Iraq Is Not Vietnam
Iraq Is Not Vietnam
Making historical analogies is often like eating a thin bowl of soup with a fork: you might catch something nutritious if you're lucky but much of the substance gets lost.
The strong analogy that many commentators and authorities routinely make between the American war on Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and the current United States (U.S.) war on Iraq (March 19, 2003 to ?) is a case in point.
There are some obvious parallels between "the two quagmires." In Iraq as in Vietnam, the White House and Pentagon used misleading military rationales to "scare the Hell out of the American people" to elicit initial popular acquiescence to a vicious U.S. assault on a much smaller, weaker, and technically disadvantaged nation. President Lyndon Johnson's 1964 Gulf of Tonkin deception and the Big Lie that an international communist conspiracy headquartered in Moscow (and Beijing after 1949) was driving the Vietnamese national-revolutionary movement find recent war-rationalizing parallels in the second Bush administration's outrageous "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) claims and its related efforts to link Saddam Hussein's regime to al Qaeda and 9/11 and to portray Saddam as a suicidal madman.
Again, as in Vietnam, U.S. policy makers today are using the rhetoric of "liberation," "freedom," and "democracy" to cloak their imperial project. A key part of that project requires the occupied nation to reject political-economic independence and to subordinate its developmental path to the perceived functional requirements of the imperial world system and its supposedly enlightened benevolent police officer Uncle Sam. In Iraq as in Vietnam, the last thing U.S. authorities want to see is a truly free and independent Third World nation in control of its own economy, society, resources, and government. Martin Luther King rightly observed that the war on Vietnam had "put us [America] against the self-determination of the Vietnamese people" (King, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," p. 275 in King, Essential Writings and Speeches). The same opposition to popular and national self-determination in the targeted state drives (at the elite policy level) America's "liberation" of Iraq.
The people of Indochina, King mused in 1967, "must find Americans to be strange 'liberators' as we destroy their families, villages, land*[and] kill a million acres of their crops" and "send them into the hospitals, with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one 'Vietcong'-inflicted injury'" (King, "A Time to Break the Silence" , pp. 234-239 in King, The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by James W. Washington [New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1986]).
King would certainly have similar things to say about the United States' assault on Mesopotamia, which dates at least from 1991 if Dessert Storm and the U.S- led economic sanctions, which killed a million or more Iraqis (Karl and John Mueller, "Sanctions of Mass Destruction," Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999), are properly included in the relevant record of attack. In its latest openly military phase (since March 19, 2003), the U.S. aggression has included the open use of banned torture techniques on Iraqi civilians and the targeting of "resistance"-friendly (and thereby "terrorist") Iraqi cities (marked for U.S. "urbicide") for murderous, proto-genocidal leveling (e.g. Fallujah in April 2004), replete with the employment illegal chemical (phosphorous and napalm) and radioactive (depleted uranium) weapons and criminal assaults on "enemy" hospitals (see Edward S. Herman's haunting "The Preeminence of State Terrorism," Z Magazine, February 2006).
When former multinational economic consultant John Perkins socialized with young Indonesians in 1971, he was surprised to hear them refer to the U.S. presence in Vietnam as "the illegal invasion" (Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man [New York, NY: Penguin, 2004], p.45). That phrase is commonly and accurately used to describe the United States' criminal incursion into Iraq. But it applies also to the U.S. occupation of South Vietnam, which violated the United Nations Charter's prohibition against wars of aggression. Both invasions contravened the charter's requirement that states "settle their international disputes by peaceful means" and "refrain*from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of political independence of any state."
In Iraq as in Vietnam, Uncle Sam's awesome capacity for the infliction of sheer devastation is not matched by any remotely comparable U.S. ability to win "hearts and minds" and peacefully steer political developments. Again, there is a viciously circular relationship between the two sides of this asymmetry, with the Empire's political failures and related cultural indifference towards targeted state peoples helping drive an extreme reliance on force that further undercuts any slight chance the U.S. might have of winning popular support from an illegally occupied population.
Again, as during the Vietnam era, U.S. policymakers' claim to be spreading "democracy" and "freedom" abroad is curiously situated alongside savagely unequal and authoritarian social, economic, and political conditions within the U.S. King's 1967 comment that the U.S. had no business claiming to fight for others' "freedom" "ten thousand miles away from home" when "we have not even put our own [freedom] house in order" (King, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution," p. 276 in King, Essential Writings and Speeches), is richly applicable to the current era, when a corporate-imperial "homeland" plutocracy degrades a fading domestic U.S. democracy even as American policymakers claim to be spreading "liberty" around a grateful world. Once again, moreover, domestic U.S. inequality and the forces of Republican reaction (who elected Richard Nixon in 1968 and re-elected Bush in 2004) and repression are being deepened by expensive overseas war.
Again it's a racist war. American "liberators" in Vietnam were ordered to kill "gooks," "slants," "dinks," and "slopes;" U.S, "liberators" in Iraq today target "towel-heads," "camel-jockeys," "sand-niggers," and "a-la-la-la-la-lahs."
