There are people that are opposed to the U.S. intervention in Iraq, as they believe that it will not lead to stability and democracy. These people, find similarities to America’s Vietnam intervention. For them, America has once more involved in a prolonged and indecisive political and military struggle, from which it will extricate with human and economic loses. On the other had, there are people that are in favour of the Iraq War and they believe that there is no comparison to the Vietnam War. They claim that it is the annihilation of Nazi Germany and its transformation to a democratic ally, that should be used as an analogy.
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But, the comparison to the Vietnam War and its consequences was unavoidable, as it still influences the public’s attitude towards foreign military intervention and was an event that is still in memories of today’s American leaders. The question is whether there are any lessons from the American disaster in the Vietnam War that could be applied in Iraq’s case. The differences between the two wars are very important: First of all, Vietnam in 1960 was a country with a long national history and a distinct national identity that was created after centuries of fighting against foreign domination. On the contrary, Iraq is a young state with many ethnicities and religions, that make unity difficult. Moreover, in Vietnam the enemy was skilled and experience with important external aid and international legitimacy. In Iraq the enemy had no martial ability and was politically isolated. Besides that, in Vietnam at first the war had the form of an insurgency that changed into a conventional conflict, whereas in Iraq happened exactly the opposite.
The nature of the insurgency in the two cases was different, too. In Vietnam there were peasants that were centrally directed by the Communists, that had a clear politico-economic and social agenda. In Iraq, the insurgents were members of small groups that their methods consisted partly of car bombings and sabotage against U.S. forces and the war objectives weren’t very clear. Moreover, the U.S. was more restricted in military action in Vietnam that in Iraq, by the Chinese and the Soviet threat and they only cared about protecting South Vietnam. Nowadays, the U.S. with its military primacy is aiming at a regime change in Iraq.
In Vietnam, the U.S. reached the 500,000 men and left the country after 8 years of bloodshed. In Iraq, the cost in human lives was much smaller and 3 weeks were enough to succumb the military resistance.
The comparison is becoming valuable by a political perspective: the lessons and the warnings that may come out of the Vietnam War for policymakers in Iraq War, especially on legitimacy and sustainability. The U.S. that failed to create and sustain a government and political order in South Vietnam, is now trying to do the same in Iraq. The Republic of Vietnam was a Cold War creation of the U.S. and it depended totally for its viability on America. In the end, most of the South Vietnamese didn’t have the willingness to fight and even die for its’ maintenance.
The sustainability failed mostly because the Americans abandoned South Vietnam, mainly because of the fall of public support on this war, as time was passing by with increasing American human and economic loses and no remarkable progress. State-building in Iraq is still in progress, so a critic on U.S. policy on this matter would be unfounded.
This essay tries to recognize and analyze the comparisons between the American intervention in Vietnam and in Iraq. I believe that the differences are equally important with the similarities for providing political insights. This essay tries to evaluate similarities and differences on: relative U.S. military power, war aims, nature, duration and scale of the war, U.S. manpower lose rates, the enemy, military operations, role of allies, challenges of state-building, and challenges of sustaining political support. It ends with conclusions and recommendations.
Relative U.S. Military Power
From a military perspective, the international and regional balances were different during the Vietnam and Iraq wars. During the Cold War, the United States relied on allied military support, so its military intervention that took place in Vietnam (1965) had restrains. On the other hand, United State’s intervention in Iraq (2003) was characterized by freedom of action, as the United States was the only superpower and its military supremacy was globally uncontested.
During the Cold War, China and the Soviet Union had under their influence many communist areas in Europe and Asia, including Vietnam, so the U.S. had to be careful regarding its military action in the region. Americans were trying not to provoke directly the Chinese and the Soviet intervention, so they were using their military power with restrictions. But even then, China and the Soviet Union were helping the Vietnamese Communists by providing them with weapons of technological advance. On Iraq’s case, Saddam Hussein’s military strength had almost disappeared by 1991 and in 2003 he couldn’t find military support by external actors. For the Iraqi soldiers, training was not a priority, that is why in 2003 the Americans didn’t face great difficulties in crushing Iraqi military resistance, taking over Baghdad and overthrowing Saddam Hussein.
