Vietnam, Afghanistan wars have very completely different lasting impacts

When a comparability was made between the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan a yr in the past and an identical debacle in Vietnam 46 years earlier, President Biden and his administration recoiled.

The Afghan capital, Kabul, wouldn’t turn into one other Saigon, Biden assured the American individuals. There can be no dramatic helicopter rescues from rooftops nor would the U.S. stroll away and permit the Afghan authorities to break down because the South Vietnamese regime did so shortly.

Vietnamese individuals scale the wall of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, simply earlier than the tip of the Vietnam Conflict on April 29, 1975.

(Neal Ulevich / Related Press)

However latter-day variations of each did unfold in a matter of days as america withdrew from Afghanistan, ending its 20-year army and political involvement.

Vietnam and Afghanistan have been America’s two longest wars. But regardless of plenty of similarities, together with errors made and disastrous denouements that spelled defeat for the U.S., every battle had fully completely different impacts on U.S. society, tradition and politics.

The 2 wars began otherwise and for very completely different causes. And so they have been fought otherwise — in several technological eras and, particularly, with very completely different armies.

Greater than a era in the past, the specter of Vietnam appeared to seep into quite a few corners of U.S. day by day life. It spawned a widespread, history-altering protest motion that in flip triggered a cascade of political shifts. It even left an indelible mark on movie, tv, tune and different options of American tradition.

Afghanistan didn’t have the identical affect. Though vital political and humanitarian fallout got here from the battle in Afghanistan, Vietnam’s impacts have been wider, deeper and broader.

A wounded U.S. paratrooper grimacing in pain

A wounded U.S. paratrooper grimaces in ache throughout the Vietnam Conflict.

(Hugh Van Es / Related Press)

“The sheer size and scale of the U.S. military deployment, the number of casualties and the backing of the enemy in Vietnam, were greater than anything we ever saw in Afghanistan,” mentioned retired Vice Adm. Robert B. Murrett, a 34-year naval intelligence officer who deployed to the Pacific, Center East and Balkans.

Murrett joined the Navy the yr after the Vietnam Conflict ended and recalled being surrounded by veterans of that battle, together with former prisoners of battle, in deployments for many years that adopted.

“Vietnam was very much on [policymakers’] minds” to at the present time, he mentioned.

Individuals couldn’t ignore Vietnam. Demonstrations towards the battle crammed U.S. streets. The handful of media retailers on the time have been dominated by information of mounting casualties, and nearly everybody watched Walter Cronkite on his nightly CBS broadcast.

And most necessary, it was bloody warfare within the jungle being waged by males (all males, on the time) drafted into service.

Marines marching in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Marines marching in Da Nang, Vietnam.


Almost 60,000 Individuals have been killed in Vietnam, and about 3,000 in Afghanistan. On the battle’s peak, half one million U.S. troops have been in Vietnam; the quantity in Afghanistan reached 100,000 for a few two-year interval, however largely remained far decrease.

“With Vietnam, you could not ignore it if you were alive and culturally and politically aware,” mentioned Abigail Corridor, an economics professor on the College of Tampa who research the intersection of battle, terrorism and propaganda.

It was probably, she mentioned, that just about everybody knew somebody in Southeast Asia who was preventing — and possibly unwillingly, for the reason that alternative then was battle or go to jail, until an individual was rich, related or obtained a deferral for medical or different causes. Even younger males who weren’t drafted have been typically glued to the newest numbers showing in draft lotteries.

Troops ducking as a helicopter hovers

Members of the 82nd Airborne duck as a Blackhawk helicopter prepares to withdraw troops in southeastern Afghanistan.

(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Instances)

This was not the case with Afghanistan as a result of, because of Vietnam, enlisting within the army is now on a voluntary foundation. Likelihood is most Individuals, Corridor mentioned, “don’t have the same type of personal consequence in the Afghanistan war.”

“Today we have a professional military class that experiences all of the dislocation and tensions” concerned in deploying to conflicts, mentioned Bruce Schulman, a historian at Boston College and creator of “The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics.”