Again, as in Vietnam, we see dominant U.S. media and public political discourse focusing discussion of the war's human costs on the comparatively slight casualties experienced by U.S. troops. The much larger number of deaths and injuries experienced by fighters and noncombatants in the non-white target state are relatively invisible. They do not elicit remotely comparable human concern within the commanding U.S. news, opinion, and policy institutions. American victims are "worthy": noble, named, and humanized. Inferior targeted-state victims are "unworthy": nameless and faceless "collateral damage" in the supposed forward march of U.S.-imposed "freedom."
Again, the empire has killed for sheer imperial credibility. If the American empire dismantled its killing operations in Vietnam too hastily, leading presidential war criminal Richard Nixon argued, the U.S. would be revealed as "a pitiful, helpless giant." America's evident powerlessness would encourage "totalitarianism and anarchy throughout the world," Nixon claimed, articulating standard imperial establishment wisdom.
The same basic line about Iraq is being by policymakers from both dominant U.S. business parties. Democratic Congressmen joined their in-power Republican counterparts in who applauded presidential war criminal George W. Bush II's recent "State of the Union" claim that leaving Iraq would show that "a pledge from America means little" and open the world-historical door to "the enemies of freedom" (George W. Bush, "State of the Union Address" January 31, 2006). Again we are witnessing the "sacrifice" of American soldiers, along with a much larger number of civilians in the targeted state, so that Uncle Sam might not leave the invaded nation in what the U.S. political class considers "too precipitous" ("liberal" Democratic U.S. Senator Barrack Obama) a fashion. Today in Iraq as during the late 1960s and 1970s * long after it became evident that the U.S. could not attain its maximal military and political objectives in Vietnam (see below) * "too precipitous" a withdrawal means "at too much perceived damage to the United States' capacity to inflict massive, bloody punishment on those who dare to resist American dictates."
Again in Iraq as in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. policymakers and dominant media obscure the top war masters' overarching and principal responsibility for atrocities committed against the targeted nation by pointing the war-crime finger at comparatively innocent front-line perpetrators located much further down the real chain of command and structurally empowered moral agency. Pfc. Lynndie England, former prison guard Charles Graner, and other relatively low-level agents in the White-House- approved/ordered torture of Iraqis have served as war-crime patsies to divert attention from the real super-hyper-perpetrators, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condaleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and Bush II. The same flunky role was assigned to Lt. William Calley and others during and after the Vietnam War, helping keep the most truly relevant and culpable offenders (e.g. Lyndon Baines Johnson, Nixon, Robert McNamara, George Westmoreland, and Henry Kissinger) outside proper public and legal scrutiny.
Once again the "illegal invasion" has become increasingly unpopular at home as the U.S. citizenry becomes more aware of the chasm between administration rhetoric and the harsh realities of imperialist war, including an ever- rising U.S. G.I. death toll. As political scientist John Mueller recently noted in the leading establishment journal Foreign Affairs last winter, "American troops have been sent into harm's way many times since 1945, but in only three cases * Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq [2003 to the present. P.S.] * have they been drawn into sustained ground combat and suffered more than 300 deaths in action. American public opinion became a key factor in all three wars, and in each one there has been a simple association: as casualties mount, support decreases" (John Mueller, "The Iraq Syndrome," Foreign Affairs [November-December 2005], p. 44).
Again, as during the late 1960s, the White House and the Pentagon are responding to rising domestic criticism of their imperialist war by advancing a curious withdrawal narrative whereby they are preparing for an indefinitely dated "exit" from the targeted nation by equipping that nation's internal "security forces" to "step up" and "take the lead" in "doing the job" of crushing resistance and guaranteeing "stability" in the occupied state (Bush, "State of the Union Address," 2006; Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report , p. 11)
Again, as during Vietnam, another part of the White House and Pentagon's response to domestic unease with the invasion is to plan to shift an increasing share of the burden of imperial enforcement from ground forces ("boots on the ground") to the more indiscriminate state terrorism of U.S. aerial bombardment (see Herman, "The Preeminence of State Terrorism," p, 46-47).
Imperial apologists today are once again, as during Vietnam, claiming that the "quagmire" is the result of elite "ignorance" and institutionalized stupidity, not the partly rational pursuit of lunatic imperial ends. Once the high degree of difficulty the American empire was experiencing in Vietnam (well know among policy elites) became belatedly evident to the American public, leading intellectual apologists and agents of that empire claimed that Uncle Sam's criminal war on Southeast Asia was the product of a tragic and unfortunate policy errors reflecting policymakers' institutionalized ignorance and stupidity regarding Vietnamese society, history, and culture and the nature of the nationalist resistance (see Noam Chomsky, For Reasons of State [New York: The New Press, 1973], p. 53).
