Jim Miles: Vietnam is the Wrong Imperial Comparison

By Jim Miles

Much has been made of the Iraqi situation and the similarities with the Vietnam War.  As most American wars have been essentially wars of an imperialist nature (World War I was mostly an orgy of imperialistic blood-letting in Northern France; World War II spread more globally as the German and Japanese empires encountered the remnants of the British and the rising American empires), including Vietnam, a better comparison can be found with the home based American Civil War, an appropriate comparison as the Iraqi occupation has become a civil war.

Not all comparisons are straight and narrow, as they are not with Vietnam, but there are enough significant similarities to demonstrate the imperial nature and continuing expansion of frontiers from even before Civil War times to the current debacle in Iraq. 

The American Civil War, in spite of common perceptions, was not abut freeing the slaves, but about the overall formation of the economic structures of North and South and the Northern desires to preserve the Union and its own rising economic power. In more vulgar terms, the war was about the definition of property, slaves in this case, and the manner in which it was dealt with economically. In Iraq, the war is also about property, oil in this instance, and the ramifications of its ownership and economic systems around it.  

As with the war in Iraq, the rhetoric in the Civil War changed as the war dragged on.  While the real issue was economic systems, the issues became a “moral crusade” against slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation arrived during the third year of the war, not at the outset, and had serious limitations for slavery:  slavery was not touched in loyal states; and already captured parts of the South were similarly sidestepped. Basically, the issue of freeing slaves became a military necessity; the war for the Union became a war for “freedom”. As everyone knows, the rhetorical war in Iraq has changed several times, from WMDs and al-Qaeda, to regime change, to freedom and democracy, a moral crusade against terror.

Terror is another commonality in both wars.  The North’s efforts were for all out war against the South in order to punish them and keep them well-heeled within the Union, ending in General Sherman’s terroristic rampage through the southern states near the end of the war. The interests of the Union suffered because of this “retaliatory terror…inflicting starvation, murder and destruction,” leaving the South “laced with lingering resentment and violence.” The result was that the North won the war but lost the peace. [1] Following the win, “resentment and resistance among white southerners would increasingly undermine the law of the land through organized acts of violence and state legislation.” [2] So much of this sounds so familiar to anyone who has given even a smattering of attention to current events in Iraq.

This leads into the period of Reconstruction in the South, generally considered by all sources to be a serious failure. The North’s army occupied the south, disenfranchising 10-15,000 Confederate officials or officers, much as in Iraq the Baathist personnel were stripped of their positions and power. Reconstruction was rhetorically described in part as about “modernization” and “freedom” but to the Southerners “seemed more like exploitation and imperialism,[3]” echoes of which are fully evident in Iraq today. 

Comparisons can only go so far, as Iraq is still occupied and its ultimate ramifications are completely unknown but subject to the designs of unintended consequences. The aftermath of the Civil War has carried on to the present, with the continuing racial prejudice and lack of equal rights that only came to the fore a century later in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.  Other after effects of the Civil War are in the increasing American imperial ideals that wars can “can serve just and moral ends” and that the win for the “Union had created a ‘beneficent power’”.

Another significant comparison, as with all empirical powers, is that once a region has been controlled or subdued, the new frontier then becomes an area of concern. After the Civil War, the way was set to develop the west, ridding it of the annoying natives who persisted to hang on to the remnants of their already highly altered traditional life styles.  With the commercial expansionist economy of the North successful, not having to worry about adding more slave states to the Union, the imperial drive of America continued westward into the next frontier.

In Iraq there is also a new frontier. While Iraq is not a win, it is mainly under American occupational influence and the new frontier has now become Iran: sabres rattled against the backward and heathen savages of the west; sabres are now rattling against the backward fundamentalist heathens of Iran. This new frontier is dangerously close to being breached as Congress and the House of Representatives sit in the muddy wallows of uselessness. 

Iraq is not Vietnam, nor is it the American Civil war. The over-riding similarity of all three wars, of all American wars, is the expansionist imperial actions and supporting rhetoric that constantly seeks new areas of wealth and power, new definitions of economic power structures for other peoples. America is an empire from birth, and has continued that path throughout its history. The Civil War was about the economic patterns and future of the Union. Vietnam was about containment of another imperial power as well as access to oil, rubber and other resource wealth of Southeast Asia. Iraq is about oil and the establishment of a military perimeter to defend that against the new frontier of Iran, China, and Russia.

The only part of the comparison not yet written concerns the long term after effects of the occupation and the expansion into the next frontier. Unless imperial tendencies and unilateral pre-emptive actions are drastically curtailed soon (a nudge and a wink to Congress), expect the worst as the scenario unfolds.


[1] Carr, Caleb.  A History of Warfare Against Civilians.  Random House, New York, 2003. p. 153-156.

[2] www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/reconstruction.htm

[3] Kagan, Robert.  Dangerous Nation – America’s Place in the World from Its Earliest Days to The Twentieth Century.  Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006. p. 271.

-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles.  His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government. 

(The Palestine Chronicle is a registered 501(c)3 organization, thus, all donations are tax deductible.)
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