Vietnam and Iraq Now Inextricably Linked as U.S. Geopolitical Disasters

General David Petraeus in Iraq in 2007. Thomas Dworzak/Magnum

Lance Corporal Victor Lu's friends in his Marine unit—the 3rd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment, part of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force that fought in the brutal battle to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah from insurgents in late 2004—used to call him "Buddha." The young Vietnamese-American man was 6 feet 3 inches tall, a black belt in Ju Si Tang Chinese kung fu and among the physically strongest men in his unit. But the imposing strength and physique belied a gentle, affable nature. Hence the nickname, which Lu liked so much he scribbled it onto the back of his Kevlar vest.

He had grown up in Los Angeles, not far from the University of Southern California, the eldest son of six children born to Nu and Xuong Lu, his mother and father. His parents had fled the country in the wake of the 1975 American withdrawal—and Communist takeover—of that country. Roughly 800,000 Vietnamese left the country from 1975 to 1995, with more than half of them settling in the United States.

Like many other young Americans, he had enlisted in the Marines after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and hoped, after the war, to join the Los Angeles Police Department. Before he went back for his second tour—before the assault on Fallujah—he told a friend he believed deeply in the mission. "We are bringing freedom," he said, "to people who deserve it."

Lu would not return from Iraq alive. In the early morning of November 13, 2004, the "3-5" was going house to house in Fallujah. When one front door jammed, Lu's fellow Marines called on him to use his bulk and strength as a battering ram. He rammed his shoulder into the door, it popped open, and almost immediately Lu began taking fire from three insurgents inside. He absorbed eight or nine rounds before his unit mates could return fire. He slumped to the floor, mortally wounded. He was 22 years old.

An Iraqi man walks by the scene of an attack on U.S. Army Humvee's that caused several American casualties in the Al-Waziriyah neighborhood of Baghdad, April 26, 2004. Moises Saman/Magnum

Blame Game

A decade later, Fallujah, in the heart of Anbar province, 40 miles west of Baghdad, again sits under the control of insurgents, this time the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—the Al-Qaeda offshoot known as ISIS—radical Sunnis apparently working in concert with former Baath Party officers loyal to the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. So too do the cities of Mosul, Tal Afar and Tikrit—all places where Americans at various times in the past decade fought bravely and, in many instances, brilliantly.

No American troops remain in Iraq, having pulled out at the end of 2011—though President Barack Obama announced on June 19 he would send 300 military "advisers" back into a country that now seems headed irretrievably toward a cataclysmic Shiite-Sunni civil war. Their role, at the outset, will be to determine which Iraqi military units are capable of fighting the ISIS insurgents.

The unfolding debacle in Iraq has set off a furious—and drearily predictable—partisan dispute in Washington over who was more to blame: former president George W. Bush, who decided to fight a war of choice (not necessity) in Iraq after deploying forces to fight Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in late 2001, or President Barack Obama, who decided to leave Iraq to its own devices, with not even a residual force remaining under a so-called "status of forces agreement" (SOFA), which the U.S. has in several other countries in which it has fought since the end of World War II. Washington was unable to come to agreement with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the terms for a renegotiated SOFA—to replace the one put in place by Bush in 2008—and gave up trying in the fall of 2011.

The two wars that shaped the life and death of Victor Lu—Vietnam and Iraq—are now bound inextricably together. They were wars fought for high-minded geopolitical ideals that ended in disaster. They were American fiascos. The United States hasn't yet sent helicopters to Baghdad to evacuate an embassy under siege—the iconic, despairing image of defeat in Vietnam—but "nonessential" personnel have already been evacuated.

President Bush declares the end of major combat in Iraq as he speaks aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast on May 1, 2003. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The cost to the United States of the Iraq War has been immense: Between 2003 and the end of 2012, 4,486 American servicemen and women were killed. Another 33,000 were wounded. (Before that, in 1991, 382 American military personnel were killed in the first Iraq War, which drove Saddam's army out of Kuwait, the neighboring oil-rich country to Iraq's south.)

