Obsession with seeming unequivocal and immovable has been frequent in the Oval Office. During the Vietnam War, such fixations were indifferent to the fact that the war was losing the U.S. government moral credibility around the world. But from the outset, Lyndon Johnson invoked credibility as an argument for staying the course. “If we are driven from the field in Vietnam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promises, or in American protection,” President Johnson said on July 28, 1965. Early the next year, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard testimony from a legendary foreign-policy savant, there was this exchange with a senator from Iowa:
Senator Bourke Hickenlooper: “Now, there are problems facing us and others…. How we disengage ourselves without losing a tremendous amount of face or position in various areas of the world.”
George Kennan: “Senator, I think precisely the question, the consideration that you have just raised is the central one that we have to think about; and it seems to me, as I have said here, that a precipitate, sudden, and unilateral withdrawal would not be warranted by circumstances now.”
Thirty-eight years later, in a Time cover story headlined “No Easy Options,” the magazine noted that “calls for a pullout could increase” and then swiftly put its editorial foot down in the penultimate paragraph: “Foreign policy luminaries from both parties say a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would cripple American credibility, doom reform in the Arab world and turn Iraq into a playground for terrorists and the armies of neighboring states like Iran and Syria.” The consensus range of alternatives would need to stay within the bounds of plunging deeper into a bloody vortex of war. For its several million readers, the nation’s largest-circulation newsmagazine summed up with a question and a ready answer: “So when can the U.S. walk away? After last week’s eruptions, the most this administration — or, should Kerry win in November, the next one — can hope for is that some kind of elected Iraqi government will eventually emerge from the wreckage, at which point the U.S. could conceivably reduce the number of its troops significantly. But getting there requires a commitment of at least several more months of American blood and treasure.”
Hedge words were plentiful: “the most” that could be hoped for was that “some kind” of elected Iraqi government would “eventually emerge,” at which time the United States “could conceivably” manage to “reduce” its troop level in Iraq “significantly” although even that vague hope necessitated a commitment of “at least several more months” of Americans killing and dying. But in several more months, predictably, there would still be no end in sight — just another blank check for more “blood and treasure,” on the installment plan.
“Quagmire” is a word made famous during the Vietnam War. The invasion of Iraq and the subsequent occupation came out of a very different history, but there were some chilling parallels. One of them was that the editorial positions of major U.S. newspapers had an echo like a dirge.
At one end of the limited spectrum, the Wall Street Journal could not abide any doubts. Its editorials explained, tirelessly, that the Iraq invasion was Good and the occupation was Good — and those who doubted were fools and knaves (the rough modern equivalent of LBJ’s “Nervous Nellies”). In 2004 the Journal editorial writers were fervently promoting a “war on terrorism” version of what used to be called the domino theory. Ultimately disproved by actual events, that theory — put forward as a momentous fact by supporters of the Vietnam War during the 1960s and early ’70s — insisted that a U.S. defeat in Vietnam would set the dominos falling through Southeast Asia until the entire region and beyond went Communist. The day after the United Nations’ Baghdad headquarters blew up in August 2003, the Wall Street Journal closed its latest gung-ho editorial by touting a quote from General John Abizaid: “If we can’t be successful here, then we won’t be successful in the global war on terror. It is going to be hard. It is going to be long and sometimes bloody, but we just have to stick with it.”
On the same day, the lead editorial of the New York Times insisted: “The Bush administration has to commit sufficient additional resources, and, if necessary, additional troops.” The Times went on to describe efforts in Iraq as “now the most important American foreign policy endeavor.” In other words, the occupation that resulted from an entirely illegitimate invasion should be seen as entirely legitimate.
During the late 1960s, concerns about a “quagmire” grew at powerful media institutions. Following several years of assurances from the Johnson administration about the Vietnam War, rosy scenarios for military success were in disrepute. But here’s a revealing fact: In early 1968, the Boston Globe conducted a survey of thirty-nine major U.S. daily newspapers and found that not a single one had editorialized in favor of U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. While millions of Americans were demanding an immediate pullout, such a concept was still viewed as extremely unrealistic by the editorial boards of big daily papers — including the liberal New York Times and Washington Post.
