Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Vietnam Veterans on Civilian Casualties in Iraq

a project of the Nation Institute

Vietnam was, for the United States, the war that never ended.

Administration after administration has tried, with remarkable lack of success, to wipe it from memory or turn it, at least, into a curable medical condition ("the Vietnam syndrome").

After that war, a shattered military based on a national draft was rebuilt as an all-volunteer force on supposedly non-Vietnam-era principles; the war itself was reconceived as a "noble cause" by President Ronald Reagan; under the rubric of the "culture wars," assaults were launched from the Right against all aspects of 1960s thinking and behavior (especially those that had to do with antiwar protest); our leaders swore that we would never again get involved in a war abroad without "an exit strategy" and concluded that the American people had to be broken of various bad habits incurred in that dreadful era -- especially an unreasonable resistance to the idea of further American blood-letting abroad in long-term foreign adventures and interventions; and the media was to be reorganized (and finally "embedded" in the military) to prevent the sort of reporting that many on the Right considered the main culprit in a Vietnam disaster in which we had reputedly "won" every battle but lost the war on the home front.

Our present President's father, after his Gulf War, exulted, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all."

And yet Vietnam as a catastrophic experience had sunk deep into American consciousness and tenaciously refused to be expunged.

Not surprisingly then, the Vietnam analogy (or fear of it) was deeply entwined with Bush administration thinking and planning from the get-go when it came to an invasion of Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Hence, for instance, the careful planning to bring the bodies of the American dead back to Dover Air Force Base in Maryland in the dead of night -- no reporters, no ceremonies, no evidence of their arrival. None of those nasty "body bags" (which were, in any case, renamed "transfer tubes") were to return in the glare of day to appear on the national news, as in the Vietnam era. This was another of those to-be-avoided factors, believed to have helped cause loss of support on the domestic front for that war.

Similarly, there was to be no counting of enemy dead on the battlefields of this new war, and so none of the notorious "body counts" of the Vietnam era which again were believed to have sapped support.

Desperate as top Bush officials and their neocon allies were to be fighting a new World War II (or at least a new Cold War), so much of Bush administration planning proved a kind of opposites game based on banishing Vietnam memories.

In occupying Iraq, we were to replicate our experience bringing democracy to Germany and Japan in 1945 (an analogy administration officials flogged ad nauseum), but not -- no, never -- bringing on death and destruction, a fierce guerrilla war, and finally our own defeat in the style of Vietnam.

No one should be shocked then that in practically the first moments of the invasion of Iraq, the Vietnam analogy instantly burst back into consciousness.

The very phrases of that former war -- winning hearts and minds, search and destroy, credibility gap, hard to tell friend from foe, civilian interference in military affairs -- were almost immediately on the lips of military men, administration officials, soldiers, and critics alike.

Marilyn Young, who wrote an essential history of that previous era, Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990, caught the strangeness of all this back in February 2003, before the invasion of Iraq even began -- and then, with the actual invasion barely underway, pronounced the Iraq War, "Vietnam on crack cocaine," a description that remains remarkably accurate to this day.

Somehow Americans just couldn't help themselves. Vietnam was still on the brain. The "Q-word," for example, made its ominous appearance even before Baghdad fell, an embarrassed shorthand stand-in for that Vietnam era classic,
"quagmire" -- what the United States was supposedly stuck in while in Vietnam. (Forget, for the moment, that to the Vietnamese, Vietnam was neither swamp nor bog, but home).

Even where Vietnam-era terms were avoided -- a good example would be the
infamous "light at the end of the tunnel," that hopeful official statement of progress in Vietnam that became a catch-phrase for American failure and defeat -- they could still be felt lurking just over the horizon.

In the case of the ever-evasive, ever desired "light," the phrase remained lodged just behind the repetitive assurances of top military commanders and administrations officials that we had reached various "turning points" or "tipping points" or "landmarks" in Iraq, that "progress" was indeed constantly being made, that "violence" was just on the verge of beginning to fall away. (After each such point, as it happened, there would only be more and worse of the same to come.)

Now, of course, we've reached the "withdrawal" phase of a disastrous war and we're already seeing the appearance of administration "withdrawal strategies," so reminiscent of Vietnam, that don't actually involve leaving Iraq -- just as,
in the Vietnam era, "withdrawal" from that war involved endless departure-like maneuvers that only intensified the war (bombing "pauses" that led to fiercer bombing campaigns, negotiation offers never meant to be taken up).

In fact, with the recent return of Nixon Defense Secretary Melvin Laird in Foreign Affairs magazine calling for the use of his over-three-decade old "Vietnamization" strategy as an end-game policy for success in Iraq, we even have a new Vietnam-era-adapted word to kick around -- "Iraqification" (and the "Iraq Syndrome" has already made more than one appearance as well). It's unending.

As long as we occupy Iraq in some fashion, that Vietnam = Iraq analogy will simply never go away, however much it may be argued about and however many writers (
including this one) point out the obvious, glaring differences between the two wars and the two moments.

But none of this matters. Something deep and essential and American remains familiarly unsettling across the two eras, no more so, it seems, than for those who actually fought in Vietnam.

When it comes to Vietnam veterans, the Vietnam analogy naturally comes alive in a special way -- as in the case of a spate of letters that arrived in the Tomdispatch email box after the site posted a piece by Michael Schwartz entitled A Formula for Slaughter, The American Rules of Engagement from the Air.

Schwartz focused on an incident in Baiji, a small town about 150 miles north of Baghdad. The cameras on an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flying over the town spotted three men who might have been planting a roadside explosive. The men seem to flee into a nearby house. Navy F-14s were then called in to strafe the house with cannon fire and drop a "precision guided munition," presumably a 500-pound bomb on it.

The attack, according to reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post, left 12-14 members of a single Iraqi family, who happened to be living there, dead. Schwartz went on to examine the nature of the brutal American "rules of engagement" under which this attack was allowed and, in that context, considered the Bush administration's draw-down strategy in Iraq which involves relying on the ever escalating use of airpower. !

Schwartz concluded: "The new American strategy, billed as a way to de-escalate the war, is actually a formula for the slaughter of Iraqi civilians."

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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