For Bush, Iraq Isn’t the Vietnam War All Over Again

by Stuart Rothenberg December 12, 2005 · 9:00 AM EST

The analogy of Vietnam is trying to creep into the analysis of why President Bush may have to start pulling troops out of Iraq sooner rather than later, but the two wars differ dramatically in key ways that enhance the president’s options.

Bush’s overall job approval numbers are now somewhere in the upper- to mid-30s, a few points higher than the public’s evaluation of how he is handling the war in Iraq. Those numbers aren’t all that different from former President Lyndon Johnson’s in March 1968, when the Democratic president’s job approval stood at 36 percent.

Bush’s poll ratings obviously are horrendous, and there is widespread criticism of the way he led the country into war and of many of the administration’s other decisions, including the size of our military force in Iraq.

But whatever the criticism (and it certainly is growing), Bush cannot feel the pressure to leave Iraq that LBJ, and later, President Richard Nixon felt. I can say that with certainty, in part because I well remember gathering around a radio with a couple of dozen other people in Waterville, Maine, the evening of Dec. 1, 1969, to listen to the first draft lottery since 1942.

For some reason, we had missed the first few dates that were drawn, so nobody was entirely sure if they had a “low number,” which meant that you could very likely be called for military service, possibly in Vietnam, or a “high” one, which probably meant that you would not be drafted.

I still remember that evening more than 36 years ago, during my senior year, because everyone knew that the lottery was likely to have such a profound impact on all our lives, one way or the other. My classmates with low numbers immediately talked about making plans — plans to enlist, plans to head for Canada or plans to get stinking drunk that evening.

Those of us who drew high numbers felt somewhat relieved (not knowing for sure exactly what number was high enough to avoid receiving a notice to report for a physical), but we also could not ignore the feelings and fate of our friends who drew low numbers.

When I eventually saw the full list of days of the year and their corresponding draft numbers, I remember noticing that all of the dates around my birthday had low draft numbers, while my 282 jumped out like a sore thumb. Had I been born 18 hours earlier, my birthday would have been a day earlier and my lottery number would have been 80. If my mother had given birth 12 hours later, on the day after I was born, my draft number would have been 46.

The draft made Vietnam very different from Iraq.

During Vietnam, young men who opposed the war or didn’t want to get shot at found themselves drafted, and they and their families took to the streets. The war had a very direct impact on them.

But without a draft, fewer Americans feel the impact of the war, and many of those who have felt the impact of the war most directly volunteered for military service.

When, in September, I asked a Marine sniper — the son of friends — who had recently returned from Iraq about troop morale, he responded that, at least in his unit, it was high. He told me he and his colleagues knew what they were getting themselves into, and that anybody who had joined the military in the previous two years was well aware that they would be headed for combat.

I realize that many National Guard troops who were called up did not expect to find themselves fighting in the Sunni Triangle, and that some parents have not been able to accept the horrendous pain of losing a son or daughter in the war. But unlike Vietnam, this war is being fought by volunteers, and that has limited the outcry against the war and given the president much greater freedom to conduct operations than Johnson and Nixon had.

Sept. 11, 2001, also makes Iraq different from Vietnam.

Almost 40 years ago, American policymakers decided that Vietnam was simply the next domino that might fall in a worldwide communist effort to squeeze the West. Regardless of whether that theory was right, we did not suffer a direct attack or feel the sense of vulnerability that most Americans do now.

You don’t have to see a connection between the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq to understand that the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., have had a profound impact on the way many Americans view the world and U.S. security.

It is simply easier now for the president to portray terrorists as a more direct and immediate threat to the U.S. than it was for Johnson or Nixon to portray the North Vietnamese, or even the Chinese, that way.

I’m not suggesting that public opinion does not affect Bush, or that opposition to the war could not take a more confrontational turn. Pressure on Bush from Republican officeholders who want troop withdrawals prior to the ’06 elections surely will grow over the next few months. But the absence of a draft, and the very real terrorist threat — whether or not it has anything to do with the war — makes the war in Iraq very different politically from Vietnam.