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40 Years After the Fall of Saigon, Every Country Has Its Own ‘Vietnam’

The USSR’s long, costly, and ultimately unsuccessful campaign through the 1980s to prop up the communist government in Kabul against a mujahideen coalition has spurred probably the best-known uses of the metaphor. But for better or worse, scores of other conflicts also have been cast as “Vietnams.”

saigon

Long before the last American helicopter flew out of Saigon 40 years ago Thursday, the Vietnam war had become the leading symbol of a large, wealthy country’s failure to batter a smaller, poorer country into doing its political and economic bidding. After more than two decades, seven million tons of bombs, 11 million gallons of Agent Orange, 58,000 dead American soldiers, and millions of Vietnamese lives, the United States hadn’t stopped South Vietnam “falling” to the communist north.

Since then, journalists, pundits, and scholars have constantly employed the Vietnam metaphor to describe the military misadventures of pretty much every country — with the possible exception of those like France and China that literally fought their own Vietnam wars.

As Andrew Lam, a Vietnamese-American writer and son of a South Vietnamese general who fled in April 1975, puts it, “Often times when we mention the word ‘Vietnam’ in the U.S., we don’t mean Vietnam as a country. Vietnam is not Thailand or Malaysia. Its relation to the U.S. is special: It has become a vault filled with tragic metaphors — it stands for American loss of innocence, of tragedy, legacy of defeat, and failure.”

Lam cites a range of headlines, from UK’s Telegraph — “Barack Obama must stop dithering — or Afghanistan will be his Vietnam” — to a letter to the Baltimore Sun that more declaratively states, “Afghanistan Is Obama’s Vietnam.”

Of course, Afghanistan was “the Soviet Union’s Vietnam” before it was the United States’. The USSR’s long, costly, and ultimately unsuccessful campaign through the 1980s to prop up the communist government in Kabul against a mujahideen coalition has spurred probably the best-known uses of the “Vietnam” metaphor. But for better or worse, scores of other conflicts also have been cast as “Vietnams.”

These constant invocations raise the question of whether the metaphor is even still useful. Vietnam arguably describes the rule rather than the exception to modern asymmetric warfare: a greater power pumping huge amounts of resources and troops into a conflict in which it nevertheless can’t compete with local fighters for — or even understand — the sympathies of the population, “hearts and minds” campaigns or no. Here are a few cases that show just how common this trend is:

India’s Vietnam

The Indian Peace Keeping Force arrived in Sri Lanka in 1987 with the aim of ending a civil war between the pro-independence Tamils and the Sri Lankan government. But while some Tamil groups agreed to the Indian-brokered peace agreement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam refused, and the Indian force soon found itself fighting them. Accused of numerous human rights abuses, and having failed to keep the peace at the cost of some 1,200 Indian lives, the so-called “peacekeepers” fully withdrew in 1990, ending what some call “India’s Vietnam.” Sri Lanka’s government defeated the last of the Tamil rebels in 2009.

Europe’s many Vietnams

Given the vast scope of Britain’s past imperial claims, it’s not surprising that a range of wars have attracted the moniker “Britain’s Vietnam.” Candidates include not just various recent interventions from Mali to Afghanistan to Libya, but also conflicts that happened before or at the same time as the actual Vietnam War — Northern Ireland’s Troubles (1968-1998), the Boer War (1899-1902), and even the American Revolution (1775-1783). The trope is so widespread that scholars have referred to “Britain’s ‘Vietnam syndrome’” to describe the way concerns about a drawn-out, bloody war can mobilize public opinion against British military intervention.

Spain’s history of imperialism also draws a range of Vietnam comparisons. Conflicts labeled “Spain’s Vietnam” range from the Protestant Dutch Revolt against the Spanish empire launched in the mid-sixteenth century, to the war with Cuba at the turn of the twentieth, to — perhaps less plausibly — the Basque conflict that began in 1959 and drew to a close in 2011.

Italy’s Vietnam was apparently its attempt under Mussolini in the 1930s to colonize Ethiopia – unless it’s the current pressure facing the country to confront instability in Libya. A 2008 book on Portuguese post-colonial literature asserts that “the colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau in the 1960s and 1970s were Portugal’s Vietnam.”

Vietnams in the Middle East

Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, has been pitched as multiple countries’ “Vietnam.” Egypt’s current support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen has fueled recollections — including in Foreign Policy — of Yemen’s 1960s civil war, which then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser himself called “my Vietnam.” The Egyptian campaign on behalf of republicans who had overthrown Yemen’s monarchy, opposed by British- and Saudi-backed royalists, cost Nasser’s government some 10,000 soldiers and billions of dollars by the time Egypt’s army withdrew in 1967. Now, some current commentary predicts that Yemen is set to become Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam, as the Saudi-led air campaign against the Houthi rebels there continues.

Meanwhile, commenters argue that Iran, which has poured millions of dollars as well as equipment and fighters into propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, has found its Vietnam in the Syrian civil war, where there’s no end in sight.

Vietnam’s Vietnam

That’s right — Vietnam even had its own “Vietnam,” in its occupation of Cambodia. Aggravated by border clashes with Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, Vietnam invaded its western neighbor in late 1978 and quickly toppled the ultra-Maoist government that had devastated Cambodia. But it spent the next decade fighting the Khmer Rouge, along with other resistance forces based in the country’s north and west. Despite the Khmer Rouge’s mass atrocities during its years in power, it was cynically supported by a United States still stinging from its defeat in the Vietnam War — the literal one, that is. Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia in 1989, and a United Nations peacekeeping mission took over in the early 1990s.

Clearly, pretty much anything can be a Vietnam. The trope is so common that back in 1998 Oxford’s Handbook of Social Psychology cited it as an example of how people “give meaning to new situations by drawing historical precedents and analogies.” The book added: “This cognitive strategy can be seriously abused. One mistake is to dwell on the most obvious precedent…rather than survey a diverse set of precedents. Consider, for instance, the potpourri of Third World conflicts that American observers in the elite press compared to Vietnam between 1975 and 1995: Lebanon, Israel’s Vietnam; Eritrea, Ethiopia’s Vietnam; Chad, Libya’s Vietnam; Angola, Cuba’s Vietnam….” Some now even argue that Mexico’s war against the drug cartels is its Vietnam.

As the Oxford handbook suggested, viewing these wars through the lens of Vietnam can threaten to obscure their particulars. And it was ignoring the specifics, as well as the history, that helped get countries like the United States so bogged down in these conflicts in the first place. Blinded by its focus on the Cold War struggle between communism and capitalism, the United States’ Vietnam strategy failed to account for the local, anti-colonial, and nationalist motivations behind the conflict. In Iraq, the U.S. focus on regime change didn’t account for underlying sectarian divides that the invasion would inflame.

The Vietnam War’s impact on an influential generation of Americans, the massive effects of the draft, and the culture of protest that surrounded it have helped turn Vietnam into a leading metaphor. It’s disheartening that there have been so many other “Vietnams” since then — but labeling them as such probably won’t prevent many more.

PHAN KHAC DUONG,PHAN THANK GIAN/AFP/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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