The political objectives between the Iraq and Vietnam wars were different. In the 1960s the United States was trying to preserve the non-communist status quo in South Vietnam. In 2003, the United States expressed their intention to democratize Iraq in order to create a model for the rest of the countries in the Middle East. In South Vietnam, as long as the policies that were followed were in agreement with the U.S. interests in the Cold War, the absence of democracy was not an issue.
In the Vietnam War, the U.S. wanted to preserve the regime, by forcing North Vietnam to cease its military intervention in South Vietnam. For this purpose, a massive and well-organized military effort was necessary against a determined and skilled enemy. In contrast, in Iraq the U.S. wanted to change the regime and for doing so, less effort and time was needed, although the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, gave the opportunity to anti-occupation groups to mount insurgent attacks on U.S. forces and reconstruction targets.
Another difference was that one of the basic objectives in Iraq was the disarmament of weapons of mass destruction, while in Vietnam there was not such an issue but a struggle over territory. Moreover, the war on Iraq was justified as a part of the war against terrorism, led by al-Qaeda, which attacked the U.S. in September 11, 2001. In Vietnam War, the Americans didn’t feel threatened by some kind of terrorism back in their homeland, despite the fact that Vietnamese Communist forces conducted terrorist attacks against South Vietnamese officials and U.S. civilian personnel. But, these attacks were restricted in the region.
The main American war aim in Vietnam was to safeguard the credibility of U.S. defense commitments throughout the world. Dean Rusk, the Secretary of State had stated: ‘We have a commitment to assist the South Vietnamese to resist aggression from North. If the U.S. commitment in peace becomes unreliable, the communists would draw conclusions that would lead to our ruin.’ Indeed, failure to defend South Vietnam would lead American allies to question their credibility and communist advances would be encouraged in the Third World. The credibility of U.S. defense commitments was not an issue in the Iraq war. The Communist threat did not exist anymore and the American operations were not a response to Iraqi aggression. On the contrary, it was a war in order to prevent Iraqi’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and to stop the expansion of their biological weapons capability. This war depicted the U.S. willingness to use force against states that were seeking nuclear weapons and that could threaten them in the future.
Nature, and Scale of the War
The American intervention in Vietnam began as a materially self-sustaining, peasant-based communist insurgency in the South, against the South Vietnamese security forces that were supported by the U.S., and it ended up as a conventional military war between the U.S. and the North Vietnamese regular forces. In contrast, U.S. military operation in Iraq began as conventional and quickly crushed Iraq’s regular forces and ended up as a counterinsurgent campaign against terrorists.
In Vietnam the Communists motivated a centrally-directed, perfect strategically revolutionary war, with a detailed political and economic program in order to mobilize the support of the peasants. Moreover, the communists in Vietnam had external support. The insurgency in Iraq was nothing like it.
The Iraqi insurgents were former Ba’athist regime operatives, Sunni Arabs, al-Qaeda and other Islamist suicide bombers, hired gunmen and anti-American Shi’ites. So, the insurgency was not centrally directed. Moreover, it has no declared agenda, though it seems that their goal is to get the U.S. out of the country and cause instability on behalf of the restoration of Sunni Arab rule. Until recently the Iraqi insurgency rested mainly on the Sunni Arab community that consisted the 20% of the population. Now the insurgency has expanded but it cannot be compared to Vietnam’s situation where the peasants (80% of the population) formed the communist insurgency forces.
When it comes to scale, the differences are many. In terms of the forces committed the U.S. military personnel in South Vietnam they reached 543,000 in 1969. Allied forces coming from other countries were 65,000 in 1968 and the South Vietnamese armed forced reached 820,000 soldiers. Communist troops numbered 700,000 in 1966. By comparison, insurgent Sunni Arab fighters were no more than 5,000. Militant Shi’ites, associated with the Muqtada al-Sadr movement and his Mahdi Army, may on the other hand number up to at least a few thousand fighters. The Vietnam War, unlike the Iraq War, had a huge and protracted aerial bombing component. In terms of bomb tonnage dropped, it was the largest air war in history. During the 1962-73 period, 8,000,000 tons dropped through Indochina.
