choice than to increase the troop contingent. Like Vietnam, the federal government employed a strategy of gradual troop withdrawal and giving more responsibility to local law enforcement by providing training and provisions.
Tactics and Technology
Since World War II, the U.S. has maintained a superior military force with the most modern and effective technologies and strategies. Both the Vietnam War and the War on Terror saw the use of most sophisticated military technology for the time. However, in both conflicts that created a paradox since the technological superiority of the United States left its troops vulnerable to the type of warfare that had to be waged. The United States military machine maintained a strategy of setting up large concentrations of troops that relied on ethics and intelligence to capture strategic points, bound by rules and patterns. Meanwhile, the enemy both the Vietcong and terrorist cells relied on guerrilla warfare of highly mobile and rapid strike and retreat strategy. Highly sophisticated weapons of mass destruction were of little use in urban settings or areas of jungle or desert where the enemy’s position is unknown. Therefore, American troops, faced with enemy ambushes, were often at a disadvantage and unable to adjust to the flexibility of guerrilla warfare strategies (Boot, 2006).
The Vietnam War lasting for eight years was the most costly and deadly conflict of the Cold War. Approximately 58,220 soldiers died, and 1,643 were missing in action. The economic costs according to Department of Defense estimates are at $168 billion, which would be equivalent to $950 billion in modern day (Rohn, 2014). The War on Terror began in 2001 and its active phase lasted until 2011 with some operations continuing to this day. The casualty rate is significantly less with approximately 7000 military deaths across Operation New Dawn, Iraqi Freedom and other minor conflicts (DeBruyne, 2017). The Department of Defense reports an approximate $1.5 trillion spent on the War on Terror since 2001. However, experts estimate the actual figure could be as high as $5.6 trillion as it includes resources employed by associated departments (Moore, 2017).
After the withdrawal of the U.S. from Vietnam, internal fighting continued leading to Vietnam eventually succumbing to Communism. However, it did not have a significant regional effect as America feared. The Soviet Union soon collapse, torn between competing with both the West and China. Meanwhile, the U.S. learned that its reactionary approach was not effective at fighting local ideologically driven militias. After the war, the U.S. took a step back from its global interventions and hegemonic ambitions (Sempa, 2015). The War on Terror shifted the geopolitics of the Middle East significantly. It strengthened alliances and led to the formation of the NATO coalition force. American allies in the Middle East such as Israel and Saudi Arabia have increased military and security cooperation to manage terrorist threats. It led to the formation of large conflicts zones and the emergence of the ISIS terrorist state as a primary enemy to the United States. Some countries have felt the need to resist American influence to prevent invasions. Furthermore, the conflict began to serve as a proxy war between opposing countries in the region or led to internal division within other countries (Katz, n.d.).
Boot, M. (2006). The paradox of military technology. The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society, 13-31. Web.
DeBruyne, N. F. (2017). American war and military operations casualties: Lists and statistics. Web.
Dionne, E. J. (2003). Inevitably, the politics of terror: Fear has become part of Washington’s power struggle. Web.
Foner, E. (2017). Give me liberty!: An American history vol. 2 (5th ed.). New York City, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Katz, M. (n.d.). The geopolitical context of the “War on Terror.” Web.
Moore, P. (2017). The cost of war for the U.S. taxpayer since 9/11 is actually three times the Pentagon’s estimate. Newsweek. Web.
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Rohn, A. (2014). How much did the Vietnam War cost? Web.
Sempa, F. P. (2015). The geopolitics of the Vietnam War. Web.
Short, A. (2014). The origins of the Vietnam War. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.
White House Office of Communications. (n.d.). Policies of the Bush administration 2001-2009. Web.