On the surface, the Vietnam war and the attack on Iraq by U.S. forces don’t have much in common.
In the 1960s, when the Vietnam conflict was at its height, the United States was in a global face-off with a rival of comparable size and power, the Soviet Union. Our involvement in Vietnam increased only incrementally, over a period of some years. Furthermore, the Viet Cong and their North Vietnamese sponsors were clearly the aggressors, in the sense that they went on the offensive militarily: their goal was to overthrow foreign-backed governments supported, in turn, by the French and the Americans, in a popular insurgency. None of these circumstances are relevant in the Iraq scenario.
In spite of the neoconservatives’ insistence that we are presently engaged in “World War IV,” a worldwide struggle against Islam analogous to the cold war, religion is not the same as ideology: an Islamic insurgency is unlikely to take root in, say, Colombia or El Salvador. This time around, it is we who are pushing a militant universalism, exporting our system of “democratic capitalism” (i.e. state capitalism, or the mixed economy) as the solution to the world’s problems.
The cold war era was marked by what we used to call the “balance of terror“: each side was deterred from launching any major military operation for fear it would escalate into Armageddon. What is striking about the present conflict is the radical imbalance of power between the American hegemon and a tatterdemalion collection of “rogue” states and non-state actors.
Secondly, there was nothing incremental about the invasion and conquest of Iraq: it was a three-week war, after all. Unlike the Southeast Asian quagmire we managed to drag ourselves into, without much prior public debate, the Iraqi quagmire was jumped into head-first, of our own volition, after a short but intense and very public discussion.
The biggest difference, however, is that, this time around, we were the aggressors, brazenly and unilaterally attacking a country that had never posed a threat to us. Like the Viet-Cong guerrillas, who were trained and subsidized by Moscow, Iraqi insurgents received funding and military support from a foreign sponsor the U.S. in an effort to spark a popular uprising. In the style of Soviet propagandists and fellow travelers of yesteryear, U.S. government spin-meisters and their amen corner in the Western media tried to portray the invasion as a prelude to a popular revolt against Saddam, with Anglo-American troops playing the role of “liberators.” The conservative writer Paul Craig Roberts, and the foreign policy analyst Claes Ryn, have captured both the spirit and the intellectual pedigree of the neoconservative war policy by calling it “neo-Jacobin.”
There is, however, an important sense in which the present conflict conjures visions of Vietnam albeit oddly distorted, like the reflection of a nightmare in a funhouse mirror.
The language of this conflict is very much the same except that the positions are oddly reversed, with the rhetoric employed by the U.S. resembling that of the Communists. As the U.S. undertakes the “reconstruction” of Iraq, while finding itself the target of a growing guerrilla insurgency, our official propaganda recalls that of the pro-Soviet “liberators” of Afghanistan and Vietnam who crowed that Red Army tanks were bringing “education” to the illiterate masses and smashing the “oppression” of women.
The same rationale leftists routinely employ in defense of Cuba oh, but look at all the good things Castro has done: the literacy rate! the health care clinics! gender equality! is spouted with a straight face by the neocons when they demand we look at the bright side of the American occupation.
The War Party resembles nothing so much as the Commies of the 1930s, who, when confronted with stories of mass murder and repression in the Soviet Union, responded that these were merely minor glitches on the road to utopia.
What does it matter that a few anti-Soviet “terrorist” elements have been “liquidated,” compared to the news that the glorious workers republic has once again! over-fulfilled the Five Year Plan? What are you, some kind of anti-Soviet reactionary?
The war at home, rather than the military conflict taking place in Iraq, is what conjures a sense of deja-vu in all of us old enough to remember. Donald Rumsfeld, in his search for the right “metrics” by which to measure success in Iraq, resembles a hybrid of Robert S. McNamara, whose name has become a byword for the clueless technocrat, and General Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay, whose belligerent gruffness personified American arrogance at its most extreme.
The vocabulary of the Vietnam war has crept into our present day lexicon. “Iraqi-ization” has become the byword of this administration, which is now shifting toward an “exit strategy” just as “Vietnamization” was the slogan whereby the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations sought to persuade us there was “light at the end of the tunnel.”
Once again, we have “hawks,” and “doves,” roughly equivalent to “right” and “left,” and opponents of the war are smeared as somehow less than patriotic, and even terrorist sympathizers. What’s more, these accusations are being hurled by some of the same people who turned in a similar performance during the Vietnam era. The same “neoconservatives” albeit now formally aligned with the Republican right, whereas once they allied themselves with the Hubert Humphrey wing of the Democratic party are in the vanguard of the War Party. Norman Podhoretz and the “Committee on the Present Danger” gang are still at the old stand, hawking their brand of systematized bellicosity as the only hope of a dangerously decadent and complacent West.
