“Vietnam the war” back in the frame after Afghanistan

April 2, 2009

 For many, Vietnam has always been two things – a war and a country. Since probably the mid-1990s, though, when Washington and Hanoi established diplomatic relations, the balance — in terms of headlines at least — started to tip decisively toward “Vietnam the country”.


Vietnam’s economic transition and integration with the world has, indeed, made for some decent reading. So it’s been interesting to note since moving to Hanoi a few months ago the strong comeback that “Vietnam the war” has made in the form of articles about Afghanistan and the Obama presidency.


 In February, Newsweek ran a cover story called Afghanistan “Obama’s Vietnam“. Other examples are plentiful.


This is not a new phenomenon. Pundits slapped the Vietnam label on the Soviet Union’s fateful foray into Afghanistan in the 1970s and 80s. The Wall Street Journal recently (and with some sarcasm, one suspects) labeled it “reductio ad Vietnam” – “That’s the view that every U.S. military action lasting more than the flight time of a cruise missile is likely to descend into a bloody, stalemated, morally and politically intolerable Sartrean nightmare”.


The Vietnam parallel, it noted, has been deployed to describe military interventions in Lebanon, the Falklands (for Britain), Nicaragua, Iraq (twice), Somalia and the Balkans.


As far as I can tell, the state-run Vietnamese press has avoided drawing the parallel, and the discussion hasn’t really permeated the blogosphere here either.


Hanoi-based journalist Matt Steinglass, writing in the GlobalPost, quotes a former North Vietnamese army colonel as saying the U.S. was making the same mistake in Afghanistan  that it made in Vietnam. Nguyen Huu Nguyen, now a military historian, said additional U.S. troop deployments will not accomplish anything. If anything,  it will only sink deeper into a quagmire.


I suspect that most Vietnamese just aren’t that interested, even if there are some similarities. The Vietnamese are often lauded for their ability to focus on the future rather than dwell on their country’s war-torn past. The Communist Party’s media censors may also be doing their part to avoid offending a one-time foe who is now an important economic and strategic partner.

{Reuters photo of a worker at a construction site in Hanoi]

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