U.S. aircraft losses due to hostile action were also numerous, as North Vietnam was supported by the Soviets who supplied them with technologically advanced air defenses. During 1962-73 period the U.S. aircraft loses totalled 8,500, 2,700 airmen were killed and 1,800 were captured and became prisoners.
In Iraq, U.S. air power comprised a large component of major operations and had one advantages over U.S. operations in Vietnam: the enemy didn’t have effective air defenses. However, as in Vietnam, the helicopters proved vulnerable to hand-held missiles and to machine guns. During March 20-May 1, the Iraqis downed 30 helicopters.
U.S. manpower loss rates
During the 1965-1972 period in the Vietnam War, the U.S. numbered 55,700 dead and 290,000 wounded, which is translated as 19 dead and 100 wounded per day. These rates are well above than in the Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, which records 2 deaths per day. By April 2004, U.S. casualties had reached 685 dead and more than 3,000 wounded.
The number of the enemy’s forces was impressive in the Vietnam War, but so was the number of the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces, which combined to third-country allied forces, outnumbered the communist forces. U.S. forces in both cases had a fire power advantage over the enemy. Despite that fact, in the end the U.S. left South Vietnam to the Communists. One explanation would be because of the anti-war movement back in America and the hostility of the media. Another, would be the outstanding performance of the enemy, based on the asymmetry of stakes. The Vietnamese conflict was a limited war for the United States but a total war for the Vietnamese Communists. The Americans underestimated the enemy’s ability and most importantly their desire to win even if that meant that they had to die over trying. For the Vietnamese Communists this war was about national reunification, independence and taking over the power in Vietnam.
The Communist forces losses during the American period of the Vietnam War had reached 1,100,000 dead and 2,000,000 civilian dead. In the 20th century, it is the highest military death toll proportional to its population (5%).
The enemy in Iraq is smaller in number, less ideologically and organizationally cohesive and has no external assistance. During the first period of the Iraqi insurgency, the most dangerous enemy elements were Ba’athist regime remnants that were trying to restore the old Saddamist order. The characteristics of the enemy since then seem to be changing with the constant appearance of anti-American Islamic militants in the struggle. Religious extremists and foreign fighters begun to supplant Ba’athist remnants as the primary members of the insurgency, using suicide as an insurgent method and other types of bombings..
Additionally, an unknown number of criminals and unemployed former soldiers have been hired by the Ba’athists to engage in attacks on coalition forces for pay. Saddam Hussein’s capture brought into Iraq a number of foreign terrorists that now had the kind of freedom of movement that previously didn’t have. While Saddam was in charge, an effective internal security prevented any kind of insurgent activity. Moreover, terrorism against his regime was something that Saddam was fighting against.
Moreover, al Qaeda takes advantage of the vacuum in the political system that Saddam’s regime fall created. Members of al Qaeda are considered as leaders of the major suicide bombings that have been taken place in the country, such as the attacks at the UN headquarters, the Jordanian embassy and Kurdish political parties.
Another part of the insurgents is people who seek revenge against the Americans for previous actions against their families and friends. But, it is clear that Iraqi soldiers are not as capable as the Vietnamese Communists were. The Communists were organized into divisional-size units, whereas Iraqi fighters operate in squads. The Vietnamese Communists had external access to technological advanced weapons, whereas the Iraqis did not. But the Iraqi insurgents are better armed today, than the Vietnamese Communists in 1960, who relied on stolen and home-made weapons. Iraq starting from Saddam Hussein’s era, has been a heavily-armed society.
Last but not least, the Iraqis have no common ideology, strategy or vision for Iraq’s future, while the Vietnamese Communists had. Iraqi insurgent’s operations are uncoordinated, even though all of them agree on the objective of Americans being thrown out of the country, they have not agreed on a strategy for doing so. Maybe their thought is to kill as much U.S. troops as they can in order to undercut domestic American political support?
In Vietnam the U.S. got involved in two wars at the same time: one on the ground in the South and an air war in the North. Both of them failed. In the South, the U.S. military forces believed that they could cause huge casualties, because of their fire power, on the Communists and that they would have the initiative in the war field. But, they ignored the Communists’ readiness to sacrifice and their substantial manpower. Moreover, in fact, the Communists started most of the fire fights, which meant that they could control their losses by refusing combat when it suited them to do so. The enemy managed to keep losses within his capacity to replace them.