Once again, we have the War Party trafficking in lies just as they did in Vietnam. Except that, back in those days, as Daniel Ellsberg points out in the preceding link, the public was shocked that a chief executive was capable of such behavior. Today, no one is shocked but there is a rising anger in the country at the sheer scale of the deception.
This anger is reflected in the poll numbers on the war, and is not an exclusively left-wing phenomenon. A growing coalition of foreign policy “realists,” libertarian anti-interventionists, traditional conservatives, and disaffected military families is coalescing, rallying around the slogan “A Republic, Not an Empire!” This same negative reaction to the rise of Imperial America fuels much of Howard Dean’s momentum, albeit from a left-wing perspective.
Here is another major difference from the Vietnam era: the antiwar movement is not a phenomenon of the far Left, as much as the International “Answer” group may wish to pretend otherwise. From the very beginning, opposition to the war has been much broader than in the movement of the 1960s at its height. The argument, coming from the antiwar Right and the Center, as well as from the Left, is that this war doesn’t serve American interests and, more than that, it is downright un-American, to boot. This country was born in a revolution against British imperialism: what a betrayal it is for Bush II to follow in the footsteps of King George III.
Not that the Iraqi resistance is the Middle Eastern version of the Founding Fathers: Again, except for the prehistoric monsters of the “Answer”/Workers World Party who have recently pledged “unconditional support” [pdf file] to the Iraqi “anti-colonial movement” no sane person is glorifying the other side. The war in Iraq may eventually succeed in bringing some kind of order, and even some semblance of “democracy,” to that country’s long-suffering people but at what price? It may be good for the Iraqis, in the long run but is it good for the Americans? As the daily disasters of the occupation accumulate, the answer is increasingly an unequivocal no.
The celebrants of American Empire legion as recently as a few months ago seem to be sparse on the ground, and oddly silent, now that their vision is being played out on the battlefields of Iraq. Everyone is preparing to disavow the coming defeat the pro-war neocons, who are already anticipating a failure of “will” as the cause, while pro-war (albeit multilateralist) liberals are caviling that Bush doesn’t have a real commitment to reconstructing Iraq. No one is taking responsibility: not Bush, who won’t even own up to the “Mission Accomplished” banner that served as backdrop for his “victory” speech, and certainly not the Democrats who voted for the war instead, they are blaming Bush for “losing the peace.” Except there is no peace.
In a recent interview, the writer and cultural critic Camille Paglia took a position almost identical to my own:
“My view which is an extreme position is that we should get the troops out of Iraq now. But even many liberals are saying, ‘We’re gone too far. We cannot turn back now!’ Oh, yes, we can! Get the United Nations in there, and get out! I don’t think this thing is worth one more American life not with the pressing needs we have at home. We have catastrophically compromised our internal system of defense against terrorism because of this adventure overseas. Our National Guard and reservists are over there our first responders for emergencies in terrorist attacks here.”
Not worth one more life Camille, as usual, pegs it. Except she’s wrong that such a position is inherently “extreme.” It may be a relatively rare stance to take, as of this moment: but how many more such offensives as the one endured this past weekend will it take before the tide of public opinion turns decisively against the war? As the American campaign to put down the Iraqi insurrection escalates there’s that Vietnam era phraseology again! so does the antiwar opposition, while the President’s poll numbers plummet.
Paglia’s analysis of the “toothpick men” of the Democratic party, who collapsed when they could have stood up to the War Party, describes them to a tee, but my favorite part of the interview is her take on the American general who almost started World War III:
Salon: “But as a pro-military Democrat, what do you make of Gen. Wesley Clark?”
Camille: “What a phony! What a bunch of crap this Clark boom is. Clark reminds me of Keir Dullea in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ a blank, vacant expression, detached and affectless. There’s something sexually neutered about Dullea in that film a physical passivity necessitated by cramped space travel that I also find in Clark. And the astronaut Dullea plays is sometimes indistinguishable from the crazed computer, HAL which I find in Clark’s smug, computerized vocal delivery.”
As our old Republic sinks slowly into the horizon of history, until only the top-most banners and part of the main sail are visible, it’s nice to have a good laugh now and then. Laughter, too, is a weapon.