The toll on Iraqis has been far greater. According to the Iraq Body Count project, an independent research group that tries to monitor casualties, up to 114,731 Iraqis have been killed to date in a war that, for them, continues.

For the United States, the financial cost of the war was also enormous—and it still grows, despite the fact that U.S. troops are no longer there. According to the Costs of War Project by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, the U.S. spent $1.7 trillion on the war. That, however, does not include benefits owed to war veterans, including the long-term costs of treating servicemen and women for everything from physical wounds to post-traumatic stress disorder. Add those costs to the total and it comes to almost $2.2 trillion, according to the study.

There are still some associated with the Iraq War who argue it was not a mistake. In a different context, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld used the phrase "dead enders" to describe those defending the indefensible. Most now accept the obvious: "If we had had the foresight to see how long it would last, and even if it would have cost half the lives, we would not have gone in," said Steve Bucci, a former aide to Rumsfeld, last year. "Just the time alone would have been enough to stop us. Everyone thought [the war] would be short."

The consequences of that miscalculation have been enormous, and in many ways may have only just begun. America's retreat in Vietnam nearly four decades ago begat genocide in Cambodia and an authoritarian, Communist regime in Vietnam that rules to this day. But in the wake of the war, economic growth in east Asia soared, and former authoritarian governments in South Korea and Taiwan became democracies (midwifed, to be sure, by active U.S. diplomacy, but not imposed at the barrel of a gun).

Now, by contrast, the Middle East has descended into chaos, with Al-Qaeda and its radical Sunni offshoots metastasizing and on the march, not just in Iraq but in Syria (where ISIS originated to fight the government of Bashar Assad), Libya and Yemen.

An American soldier screams at a gathering crowd at the scene of an explosion at an illegal petrol station in central Baghdad, May 1, 2003. Moises Saman/Magnum

At the core of that chaos are the sectarian passions cut loose by toppling Saddam. Iraq is now at the center of a lethal Sunni/Shia divide, which sets Iran and its client states in Syria and Lebanon against not only radical groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula but also Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf monarchies.

Senior officials in Saudi Arabia were relieved and grateful when the U.S. drove Saddam out of Kuwait and back to Baghdad in 1991. The idea of toppling him in 2003, by contrast, "gave them hives," says a former Western diplomat in the region. "And we've seen why for the last decade, in spades." Indeed, says an American military official with long experience in Iraq, "the possibility has never been greater for this devolving into a regionwide war. This is a perilous, perilous moment."

For now, the main theater is Iraq—the country the United States left behind. A senior intelligence official told Newsweek that "one of the big questions right now is whether ISIS can turn its tactical victories in Iraq into strategic gains. The group appears to be benefiting from a regional strategy that looks at Syria and Iraq as one interchangeable battlefield, allowing it to shift resources and manpower in pursuit of military objectives. And it's also clear that ISIS, with only a few thousand fighters, couldn't have moved as rapidly as it has without the support of some nationalist Sunni groups and sympathetic tribes, some of which are merely drafting off of ISIS's advances and may not cooperate over the long haul." This source adds that as long as the support of these Sunni elements holds, ISIS looks well positioned to keep the territory it has captured, "absent a major counteroffensive."

The horror with which Washington has viewed the current state of play in Iraq is exceeded only in Tehran. Iran has by far the most influence—and thus by far the most to lose—in Iraq, where the al-Maliki government, dominated by Shiites, is deferential, if not quite a puppet. The scale of the unfolding debacle is such that officials in both Washington and Tehran have floated the possibility of working together to try to stabilize Iraq.

To understand what a surreal notion that is, consider that one former U.S. military intelligence official says that, directly or indirectly, Iran may have been responsible for around one-third of all U.S. combat deaths in Iraq. The Quds Force, an arm of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards, helped train the Shiite militias with which U.S. forces clashed repeatedly during the war. And the so-called "shaped charges"—roadside bombs—that became so lethal in destroying U.S. Humvees and wounding so many soldiers were all made in Iran.