In the air war against North Vietnam the Americans also underestimated the enemy’s will to win. North Vietnam was a pre-industrial totalitarian area, so it was difficult to be defeated through air power. Moreover, the Soviets provided them with military means that imposed significant loses on American aircrafts.
North Vietnam had a powerful air defense system and the capacity of bomb damage repair, whereas Iraq in 2003 had not. The U.S. air losses in North Vietnam were significant. Apart from the enemy’s capacity and political restrictions in the use of force, there were other factors that influenced America’s military performance. There was no joint warfare in Vietnam. On the contrary, inter-service rivalry dominated, producing disunity of command and precluding the provision of timely and useful military advice to civilian authority.
On the ground things weren’t any better. Rotational tours of duty of 1 year for enlisted personnel and 3-6 months for officers lead to small unit cohesion under fire
and compromised the ability of officers and men alike to accumulate and sustain knowledge and skill in fighting. As a result, only the 15% of the U.S. military personnel in Vietnam were available for sustained ground combat operations, by 1968.
Communist forces were leaner because they relied more on stealth and cunning than firepower, and because they recruited hundreds of thousands of peasants to perform logistical tasks. Moreover, they lived in the field, unlike Americans. Vietnamese revolutionary war, combined mass political mobilization and a reliance of guerrilla tactics that deprived a firepower superior conventional foe of decisive targets to shoot at. They relied on camouflage and night operations, hit-and-run attacks and use of terrain and populations as means of concealment. The purpose of Communists’ military operations was to weaken enemy’s will through protraction of hostilities. It was the only way for them as a swift victory over the Americans was impossible.
Insurgents in Iraq have different targets: U.S. and coalition troops, American civilian contractors, Iraqis working with Americans, oil and electrical power infrastructure. Moreover, Iraqi politicians, police stations and officers and members of the New Iraqi Army. Their methods have evolved through time as the various groups have engaged in trial. They mainly include rocket-propelled grenades and use of improvised explosive devises. Iraqi police officers and other security forces are targets because they are considered to take over the power as soon as the U.S. forces leave the country. In addition, they are more vulnerable because their weapons are not as lethal as U.S. forces’ and they receive limited training in force protection.
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Role of Allies
In 1965 the United States did not bother to seek U.N. authorization for intervention in Vietnam because of the certainty of a Soviet veto. In 2003, the United States sought an authorizing resolution but failed to garner even a majority among the U.N. Security Council’s membership. Indeed, in both cases, much of the rest of the world, including key allies, regarded U.S. military intervention as illegitimate. Not a single NATO ally joined the United States in Vietnam; on the contrary, only five other states
aside from South Vietnam itself (Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand) contributed combat troops.
If America’s allies in the Vietnam War were few, the opposite was true for the Vietnamese Communists. Unlike Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, the Communists in Vietnam had powerful and decisive allies. Behind the NLF in the South stood North Vietnam, and behind North Vietnam stood the Soviet Union and China. Deliveries included fighter aircraft, antiaircraft guns, tanks and helicopters. The Chinese, provided the Vietnamese Communists with huge quantities of weapons. Unlike the Russians, however, the Chinese provided over 300,000 antiaircraft and engineer troops who, in the face of escalating U.S. bombing, manned air defense systems and constructed, reconstructed, maintained, and defended North Vietnam’s transportation network, especially its railroad system.
In Iraq, as in Vietnam, the United States has sought international support both to reduce its military burden and to enhance the legitimacy of its policy, although it strongly resisted giving the United Nations a major voice in post-war Iraq policy. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, this effort produced disappointing results, although the number of countries contributing forces to Iraq’s postwar stabilization is much more impressive than those that sent troops to Vietnam. In both cases, the United States bore the primary burden of the fighting, although in Vietnam, unlike Iraq, a large indigenous force performed important static defense and other military tasks.
In Iraq, the most notable contribution came from the United Kingdom, which contributed 26,000 troops. Since the termination of major combat operations in May 1, 2003, a number of other countries, for a variety of motives, some of them having little to do with support for U.S. policy in Iraq, have committed limited force contingents to assist Iraq’s post-war stabilization.
