"Comparing Wars" (March 17, 2003) by Darrell M. West http://www.insidepolitics.org/heard/westreport303.html
Every war has its own rhythm in terms of how it is conducted and how the public responds. Depending on the nature of the times, the quality of political and military leadership, and the strength of the opposition, wars can go either really well or very poorly from the standpoint of achieving a country's strategic goals.
War poses a special policy challenge because it involves national security, takes place at a distance from the United States, and it evokes very strong public emotions, sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Unlike many domestic policy issues, war directly engages people in the act of government.
With the United States poised for war with Iraq, it is time to look at the history of recent American wars, from World War II (the "good" war) to Vietnam (the "bad" war). How was each conducted? What challenges arose in each case? How did the public react to the war?
The Second World War was a massive activity involving over 60 different countries and more than 75 million troops of various nations (of whom 15 million were killed). Estimates place the financial cost of this war at $1 trillion, with property damage running around $230 billion.
In the 1930s, before the United States got involved in the war, public opinion was deeply ambivalent. America had a strong isolationist movement led by famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy, among others.
However, the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 changed public opinion. With the moral authority generated by a military attack, the American public shifted strongly in favor of war.
Even though casualties were high and nearly every family was touched by the war in some respect, the public maintained its backing of the war effort and endured rationing and other sacrifices that tested the country's spirit.
With a clear-cut enemy in Germany and Japan, and opponents who were easy to demonize given atrocities that they committed, the war was framed as a good war against evil opponents. It took a number of years, but when America and its allies triumphed, it reinforced American pride in its achievement.
The United States pitched in with the Marshall plan to help rebuild Europe. Within two decades, the European economy had recovered and democratic institutions installed in Germany, Italy, and Japan. It was a fitting end to U.S. involvement with the war.
Vietnam started as a determined effort by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to stem the tide of communism around the world. The object of the war was a small Asian country at the southern edge of China. Financed by the Russians and Chinese, the North Vietnamese were attempting to topple the South Vietnamese government supported first by France and then the United States. Their goal was to reunify their country under communist rule.
In the early days, the war appeared to be going very well militarily. The public supported the policy of containing communism and fighting insurgent governments in hot spots around the globe. Pentagon body counts revealed a large number of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops who were being killed, seemingly a sign the war was going well. It appeared to be only a matter of time before the U.S. would win the war.
However, perplexing disparities started to arise. The American military was killing many enemy troops, but the North Vietnamese effort appeared stronger than ever. Journalists started to investigate and discovered the American military was lying about the body counts and that the war was not going well for the United States.
Unlike in World War II, there was no front in Vietnam, the danger was pervasive and unrelenting, and the most common measure of "success" was counting the dead bodies of the enemy. The average age of U.S. service members in Vietnam was 19, seven years younger than in WWII, making soldiers even more susceptible to psychological strain.
Although the war claimed countless Vietnamese civilian casualties, Americans were shocked when they learned about an incident that occurred in March of 1968. In what is known as the My Lai Massacre, members of a U.S. infantry company slaughtered more than 300 Vietnamese villagers, including women, elderly men, children, and infants. As news of this incident and other failures of the war broke in Western publications, the American peace movement gained momentum.
Large antiwar protests spread across America. Television reporters with their cameras were allowed to film what was going on as it was happening. Unlike World War II where everything was pre censored, it became clear to the public that Vietnam wasn’t accomplishing anything except loss of American lives. The morale among troops—particularly those coming home from the war to a country with little empathy for what they had experienced—was low. Suicide, alcoholism, divorce, and unemployment were more rampant among veterans of Vietnam than of any other war in U.S. history until then. In Vietnam
In the end, Vietnam proved to be no rerun of World War II. It was hard to portray this war as "good" versus "evil", as had been the case during the Second World War. In January 1973, the warring governments signed a peace accord, ending open hostilities between North Vietnam and the U.S. However, the conflict between Vietnamese forces continued until the fall of Saigon in South Vietnam on April 30, 1975.
In terms of military strategy the two wars are dissimilar in a variety of ways. WWII was a strategic war where the goal was to occupy specific territory with the end goal being the capture of the enemy's capital. Vietnam was far less strategic in that the goal of the US was to kill as many communist soldiers, Viet Cong or North Vietnamese regulars, thereby forcing them to realize that a takeover of South Vietnam was not obtainable. WWII saw huge armies facing off against each other while Vietnam was primarily a guerilla war, fought primarily in jungle like conditions. Each side set ambushes to kill as many of each other as possible thereby hoping to force the other to quit. There were no massive armor attacks, though in some areas tanks were used.
The one common element was the use of air power. WWII saw the massive bombing raids of industrial and civilian areas both in Germany and Japan while the Vietnam War saw American air power being used to bomb both the port city of Haifong harbor and the capital of North Vietnam, Hanoi. Similarly, in both wars air power was used by the US to attempt to the stop the flow of supplies. The North Vietnamese didn't really have an air force per se but did utilize missile system given to them by the Soviet Union to shoot down some American airplane. In Vietnam, Americans also used chemical warfare by utilizing a jungle defoliate called agent orange. This chemical was dropped over millions of square miles in order to better see the movement of supplies from North Vietnam to the South. Little did we know or admit that the true impact was to cause cancer to anyone who came in contact with it