the surface, the Vietnam war and the attack on Iraq by U.S.
forces don't have much in common.
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.
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
universalism, exporting our system of "democratic capitalism"
(i.e. state capitalism, or the mixed economy) as the solution
to the world's problems.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
vocabulary of the Vietnam war has crept into our present day
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
[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.
of American Empire
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.
a recent interview, the writer and cultural critic Camille
Paglia took a position almost identical to my own:
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."
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.
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:
"But as a pro-military Democrat, what do you make of Gen.
"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."
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.
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