Additionally, the more “Americanized” the already heavily American foreign presence in Iraq becomes, the more likely it is that it will provoke Iraqi nationalist opposition. Some Iraqi nationalists may be drawn to the insurgent cause by what they view as a prolonged U.S. troop withdrawal and the continued absence of a new U.N. effort to take over the establishment of a new Iraq.
Challenges of State-Building
The Vietnam War ended as a war between two states, the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the southern Republic of Vietnam (RVN). The former established in 1945 and the latter in 1954. The U.S. supported the RVN against further Communist expansion. If it weren’t the U.S. political, military and economic support, the anti-communist regime could not have been created and sustained.
The U.S. helped with the state-building in South Vietnam for two decades. It founded governmental institutions, it armed and trained the RVN armed forces, it subsidized South Vietnam’s economy and it tried to direct the RVN toward democratization. Despite these efforts, state-building failed, first of all because of the RVN’s military defeat in 1975. The RVN was defeated so quickly that made an impression even to Communists. The U.S. were to blame for it partially. It reduced its principal goal from securing an independent, non-Communist Vietnam to looking for a withdrawal and when the final Communist offensive was launched in 1975, they couldn’t re-enter the war or provide the RVN with materials.
The RVN was to blame for the failure, too. Their weaknesses were: professional military inferiority, corruption and lack of political legitimacy. Moral disintegration explains why their three times bigger in size army, with larger equipment was that rapidly defeated. Important RVNAF units didn’t go to combat because they were to protect the government from potential threats of a coup d’etat, and generals that were very skilful were considered as political threats. In addition, military promotions were given with no meritocratic methods.
Moreover, many South Vietnamese started stealing American military and economic aid in order to get profit. They didn’t care about going to war as for them the Americans were responsible for this task. Black market operations were one of the major components of RVNAF corruption. The Communist’s fighting power was superior as first of all their political program was very clear: kick out the Americans, give land to the peasants and unite the nation. In addition, they had a totalitarian political system that controlled and directed the society more effectively than in South Vietnam. On the contrary, the RVNAF lacked in discipline and patriotism that would lead soldiers to sacrifice their lives.
Unlike the RVN, the Communists succeeded in persuading the majority of Vietnamese in both South and North that it was the only legitimate political representative of national independence. The RVN failed to obtain the necessary legitimacy in order to survive without the American support. In Iraq, as in South Vietnam, the political success will come after the creation of a government that will be legitimized by the majority of people and after the creation of security forces that will be in position to protect this new political order. South Vietnam had a corrupted government and large but incompetent security forces. Its enemy, however, was very capable.
On the other hand, in Iraq there is no government and no worth-mentioned security forces. Moreover, any government that the U.S. will try to create must be likeable from the Iraqis and must be secured by U.S. military power. The main threat to state-building in Iraq lies not in the insurgency in central Iraq, but in the potential for the recent uprising of Shi’ite militants to reignite, expand, and include large elements of that community or the development of the kind of sectarian civil war that plunged Lebanon into near anarchy for almost 2 decades.
The creation of a stable and democratic Iraq is difficult. The U.S. does not have the time with their side. Most of the Iraqis and their Arab neighbours look America’s presence there suspiciously and question its motives. So the Iraqi governmental institutions are erected under political pressure and under the objections of Iraqi sectarian leaders. The U.S. with its military presence undermine the constructed government’s legitimacy. U.S. withdrawal will reassure nationalists and provide governmental institutions with some space in order to develop.
One the other hand, a premature withdrawal a security vacuum may cause disorder that could lead to a civil war. Iraq has met in the past tyranny and authoritarian regimes, so a democracy in order to work needs institutions that can be trusted to deliver representative government, while protecting minorities. In addition, the development of a political society where groups will have the opportunity to be elected without provoking fears to the losers, is necessary. Otherwise, the losers may try to ensure their safety by resisting to national institutions.
The institutions need to be protected by security and gradually the U.S. intents to pass this responsibility on Iraqis. This action may lead to the legitimacy of the new Iraq government, provided that the new forces will not operate with visible support from the U.S. . 
Challenges of Sustaining Domestic Political Support
The American intervention in Vietnam failed because citizens back home stopped supporting it. Communists had more to loose from a bad ending of this war than the U.S, so their political will was much stronger.