Iran's influence—and its ability to mount a counteroffensive via Shiite militias guided by the Quds Force—complicates the limited options the U.S. now has to contain the spreading chaos. Airstrikes, for example, would likely be viewed by the Sunni Arab world as the U.S. effectively becoming Iran's air force—something General David Petraeus, architect of the so-called "surge" in 2007 and 2008, which brought a measure of calm to Iraq, warned against on June 19. "This cannot be the United States being the air force of Shia militias. It has to be a fight of all of Iraq against extremists who do happen to be Sunni Arabs, but Sunni Arabs that are wreaking havoc on a country that really had an enormous opportunity back in 2011," he said at a conference in London.

Cpl. Edward Chin from New York of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, placed a U.S. flag on the face of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's statue before tearing it down in downtown Bagdad, April 9, 2003. Laurent Rebours/AP

History's Verdict

Historians will long debate just how big an opportunity Iraq really did have starting in 2011, when the last of the U.S. troops packed up and headed out. Economically, it is true that there had been some progress. Blessed with massive oil reserves, Iraq had finally begun to exceed prewar production levels. But politically not enough had changed—as al-Maliki demonstrated almost immediately after the U.S. troop withdrawal by moving against high-profile Sunni politicians in his government, men such as Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, for whom an arrest warrant was issued within days of the U.S. troop withdrawal.

The U.S., exhausted and weakened by economic troubles at home, had no patience anymore for the constant head-knocking that Iraq's politics require. And without a superior power knocking heads together, those politics quickly become lethal.

Lu's idealistic notion that the Iraqis wanted and deserved freedom may have been true. But two things set Iraq on its current course. One, the U.S. government decided to ignore the detailed plans for what had to happen during the occupation, pulled together by the State Department before the war in the "Future of Iraq" project. Instead, the Bush administration agreed to let the Defense Department run the postwar occupation, with its insistence on a "light footprint." That, as former State Department senior adviser David Phillips said later, "was the first in a series of mistakes. The resulting postwar fiasco undermined U.S. interests and tragically betrayed the hopes of the Iraqi people."

U.S. Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, evacuate a dead comrade during fighting with Iraqi gunmen as they tried to secure a key bridge leading into Baghdad on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, April 7, 2003. Laurent Rebours/AP

But the second thing was—and remains—the fierce sectarian rage that infuses so much of Iraqi politics. Long before I had met Lu's family and his Marine Corps brethren, and heard about his idealism and commitment to a cause, I sat outside on a pleasant summer's night in Baghdad, having dinner at the Palestine Hotel. This was a few months after the initial invasion. Saddam was gone, and the furies that would ensue had not yet commenced in earnest. The Palestine had a fish pond in the back, stocked with the day's catch from the nearby Tigris River, and the hotel would grill what you wanted to eat. Guys out front of the Palestine sold cold beers, and this became a popular spot to eat for the journalists, diplomats, nongovernmental organization reps and spooks who had gathered in Baghdad in the summer of 2003.

One night, two gentlemen I had noticed before invited me over to their table for a beer. They introduced themselves as brothers, Kurds originally from Mosul. The Kurds make up about 17 percent of Iraq's population and were brutally repressed under Saddam. The two men said they had fled Iraq in the 1980s and gone to the United Kingdom, where eventually they set up what became a successful software business. Now that Saddam was gone, they had come home and hoped to expand their business in Iraq.

After a couple of beers, I asked an obvious question. It seemed a little, umm, premature, I suggested, to be thinking of selling software in Iraq at this point, no? Things are, after all, a little chaotic. Well, the older brother said, we've also set up a "security company." And what's that for, I asked?

Knowing that I was a journalist, he replied, "Saddam in the 1980s had captured and killed our father, and he captured and killed our older brother." He paused. "So," he said, "we've put a team of people together, and we're going to find the men who did that. And we're going to kill them."

I'll never forget those words. More than a decade later, the cycles of vengeance in Iraq have not been broken. The cost of the invasion to the United States—in terms of blood, treasure, international prestige and diplomatic clout—has been enormous. But the costs to Iraq are still mounting, horrifically so. The conclusion, as sad as it is inescapable, is that honorable warriors like Victor Lu died in vain.