Such sorry excuse-making ("if only Robert McNamara had studied Southeast Asian culture at Harvard") has emerged in response to the Iraq "quagmire," with numerous elite intellectuals claiming that a "misinformed" Bush II administration was misled into Iraq by "bad intelligence" (on WMD) and a supposed overly-idealistic and unrealistic passion for exporting "democracy" to the Middle East. In both wars, the "bad information" and "poor thinking" excuse obscures the significant extent to which the "faulty intelligence" supposedly leading to overseas was selectively designed and filtered ("fixed in advance," to use the notorious language of the Downing Street Memo) to justify wars being fought for reasons having little to do with the official pretexts. Also conveniently rendered unintelligible by the "wrong information" and "incompetent cognition" defense is the significant extent to which both wars have been fought for reasons that are eminently rational within the admittedly lunatic doctrinal framework that guides U.S. imperialism (see the third section of this article, below),
Again as during Vietnam, U.S. imperial managers and their dominant media partners have disseminated an Orwellian narrative depicting predictable nationalist resistance to imperial occupation as morally outrageous and purposely murderous "terrorism." By comparison, the far more technically sophisticated, deadly, and costly state terrorism of the U.S is depicted as "humanitarian" intervention conducted in accord with cherished democratic principles. The civilian "collateral damage" ensuing from this grand Western benevolence (including well more than 100,000 Iraqi fatalities since March 19, 2003) is depicted as tragic and unintentional * an unavoidable "price worth paying" (as Madeline Albright described the murder of 500,000 Iraqi children by U.S.-led economic sanctions) for the broader good of American-led "progress." In this dominant narrative, there is no room for making causal links between U.S. state terrorism and anti-resistance terrorism in the targeted state (Herman, "The Preeminence of State Terrorism").
There are two basic difficulties, however, with using these and/or other analogies to say that (the U.S. war in) Iraq is "another Vietnam."
The first problem is that many of the above parallels simply reflect underlying historical continuity in the long American imperial project and its domestic underpinnings and contradictions. Opposition to other nations' independent and egalitarian development ambitions, the imposition of subordinate roles on weaker states, and the maintenance of U.S. military credibility have been quintessential components of U.S. policy and intellectual and political culture for many decades. So have the racially charged distinction between worthy (our) and unworthy (theirs) victims (see the second chapter of Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman's classic Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media [New York, NY: Pantheon, 2002]) and the conflict between the privileged war masters' need for soldiers and the U.S. population's reluctance to send its young men and now women into bloody imperial service.
Equally fundamental to the longstanding U.S. imperial project is savage American disregard for international law and determination both to hide the core goal agenda of U.S. global dominance and to deny American moral culpability for terrible crimes.
Also less than novel is the tendency of U.S. militarists to proclaim passion for freedom abroad while exhibiting hostility to justice and democracy at home. During World War One, antiwar progressive reformer Randolph Bourne noted the disturbing irony whereby imperial American "hearts that had felt only ugly contempt for democratic strivings at home beat in tune for the struggle for freedom abroad." Militarism's role in disabling and deflecting domestic social and political reform efforts is widely documented in modern U.S. history.
The use by American policymakers of false military and national security pretexts and related racist depictions of "the enemy" as devices to elicit mass support for, and participation in, war is as old as the Republic and its gory "Indian"-killing origins. So is the use of genuine and/or false foreign threats and wartime emergencies as a pretext for an assault on civil liberties and social justice at home. As James Madison once observed, "the fetters imposed on liberty at home have ever been forged out of the weapons provided for defense against real, pretended, or imaginary dangers abroad."
Equally venerable and strongly rooted in the long record of North American imperial, white-supremacist aggression is the determination of American authorities to portray their state violence as virtuous and "freedom"-loving while depicting forceful resistance to that aggression as morally deranged, intentionally vicious terrorism.
Going back to the beginning of the 20th century, to give one among many examples, working-class U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of non-white Third World ("underdeveloped") people died in the richly racist and brazenly imperialist occupation of the Philippines * an action falsely sold by U.S policymakers as an American-led "liberation." The occupation took place during and after a war against a significantly weaker state (Spain). It was initiated by the White House on concocted military premises used to provide cover for pursuit of an explicitly imperialist agenda. It relied on brutal state-terrorist methods which reflected and exacerbated American policymakers' failure to win the loyalty of the targeted state's populace. It involved numerous U.S. war crimes for which culpable policy elites never received appropriate blame or investigation. It reflected and exacerbated inequality and authoritarianism while eliciting considerable criticism and protest at home. Occupation resisters were officially demonized for their dastardly and cruel determination to fight back against vast U.S. cruelty (see a useful account, see Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States [New York, NY: Harperperennial, 2003], pp. 297-320).
The second and I think major problem with the Vietnam-Iraq analogy is that it ignores critical ways in which the Iraq war is essentially different from its Vietnam predecessor. Parts 2 and 3 of this argument will describe and elaborate upon leading dissimilarities between "the two quagmires." The unsurprising parallels between the two wars are transcended, I think (with no great claim to originality), by more fundamental differences suggesting that measuring Uncle Sam's assault on Iraq against his earlier attack on Vietnam is like comparing apples with oranges. Both criminal actions have been hatched from the same (United-States-of) American Eagle nest, but they are two very different imperialist birds, reflecting key and interwoven differences of history, geography, geology, domestic politics, global political economy, and imperial planning.
Paul Street is a Visiting Professor of U.S. History at Northern Illinois University. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2004), and Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005)