The majorities and opinions of liberal newspapers, such as the Washington Post and New York Times supported the Vietnam war in the first place, as long as it didn’t last long, there weren’t many casualties and it didn’t influence much their economy. People trusted the U.S. Government and supported its decisions. But as war went on, this support started to decrease. By March 1969, 66% of the citizens were opposed to the continuation of this war. From April 1969 to December 1972 the U.S. military personnel dropped from 543,000 to 24,000. Public opinion made Nixon pullout the American soldiers even though he knew that this would favour the Communists.
In Iraq’s case, public support may decreased because of the inability to find any relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Moreover, the costs of the Iraq War are extravagant and they are to blame partially for the cumulative national debt.
Operation IRAQI FREEDOM was a war of choice and as such, like Vietnam, public’s tolerance in deaths was limited. Before the war started, .U.S. Government assured people that the hole world would consider them as liberators of Iraq. Effects on public opinion between expectations and realities needs to be seen. However, polls taken in March 2004 by CNN/USA Today showed a decline in public support. Only 49% was in favour of the Iraq War. Moreover, the 43% believed that their government mislead them about whether Iraq has nuclear weapons.
These two historical situations are not identical. Operation IRAQI FREEDOM achieved its goal, that is eliminating a regime that could be a threat to the U.S. . Despite that fact, the U.S. had to face the costly results of state-building while insurgent violence is still on, that resembles the Vietnam situation.
Many academics believe that establishing democracy in Iraq is beyond America’s power and that another regime type must be approached, such as a benign authoritarian regime type along the lines of Kemal Ataturk’s Turkey, as a transition to more representative governance. However, the U.S. must not abandon Iraq as it did with South Vietnam in 1975. It is possible that such an action would lead to civil war.
In my opinion the differences between the two cases are more than the similarities, especially in the military aspects. But underestimating the Iraqi insurgents would be a mistake that the U.S. did with the Vietnamese Communists in Vietnam. After all, even the appearance of the insurgency after U.S. operations surprised many. In addition, even though the appeal of the Iraqi insurgency cannot be compared to the Vietnamese Communists, the Iraqi insurgency has attacked key targets to Iraq’s reconstruction.
Policymakers need to be careful with the two aspects that are similar in both wars. The challenges of state-building and the need to maintain domestic political support. State-building in Iraq could fail for the same reasons that failed in Vietnam: inability to create a political order that gets legitimacy by the citizens. Moreover, the domestic political support cannot be taken for granted, especially now that people have in their memories the consequences of the Vietnam War.
In addition, the absence of a North Vietnam in Iraq could change, with a hostile
external state intervention. For instance, Iran, which has strong state interests in Iraq
that have so far been served by the U.S. destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime
may try to cause chaos in Iraq. Iran has no interest in the resurrection of a powerful
Iraq, and certainly not a democratic Iraq, and it has the means to get thousands of
Iraqi Shiites on the streets to protest the U.S. occupation.
To conclude with, it is important to mention the greatest difference between the two wars. The Vietnam War is a finished event, whereas Iraq War is still in progress. We know what happened in Vietnam, but we do not know what Iraq’s fate will be.
- Robert L. Bartley, “Iraq: Another Vietnam?” Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2003
- Harry G. Summers, Jr., Vietnam War Almanac, New York: Facts on File
Publications, 1985, p. 113.
- See John W, Garver, “The Chinese Threat and the Vietnam War,” Parameters,
Spring 1992, pp. 73-85.
- Larry Berman, Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in
Vietnam, New York: W. W. Norton, 1982, p. 92.
- Larry Berman, Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in
Vietnam, New York: W. W. Norton, 1982, p. 94.
- Shelby Stanton, Vietnam Order of Battle, Washington, DC: U.S. News Books,
1981, p. 333
- James J. Wirtz, The Tet Offensive:
Intelligence Failure and War, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991, pp. 247-251
- David L. Anderson, The Columbia Guide to the Vietnam War, New York:
Columbia University Press, 2002, pp. 286, 287, 288.
- Phillip S. Meilinger, Air Power: Myths and Facts, Maxwell AFB, AL; Air
University Press, December 2003, p. 78.
- Anthony H. Cordes
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