After more than a year of U.S. occupation warfare in Iraq, the editorial positions of major dailies were much more conformist than the American public. In midspring 2004, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll was showing that “one in four Americans say troops should leave Iraq as soon as possible and another 30 percent say they should come home within 18 months.” But as usual, when it came to rejection of the latest war, the media establishment lagged way behind the populace. Despite sometimes-withering media criticism of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, all of the sizable newspapers steered clear of urging withdrawal. Many favored sending in even more troops. On May 7, 2004, Editor & Publisher headlined a column by the magazine’s editor this way: “When Will the First Major Newspaper Call for a Pullout in Iraq?”
In September 2003, trying to justify Washington’s refusal to let go of the occupation of Iraq, Colin Powell had used the language of a venture capitalist: “Since the United States and its coalition partners have invested a great deal of political capital, as well as financial resources, as well as the lives of our young men and women — and we have a large force there now — we can’t be expected to suddenly just step aside.”
Over a span of thirteen months, there was a doubling of the number of Americans who viewed the Iraq war as a “mistake” — 24 percent when the invasion began, 48 percent in April 2004. In late June, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found 54 percent said so. “It is the first time since Vietnam that a majority of Americans has called a major deployment of U.S. forces a mistake,” USA Today reported. Given the swing of public sentiment against the war, the media’s shortage of high-profile policy advocates calling for swift withdrawal of U.S. troops was notable.
In effect, the war had to go on because the war had to go on — widely promoted as the least bad option, in contrast to the taboo of withdrawal. Meanwhile, a prerequisite for any Baghdad government to exist would be that it sufficiently satisfied the administration in Washington.
The fact that John Negroponte’s diplomatic resume included a stint in Vietnam got a positive spin at his confirmation hearing to be ambassador to the new U.S.-assembled Iraq government. “Senator after senator praised Mr. Negroponte for his willingness to take on a tough assignment after a long career that began as a junior Foreign Service officer in Saigon during the Vietnam War, a posting many said might prepare him for Iraq,” the New York Times recounted. He had gone on to be the U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. When Negroponte took the oath for his new post in late June 2004, Larry Birns at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs commented: “Rather than heading for Iraq, Ambassador Negroponte should be facing proceedings concerning his sanctioning of Honduran death squads, payoffs to venal Honduran military officials, violations of environmental procedures relating to a supply road construction project he was supervising, and a cover-up of the full scale of human rights violations that occurred in Honduras during his watch.” But Negroponte flew off to Baghdad unimpeded by his record in Tegucigalpa.
Pretense and realism were at war. Washington was preparing to hand over power to Iraqis while steadfastly refusing to do so; putting an Iraqi “face” on authority in Iraq while retaining ultimate authority in Iraq; striving for Iraqis to take up the burden of their country’s national security while insisting that military control must remain in Uncle Sam’s hands.
To some readers, the headline across the top of USA Today’s front page one day in June 2004 must have been reassuring: “New Leader Asks U.S. to Stay.” The banner headline was a classic of occupation puppetry and media gimmickry. Iraq’s “new leader” Iyad Allawi — selected and installed as prime minister by the U.S. government — had shown distinct reliability over the years. The USA Today story made only fleeting reference to Allawi’s longtime U.S. entanglement, identifying him as “a Shiite close to the CIA.” The contradiction did not seem to trouble American media outlets, though they sometimes openly fretted that Iraqis might not be so accepting. Allawi “is the secretary general of the Iraqi National Accord, an exile group that has received funds from the Central Intelligence Agency,” the New York Times reported. “His ties with the CIA and his closeness to the United States could become an issue in a country where public opinion has grown almost universally hostile to the Americans.” A separate Times article noted that Allawi “lived abroad for 30 years and is not well known in Iraq.” All in all, by Washington’s lights, the man was eminently qualified to be Iraq’s “new leader.” And his superb judgment was immediately apparent: New leader asks U.S. to stay!
