America’s increasingly drawn-out campaign in Iraq is the reason the Vietnam War remains such a contentious issue in the US presidential election race, retired Vietnamese generals say.
The elderly officers said they were not surprised the war, which left more than 58,000 Americans dead, had become a key battleground between President George W. Bush and his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry.
“Americans, rich and powerful, have still not come to terms with their defeat at the hands of smaller, poorer people,” said General Hoang Minh Thao, a respected historian of the Vietnamese army.
For many in Hanoi, the Vietnam War quagmire has resonance today in Iraq, where the US military death toll last week passed the grim milestone of 1,000.
“The lessons of the [Vietnam] war still have historical, military and moral validity,” he said.
From the very start of the Iraq war in March last year, Vietnamese generals forecasted that their former adversaries had a long, bloody struggle ahead.
As was the case in Vietnam, they predicted that the US military would face heavy losses as they became drawn into a guerrilla conflict without the support of the population.
In June, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld compared the violence facing US forces in Iraq with the Tet Offensive of 1968 in which communist forces mounted a series of daring attacks against US forces across South Vietnam that highlighted the hollowness of Washington’s claims it was winning the war.
For the generals, the similarities between the two conflicts are evident.
“I regularly follow what is happening in the build-up to the US presidential election. The wounds of the Vietnam War still remain among Americans, in particular given the current circumstances of the war in Iraq,” Thao said.
“The Vietnam War has become again a burning topic in particular since the invasion of Iraq. It has touched the hearts of generations of Americans,” said war veteran General Trinh Dinh Thang.
“It is a history lesson that is still valid today,” he added.
The service records of Bush and Kerry have become a divisive issue in the run-up to November’s presidential elections, with both candidates seeking to portray themselves as better qualified to lead the country in the war on terror.
Kerry earned three Purple Hearts for wounds and a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for valor serving on a gunboat in Vietnam, but in recent weeks his critics have accused him of embellishing or even lying about his wartime experiences.
Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard from 1968 to 1973 but never went to Vietnam.
“This [casting doubts on each other's war records] is a maneuver which is not honorable but is often used in presidential elections in the United States,” said General Le Huu Duc, one of the masterminds behind the North Vietnamese capture of Saigon on April 30, 1975.
“It is a terrible tactic in which both candidates are trying to exploit any weakness in order to tarnish the other,” he said.
The Vietnamese government has refused to be drawn into the debate.
Asked if Kerry was courageous while serving in the southern Mekong Delta in 1968 and 1969, Thao said: “I do not want to comment on the personal military career of Kerry. Let history judge itself.”