To many, the explanations for going into Afghanistan in all probability appeared noble and clear. The USA had been attacked: On Sept. 11, 2001, planes hijacked and piloted by largely Saudi militants working for the phobia group Al Qaeda plunged into the World Commerce Middle in New York and the Pentagon exterior Washington, D.C., killing almost 3,000 individuals. The deadliest assault on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor was a visceral gut-punch to the U.S., a risk to America round which it was straightforward to rally patriotic help.

In Vietnam, the battle was towards communism, in a distant land — a wrestle most Individuals on the time noticed as necessary, however not essentially one that may straight have an effect on them. There was intense debate over the U.S. turning into concerned within the Vietnam battle, in contrast to for Afghanistan.

“The Afghanistan war was one America entered with a strong bipartisan consensus in favor. Not so, Vietnam,” mentioned Daniel Serwer, who directs battle and U.S. international coverage applications on the Johns Hopkins Faculty of Superior Worldwide Research. As well as, he famous, “the protests against the war in Vietnam were partly fueled by racial issues, as the draft hit Blacks particularly hard and the civil rights movement immediately preceded.”

Not like within the Vietnam period, throughout which Black males have been disproportionately despatched to the entrance strains, at present’s racial justice motion has been spurred by police brutality and financial, social and different inequalities, not the battle in Afghanistan. Within the Sixties and ’70s, many veterans of the civil rights motion transitioned readily into the antiwar motion, mentioned Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown College.

A troop in a helicopter

Sgt. G. Sanders from Detroit seems to be from the window of his helicopter throughout a resupply mission on April 24, 1969.

(Horst Faas / Related Press)

“It was a pivotal moment when [civil rights icon The Rev. Martin Luther] King turned against the war” in 1967, Kazin mentioned. “It made the antiwar movement more multiracial.”

Because the battle in Vietnam reached into American households, the argument of “what are we doing there” grew intense, mentioned Rajan Menon, a political scientist and specialist in international ethics at Metropolis College of New York and Columbia College.

“The same questions could have arisen with Afghanistan except that it happened in the shadow of 9/11,” he mentioned, noting that the scenario made it simpler for leaders to argue that the U.S. needed to battle the enemy abroad or it could be compelled to battle at dwelling.

“There was palatable weariness [with the war in Afghanistan], but it was not cataclysmic,” Menon added. “There was no Kent State.”

He was alluding to one of many a number of emblematic horrors of the Vietnam period, when the Ohio Nationwide Guard in 1970 opened fireplace on a scholar antiwar protest at Kent State College, killing 4 and wounding 9 others. They have been protesting the battle because it expanded with the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.

Vietnam ended the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson when he determined to not run for reelection in 1968 amid rising antiwar sentiment that may have probably led to his loss. The battle at first helped Richard Nixon however finally was partly answerable for his demise. Aggressive bombing in North Vietnam shored up his right-wing base forward of his landslide victory over then-South Dakota Sen. George McGovern in 1972, however his paranoia over the antiwar motion led to break-ins together with different prison or unethical actions that mushroomed into the Watergate scandal. He was compelled to resign in 1974.

It stays unclear how a lot of an impression the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan could have on Biden politically. Different points, such because the economic system and abortion rights, could maintain higher weight with voters in coming elections.

A child cries

A toddler cries as a person carries a bloodied baby on a street resulting in an airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Instances)

Biden, like former President Trump earlier than him, opposed persevering with the battle in Afghanistan, a place he held as vp to President Obama, as nicely.

“He had a real bee in his bonnet about Afghanistan,” mentioned a senior army official who participated in Oval Workplace conferences throughout the Obama administration. He requested for anonymity to debate inside conversations. “He felt like Obama was getting jammed.”

Schulman, the Boston College historian, mentioned Afghanistan could also be seen as a extra pivotal occasion in the long run if the present decade is finally considered marking an finish to the dominant position the U.S. has loved on the world stage. More and more, conventional allies are much less prone to take into account Washington a dependable associate, he famous, a seamless development that accelerated throughout the Trump presidency.