Major U.S. news media and politicians refused to challenge the Iraq war along the lines that activist historian Howard Zinn explored in 1967: “The only way we can stop the mass killing of civilians — of women and children — is to stop the war itself. We have grown accustomed to the distinction between ‘ordinary’ acts of war and ‘atrocities,’ and so came a whole host of international conventions setting up rules for mass slaughter. It was a gigantic fraud, enabling the normal horror of war to be accepted if unaccompanied by ‘atrocities.’ The Vietnam War, by its nature, does not permit this distinction. In Vietnam, the war itself is an atrocity. Since the killing of civilians is inevitable in our military actions in Vietnam, it cannot be called an ‘accident’ on the ground that nobody intends to kill civilians. The B-52 crews, the Marines and GIs moving through the villages, don’t plan to kill civilians, but when bombs are dropped on fishing villages and sampans, when grenades are dropped down tunnels, when artillery is poured into a hamlet, when no one can tell the difference between a farmer and a Vietcong and the verdict is guilty until proved innocent, then the mass killing of civilians is inevitable. It is not deliberate. But neither is it an accident. It is not part of the war and so discardable. It is the war.”
In the midst of a deepening counterinsurgency war, with the Vietnamese population largely hostile to the U.S. military presence, the White House and editorialists insisted that withdrawal of soldiers from Vietnam was an irresponsible notion, a bumper-sticker idea lacking in realism. From the start, the pullout option was stigmatized as beyond reasonable discussion. Uncounted numbers of erudite commentators made fervent declarations very much like what New York Times columnist C. L. Sulzberger wrote in January 1963: “Come what may, we cannot afford to be driven ignominiously from Vietnam, where we have committed so much prestige, interest and treasure and are beginning tangibly to commit our blood.” Two years later, moderate accommodation to more war was passing for opposition: “In its editorials and in the opinions of its major columnists,” Daniel Hallin writes, “the Times broke sharply with the administration early in 1965, calling for negotiation rather than escalation and decrying the secrecy that surrounded administration policy. But it never broke with the assumption that the cause of the war was Communist aggression and that — to quote [James] Reston — ‘the political and strategic consequences of defeat would [be] serious for the free world all over Asia.’ The debate of 1965 … was a debate over tactics: there were some who favored escalation, some who favored negotiation, but very few in Congress, the press, the administration, and the ‘establishment’ generally who doubted that the United States had, in one way or another, to preserve South Vietnam as an outpost of the Free World.”
“Anti-war” politicians had ways of being circumspect. “We must face the fact that there is no quick or easy answer to Vietnam,” Senator Robert F. Kennedy said on April 27, 1966; even when he ran for president in the spring of 1968, RFK did not support quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam.
The mainstream press went with the war flow. Countercurrents were mild. In August 1966, the owner of the Washington Post huddled with a writer in line to take charge of the newspaper’s editorial page: “We agreed that the Post ought to work its way out of the very supportive editorial position it had taken, but that we couldn’t be precipitate; we had to move away gradually from where we had been,” Katharine Graham was to write (unapologetically) in her autobiography. Many years of horrendous tragedies resulted from such unwillingness to “be precipitate.” During the late ’60s, after several years of assurances from the Johnson administration about the Vietnam War, rosy scenarios for military success were wilting. But the public emphasis was on developing a winnable strategy — not ending the war. Pull out the U.S. troops? The idea was unthinkable.
“Thus far,” Zinn wrote in 1967, “almost all of the nationally known critics of our Vietnam policy — perceptive as they are — have been reluctant to call for the withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam.” He believed that frequently “it is because these critics consider total military withdrawal, while logical and right, ‘too extreme’ as a tactical position, and therefore unpalatable to the public and unlikely to be adopted as national policy.” The dynamic included journalists, politicians and academics. “Scholars, who pride themselves on speaking their minds, often engage in a form of self-censorship which is called ‘realism.’ To be ‘realistic’ in dealing with a problem is to work only among the alternatives which the most powerful in society put forth. It is as if we are all confined to a, b, c, or d in a multiple-choice test, when we know there is another possible answer. American society, although it has more freedom of expression than most societies in the world, thus sets limits beyond which respectable people are not supposed to think or speak. So far, too much of the debate on Vietnam has observed these limits.”
