'Vietnam Syndrome' is Alive and Thriving

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Politicians
and journalists have interpreted widespread support for the military
actions in Afghanistan as a significant shift in Americans' attitudes
toward war. In the weeks following the massacre of September 11,
Vice President Dick Cheney described the crowd's reaction to a speech
he made in New York: "There wasn't a dove in the room,"
he said with a smile.

This
isn't the first time in the post-Vietnam era that our leaders have
made such pronouncements. "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam
syndrome once and for all," President George Bush the First
declared in 1991, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War.

But
their words are starkly contradicted by their own actions. In every
military action since Vietnam, our politicians and generals have
been extremely reluctant to risk American military casualties. In
the Persian Gulf War, there were more soldiers killed in training
and accidents (including "friendly fire") than at the
hands of enemy troops. In the war over Kosovo we did not lose even
a single pilot.

The
murder of thousands of civilians in the worst terrorist action ever
on American soil seems not to have changed this part of the "Vietnam
syndrome" at all. The US military has fought this war, like
the others, from the air. Our planes now bomb from altitudes so
high that they cannot even be seen by the fighters and civilians
below.

When
it came time to search the caves of Tora Bora for Osama and his
friends, US officials started talking about "the right mix
of incentives" (money, weapons) to get Afghans to do the job.

From
the safety and calm of their armchairs and op-ed pages, pundits
have argued vehemently that American troops should take on these
tasks. But this isn't likely to happen any time soon.

What
our politicians fear, but nobody wants to talk about, are the political
consequences of American casualties. This is not because Americans
are lacking in courage; as the heroic actions of the firefighters
and others at the site of the World Trade Center showed, there is
no shortage of people who are willing to risk their lives for the
sake of their fellow citizens.

But
since Vietnam, there has been a widespread mistrust of American
foreign policy. During the war, we were told that we were helping
the Vietnamese – saving them and the world from communism. This turned
out to be a huge lie, with terrible consequences. Millions discovered
that the United States was really fighting a dirty colonial war
that the French had abandoned.

Recent
revelations have only reinforced this mistrust, as well as the worst
picture imaginable of that war: the atrocities committed by former
Senator Bob Kerrey, for example, or historian Michael Beschloss's
analysis of President Lyndon Johnson's tapes, showing that he knew
as early as 1965 that the war in Vietnam could not be won – yet continued
to send tens of thousands of Americans to die there.

In
the post-Vietnam era, Washington has mainly contracted out the dirty
work – mass murder in Guatemala and El Salvador, or trying to overthrow
the government of Nicaragua in the 1980s. But whether the US military
was directly involved – as it was in the invasions of Grenada and
Panama, the Persian Gulf War and Kosovo – or not, it is a sordid record.
In general, US officials lied about the purpose of their interventions,
and none of them had much to do with US national security.

For
these reasons, public support for the "War on Terrorism"
is miles wide but only an inch deep. Our political leaders want
to use this crusade the way they used the "War Against Communism,"
and more recently, the "War on Drugs" in Colombia: as
an excuse for the violence and brutality that are necessary to police
a worldwide empire.

It
remains to be seen how much of this they can get away with, or whether
they will expand the current war to countries such as Iraq, Somalia,
Iran or elsewhere. But they know one thing very well: they cannot
allow the US casualty count to rise very high before people begin
to question their motives.

This
"Vietnam syndrome" will not be reversed. It is a permanent
change in American consciousness, like those that followed the abolition
of slavery or the victories – however partial and incomplete
– of the civil rights movement. What will fade, eventually,
is our leaders' addiction to empire. But when that goes, America
will not have much need for foreign military adventures.

January
26, 2002

Mark
Weisbrot [send him mail]
is co-director of the Center for Economic
and Policy Research
in Washington, DC.

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