It is a commonplace that generals usually prepare their armies to fight the last war. It is less frequently noticed, but just as often true, that peace movements usually set out to prevent the last war. Either approach can be deadly dangerous. French generals who remembered Verdun brought us the Maginot Line. Pacifist politicians who remembered 1914 brought us Munich.
Today's protesters are running true to form, warning in shrill voices that war with Iraq will produce "another Vietnam." However, beyond the most basic fact of war -- that a great many people will die -- it is hard to find any point of similarity between the two conflicts.
First, combat between U.N. forces and Iraq will bear no resemblance to war in the jungles of Indochina. The terrain, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's mechanized army and Iraq's demographics weigh heavily against any conflict degenerating into an indecisive guerrilla war.
There can be no "Ho Chi Minh trails" in the open desert. There are no hordes of local peasants who can be dragooned into repairing the transportation routes after each day's bombing. Technological advances mean night no longer offers enemy supply columns a respite from air attack. Iraq's huge army, containing an absurdly large percentage of the Iraqi population, will find it extremely difficult to get the food, fuel and water it needs simply to sustain itself in Kuwait.
In fact, it is difficult to see how a war, however bloody, could be protracted. Vietnam, a nation of 55 million people with no significant industrial resources of its own, fought with the support of the entire Communist bloc. Iraq, a nation of 17 million, also lacking much industry, will wage war without support from anyone.
Seeking other parallels with the Vietnam debacle, some in the anti-war movement have tried to equate America's volunteer soldiers with Vietnam-era draftees. In this view, volunteers are "economic conscripts," the dregs of society forced by poverty to fight a rich man's war they are too ignorant to comprehend. That is patently ridiculous: Today's volunteer Army recruits are 95 percent high-school graduates, commanded entirely by college graduates. To see and listen to the soldiers in Saudi Arabia is to realize that they are not from the underclass. They are certainly no more expendable than draftees, but they have voluntarily taken an oath they are perfectly able to understand.
Despite the fantasies of a few Marxist college professors, who called the Vietnam War a case of "capitalist imperialism," the United States had no real economic objective in Vietnam. Again, Iraq is a different case. Many of today's protesters decry a "war for the oil companies," but the oil barons have no particular interest in a war to increase the oil supply and depress prices. This accusation shows an adolescent belief that economics are solely the concern of the rich.
In reality, a world economic crisis triggered by Mr. Hussein's aggression -- and his whole purpose in seizing Kuwait was to restrict oil production and drive up the price -- means little to the wealthy. They will still be able to drive their Mercedeses. For the rest of us, however, it means plenty. It means widespread unemployment and misery.
For the Third World, it means less money available for humanitarian assistance, more starving millions, more babies suffering nutritional deficiencies. It may mean economic collapse and political disaster in the struggling post-Communist East.
Ultimately, it means more wars. It is, after all, no coincidence that World War II was preceded by an economic depression. Prosperity may well be something worth shedding blood to preserve.
Vietnam was a hot spot in the Cold War, an ideological struggle between two superpowers in which the Vietnamese were largely victims. There is no ideological point at issue now. Iraq, the victim of no one except its own homicidal leader, is an outlaw nation that started a senseless, bloody war against Iran and has now brutally seized an independent state. It has used chemical weapons against not only foreign enemies but also its own people. Iraq now seeks to build nuclear weapons, and our experience with Mr. Hussein offers us no reason to think that he will not use them.
What is actually at stake is the tangible promise of world peace offered by the collapse of communism. For once, the world stands behind us, and an impressive number and variety of other nations have ranged their own troops next to ours. If America shoulders a greater burden than others, it is in the service of its own ideals and the very highest hopes and aspirations of mankind, embodied in the U.N. Charter and the world's many resolutions against Iraqi aggression.