With the Iraq war in its second year, the option of withdrawal was often derided with the pejorative “cut and run.” The phrase had currency among a cross section of the war’s supporters. Terry Anderson, the former Associated Press reporter who’d endured a six-year ordeal as a hostage in Lebanon until 1991, wrote an op-ed piece in spring 2004 declaring that the United States was duty-bound to stay in Iraq: “We cannot cut and run, as we did in Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan and Vietnam.” The reference to Vietnam was remarkable. The U.S. war there lasted a dozen years, causing fifty-eight thousand American deaths in Vietnam and upward of two million Vietnamese deaths. The magnitude of the bombardment was beyond comprehension. “Before we finished in Vietnam,” according to author Ronald Bruce St. John, who was a U.S. serviceman in the war, “we had dropped more bombs on Indochina than had been dropped on the remainder of the world in all the wars to that time.” It’s difficult to imagine what more Anderson wished the U.S. government had done to Vietnam in order to avoid the retrospective accusation that it had “cut and run.”
When Anderson’s essay appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the cover story of the latest Newsweek was “Crisis in Iraq: The Vietnam Factor.” Near the top of the lead article, assistant managing editor Evan Thomas wrote that the president “did surprise reporters by appearing before them after meeting with the family of Army infantryman Chris Hill, killed by a bomb in the Iraq town of Fallujah. ‘We’ve got to stay the course and we will stay the course,’ said Bush, who appeared teary-eyed.” The rest of the paragraph also spun ahead like a war press agent’s dream: “Hill’s father-in-law, Douglas Cope, had not been eager for the meeting with the president because, he told Newsweek, he was concerned that the encounter would be ‘political.’ But Cope reported that Bush was emotional and that the president told the dead soldier’s family, ‘I promise this job will be finished over there.’ Cope added: ‘That really was what I wanted to hear. We cannot leave this like Vietnam.’”
Newsweek’s Thomas wrote: “Not a quagmire, not yet. But the atmospherics have a distinctly familiar feel. At a recent Washington dinner party attended by some famous names from the foreign-policy establishment and the media elite, the conversation went something like this.” The article proceeded to paraphrase the discourse:
Former Senior Administration Official: I had real doubts about going in there… Echoes Around the Table: Me too, me too, but…
Chorus: But we have to stay the course. We can’t cut and run.
Lone Voice (who has imbibed one more, or perhaps one less, glass of wine than the others): Why not?
Chorus: American credibility!
“The exact same conversation,” the article added, “could have been heard in a dozen Georgetown salons on almost any given weekend night from about 1966 to the winter of 1968, when the establishment decided that it was time to get out, one way or the other.”
While mocking the lemming-like trudge for war, the Newsweek spread also participated in it. And there was an unnoted irony in the article’s claim that “the establishment decided that it was time to get out” of Vietnam in the winter of 1968; after all, the Vietnam War went on for several years after that while the United States continued to make war in Southeast Asia. As would be the case in 2004 with U.S. forces in Iraq, the calcified wisdom of politics and media insisted that withdrawal was not practical. Even when “the establishment decided that it was time to get out,” the elites were determined to take their time; much more carnage would have to ensue. A key technique for keeping the war going was to blast those who suggested otherwise as less-than-honorable people eager to abandon sacred obligations. At the start of what turned out to be his last spring as president, Lyndon Johnson traveled to Minneapolis and delivered a speech that accused war opponents of wanting to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.” Advocates of withdrawal from Vietnam, the president declared, would “cut and run.”