As Afghanistan by no means grew to become the stuff of large, passionate antiwar demonstrations — even the concurrent battle in Iraq was arguably much more unpopular — nor has it been immortalized in movie and music the best way the battle in Vietnam was.

Academy Award-winning movies “The Deer Hunter” with Robert De Niro and a really younger Meryl Streep, and “Coming Home,” each launched in 1978, together with “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and “Platoon” (1986), portrayed Vietnam in nuanced and infrequently essential tones to broad audiences.

Neil Younger even sang about Kent State in 1970’s “Ohio.”

Much less consideration has been given to Afghanistan, though in equity, a lot of the Vietnam portrayals got here after the battle ended. There was, for instance, the 2007 movie “Lions for Lambs” directed by Robert Redford and starring an older Streep. However there are fewer function movies concerning the battle in Afghanistan, and none which have entered the favored consciousness and generated the identical quantity of nationwide dialog and reflection as did the films about Vietnam.

Corridor mentioned it’s a signal of the pleasant relationship between Hollywood and the Pentagon, which she argues has gotten nearer. For greater than a century, studios have now and again labored with the Protection Division in making films, with filmmakers having access to army tools or locales and the armed forces brass allowed to evaluate scripts.

One more reason could also be that journalists, who typically write the primary draft of historical past in addition to film scripts, got exceptional entry to the battlefield in Vietnam, however severely restricted in later U.S. wars.

Regardless of the sharp variations in impression that the 2 wars had, there are sufficient echoes of Vietnam in Afghanistan to underscore classes realized — or not realized — and errors made.

In each instances, U.S. political and army architects and executors of the battle effort appeared to disregard or underestimate the depth of corruption of their native associate governments and armed forces. And in each Afghanistan and Vietnam, there was a persistent have to report optimistic outcomes to political and public audiences again dwelling, diplomats and different officers concerned within the processes mentioned.

National security advisor H.R. McMaster meets with then-President Trump.

Nationwide safety advisor H.R. McMaster meets with then-President Trump.

(Related Press)

“I do think that that there was this tendency to always, you know, show progress,” retired U.S. Military Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, who served as one in every of Trump’s nationwide safety advisors, testified at a congressional listening to about Afghanistan in October. “This is not a new phenomenon,” he added, saying he had seen it in Vietnam, too.

“There was a reluctance to deal with it from Washington because Washington, again, had created their delusion, right, their illusion of Afghanistan, what they wanted Afghanistan to be,” McMaster mentioned. “And that was because they were prioritizing just getting the hell out.”

On the identical listening to, Richard Armitage, a Vietnam veteran who served as deputy secretary of State within the George W. Bush administration, additionally reported on an identical thread within the two conflicts that performed into the U.S. defeat and collapse of the army it sought to depart behind.

“Great strides were made [in Afghanistan], but how about the one stride that was never made, and we could not prevail without it,” he mentioned. “At the end of the day, I personally … [was] not surprised at the speed with which things failed. Because Afghan soldiers just felt that their corrupt government was not worth the sacrifice of their lives.

“I saw it before in Vietnam, the exact same thing.”

Shawn McHale, an professional on Vietnam, colonialism and battle at George Washington College, mentioned one other mistake made in Southeast Asia and repeated in Afghanistan was a failure to adequately assess the probabilities of success earlier than launching troops, and to consider cultural, tribal and different native dynamics.

“The U.S. thinks too much on the military and not a more broad, catholic approach,” McHale mentioned. “There is great institutional pressure in the Army to do things as they did in the past.”

And people failings are pricey, he mentioned: Billions of {dollars} have been wasted on missions in each theaters that weren’t correctly deliberate. Afghanistan price greater than $2 trillion, based on the Pentagon.

Critics of the battle additionally level to a elementary flaw in Washington’s objectives.

“The big takeaway … is that you cannot export democracy at gunpoint,” Corridor mentioned. “In both Afghanistan and Vietnam, the U.S. was intervening in a civil conflict where one side was against U.S. interests. We still haven’t figured out how to do top-down regime change, or nation building — whatever you want to call it. You can’t. Not in the 1960s, not in 2022.”