Iraq today: Vietnam revisited?

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 20 Jul 2003


POST-WAR Iraq continues to be a bloody mess, with all sides continuing to sustain casualties. Complaints multiply, shortages continue, public utilities remain unsettled, salaries are still unpaid and lethal violence lurks in both background and foreground. 

US forces now have to remain longer than most people expected, only because a swift pullout is difficult and not because staying would guarantee success. This has disappointed supporters of the war even more than the warmongers themselves. 

After wrestling with the prospect for days, the US has reluctantly acknowledged that the fighting has entered a guerilla phase. This means that the regular US armed forces are ill-suited to the task of winning the fight, much less maintaining civil order as well. 

Now that the ‘G’ word (guerilla war) has been accepted, the ‘W’ word (Watergate) is in the air. The White House is increasingly seen as dishonest in having lied to secure a desired result (public support) for an illegal act (invasion of Iraq). Next is the ‘V’ word (Vietnam): that Iraq today is Washington’s Vietnam revisited, a foreign nightmare of epic proportions with US domestic fallout to match.  

Any difference between Iraq and Vietnam is now one of scale, even as the Iraqi morass continues to deepen and widen. 

But the ‘V’ word continues to be resisted by US officials most strenuously, since conceding this point might just make the prospect of a George W. Bush re-election totally inconceivable. But does wishful thinking always produce the desired reality? 

It is said that Iraq is not Vietnam because the Vietnamese have long been staunch nationalists known to expel unwelcome foreigners, including Asian and Western powers. Lyndon Johnson is also supposed to have pussyfooted with Vietnam, fearful of fomenting a world war. 

Then Vietnam is said to have enjoyed the patronage of both China and the Soviet Union, whereas Iraq has no such equivalent. Such patronage is said to have put the brakes on more spirited US attacks in Vietnam. 

The problem is that such arguments have little foundation, serving instead as a smokescreen to obscure the slimy slide in today’s Iraq.  

There are many similarities between Iraq today and Vietnam yesterday, but 20 should do for now. 

  • Iraqis are as fiercely proud a people as any other: since the eighth century, the centre of Arabism and later waves of pan-Arabism shifted to Baghdad. Iraq remained the arena of vigorous movements for self-determination in the last century, as the Turks and then the British experienced it in the anti-colonial revolution of 1958 – followed by anti-Zionism and now an anti-(US) imperialism. 

  • Iraq may not have a Soviet or Chinese patron as Vietnam did, but it enjoys the sympathies of something even larger that transcends formal interstate relations, thanks to US aggression – the Muslim world. Consider that the Muslim community worldwide had been enraged with US aggression sufficiently to put aside sectarian divisions within the faith, and despite Saddam Hussein’s Iraq being a secular state. 

  • Like Vietnam, US government objectives were set and came to determine the policies, the means, and the rationale for getting there. “Regime change” in Iraq came first, just like reversing the “tide of Asian communism” in Vietnam, and everything else just had to follow. 

  • US officials also believed their own propaganda with a fervent religious faith, to the exclusion of other views, facts or even evidence. Thus regime change in 2003 must be unquestioned since Saddam used gas warfare in the 1980s, or has weapons of mass destruction, or at least tried to kill George Bush Sr once. 

  • Then there is the issue of false linkage: just as Vietnam was portrayed as a dangerous communist domino in South-East Asia, Saddam’s Iraq was said to have collaborated with al-Qaeda. Millions of Americans were led to believe that Sept 11 justified destroying Iraq. 

  • This meant that, like attacking Vietnam, there was no truthful justification for invading and occupying Iraq. While the excuses offered might at first have minimised popular protest against the action, they are now increasingly revealed as being false and even scandalous. 

  • Again like Vietnam, once US forces entered the country, they soon found it difficult to extricate themselves swiftly or easily. The administration phrase “as long as it takes” now means much longer than anyone had been told before, and perhaps even “indefinitely.” 

  • Earlier warnings that Washington had no exit strategy at all (however, that strategy might need to be modified later) fell on deaf ears. The enthusiasm of “getting in” seemed to have overwhelmed any thought of how to get out – as it was in Vietnam, so it is in Iraq. 

  • The US casualty toll continues to climb, after exceeding the figure for the Iraq war of 1991. The guerilla phase of the conflict is now a war of attrition in which the US side continues to bleed, with American dissent feeling powerless amid all the disabling pathos of Vietnam. 

  • Once more like Vietnam, young soldiers were sent to fight a war they thought they believed in but did not really understand. In the process, they learned the realities on the battlefield if they were lucky, but if they were not they had to leave it to their grieving families to at least try. 

  • US policy-makersmakers are stuck in a rut of their own making. They have run out of ideas, as it becomes increasingly apparent that nothing short of a 180-degree policy turnaround will mean anything. 

  • As more American citizens die each day in a foreign land for vague or non-existent reasons, US troops become more disillusioned and demoralised. This situation is then relayed back to friends and families anxiously awaiting their safe return. 

  • Next, the pull of US public pressure for a military withdrawal grows in momentum. US policy-makers then begin to finesse the modalities and projections of a pullout (now called “peacekeeping activities”), perhaps by involving other countries or the United Nations. 

  • Policy-makers who made bad and wrong decisions say it was all an honest mistake. In Vietnam, the French as former colonisers were blamed for misleading US leaders on the need for a Western military presence, then the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that escalated the war was said to be a logistical error, and now in Iraq the WMD claim is said to be an(other) error. 

  • Like Vietnam again, there is no longer any clear or compelling reason to wage war on Iraq or even to remain there. Even the vain hope of enforcing order on Iraqi streets is not enough reason to persuade war-weary US soldiers to stay. 

    Both the Bush and Blair governments have seen officials in both the civil service and the Cabinet resigning in disgust as protest against their war policies.  

    One of those resignations from the State Department in February this year was from the US diplomat John Brady Kiesling, whose many reasons enumerated to Secretary of State Colin Powell included five that might also apply in the Vietnam situation: 

  • That the government “systematically distorted intelligence” in its pursuit of predetermined political ends. In the process, the intelligence services had been abused and corrupted. 

  • That the government further “systematically manipulated American opinion,” and on a scale not seen “since the war in Vietnam.” This cynical manipulation would also incur its cost in American democracy. 

  • That “we have failed to persuade more of the world that a war with Iraq is necessary.” That is, whatever the problem, war was evidently not the only solution, nor the best solution, nor any solution at all. 

  • That “overwhelming military power is not the answer.” It is a fact that US military power is far greater than Iraq’s (or Vietnam’s), but this fact does not constitute the necessary answer. 

  • That the apparent motive and tangible result of government policy is the “vast misallocation of shrinking public wealth to the military.” Yet, ironically, increased expenditure does not include better terms for service personnel or veterans. 

    Elsewhere, US observers see Iraq as different from Vietnam in ways that make Iraq even worse for the US. Carol Brightman finds that unlike its foray into Vietnam, the US now has no indigenous support, puppet government, counter-insurgency programme or coordinated intelligence in Iraq. 

    These were simply “not in the plans,” since the vague plan was simply to level the Iraqi playing field with bombs and then withdraw quickly. All that is now needed to complete Washington’s Iraq as Vietnam II is a dignified withdrawal, although such dignity may soon become a rare luxury. 

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