For Newsweek in 2004, the way to close the main story of a twenty-three-page “Vietnam Factor” spread was to quote the father of a U.S. Army captain killed a year earlier in Iraq — “If my son were here today, and I wasn’t disabled, we’d both put our uniforms on and say, ‘Where to?’” — and then the dead man’s mother. Her final words: “I don’t think you can go into a place and start something so significant and just walk out… As family members of soldiers serving in wartime, we have to have faith. It’s not blind faith, but it’s a deep faith.”
That set up one last paragraph, from Newsweek’s reportorial voice, telling readers what it all meant with a generalization that winked at the further war to come in Iraq: “It is such faith that sustains Americans and drives them forward. We do best when we defend freedom without trampling it, defeat tyranny without becoming tyrannical, and understand what is worth the blood of our children and what is not. That is the true lesson of Vietnam.”
In fact, any number of “true lessons” of Vietnam could be cited — including many diametrically opposed to each other. For Americans, the Rorschach qualities of the U.S. experience in Vietnam made it susceptible to all kinds of conclusions. If the “lessons” were about trying to make war better next time, then those who had drawn those particular conclusions were inclined to support letting others suffer the consequences. When it became evident during the first few months of 2004 that the American troops in Iraq were fighting a counterinsurgency war against forces gaining strength, polls showed the U.S. public roughly split — the exact numbers, of course, varied depending on how questions were phrased — about whether the continuing war was worthwhile. A month into the spring, assessing a new Washington Post-ABC News poll and a Gallup poll, the Wall Street Journal noted: “Both surveys found there is significant support for sending more troops to Iraq — a sentiment that the Gallup poll found actually has grown as the problems have gotten worse.” A confluence of political tendencies, including many conservative and liberal commentators, saw increasing the troop levels in Iraq as the least bad option; thus, it seemed that the biggest “lesson of Vietnam” might be that no crucial lesson had been learned.
As for what was actually going on in Iraq, a U.S. media focus on the trials and tribulations of the occupiers had the continuing effect of keeping at a psychological distance the people living and dying in their own country. Seen through the lenses of American media and politics, Iraq’s big problem was that it was a problem for America.
“Regime change, occupation, nation-building — in a word, empire — are a bloody business,” George Will wrote. “Now Americans must steel themselves for administering the violence necessary to disarm or defeat Iraq’s urban militias, which replicate the problem of modern terrorism — violence that has slipped the leash of states.”
For the horrors that continued to result from unleashing the Pentagon’s violence, the rationales were inexhaustible. “There are thugs and terrorists in Iraq who are trying to shake our will,” presidential spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. “And the president is firmly committed to showing resolve and strength.” With many Iraqis, liberated by the Americans, now taking up arms to liberate themselves from the Americans, the major players of the administration in Washington were on message. A day later, the man running the Pentagon echoed the White House. “We’re facing a test of will,” Donald Rumsfeld said, “and we will meet that test.” The declaration was newsworthy enough for the main headline in the New York Times: “Iraqi Uprising Spreads; Rumsfeld Sees It as ‘Test of Will.’”
Donning the royal “we” mantle of the “civilized world,” President Bush told a televised news conference: “Now is the time, and Iraq is the place, in which the enemies of the civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world. We must not waver.” The crucial need was to not back down: “It’s the intentions of the enemy to shake our will. That’s what they want to do. They want us to leave. And we’re not going to leave. We’re going to do the job.” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman commented: “One of the real motives for the invasion of Iraq was to give the world a demonstration of American power. It’s a measure of how badly things have gone that now we’re told we can’t leave because that would be a demonstration of American weakness.”
The writer James Baldwin challenged our desire to deny responsibility — what he called “the fraudulent and expedient nature of the American innocence which has always been able to persuade itself that it does not know what it knows too well.” Do we really not know that bombs financed by our tax dollars are turning life into death? Aren’t we at least dimly aware that — no matter how smooth and easy the news media and elected officials try to make it for us — in faraway places there are people not so different than us who are being destroyed by what journalists and politicians glibly depict as necessary war
This excerpt is from Norman Solomon new book “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,” published in July 2005. For more information, go to: www.WarMadeEasy.com