Are We in Saidad or Baghgon?

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to readers:
Consider this a follow-up to my previous dispatch,
on Haifa Street
. Those of you who haven’t read it might consider
checking it out.]

The other day I happened to notice a little piece from the Washington
Times headlined, Pentagon
seeks ideas to fight ‘urban’ wars
. Journalist Jennifer Harper
had come across a
from the Pentagon’s futuristic research arm,
DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), calling on
researchers to develop, among other things, “on-demand, infantry-operated,
ultra-precision, beyond line-of-sight lethal and non-lethal weaponry
that has high maneuverability for use in the congested, three-dimensional
urban environment.” (Ah, that good old congested three-dimensional
urban environment.) DARPA also wants to develop ways to see through
“external and internal” building walls (think X-ray vision minus
the kryptonite) and, of course, “systems that discriminate combatants
from non-combatants” in what its solicitation charmingly terms “crowded
urban settings.” Essentially, Harper tells us, DARPA is looking
for “what it calls ‘force multipliers’ in 11 separate disciplines,
seeking ways to bolster the smaller numbers of U.S. forces commonly
on patrol in the likes of Fallujah or Kabul.” In the agency’s solicitation,
however, no real-time place names can be found.

In fact, that solicitation is typical of DARPA’s
sci-fi approach
to the world. If, after all, you plan to dominate
our disturbed and recalcitrant planet until the first aliens arrive
or the Rapture sets in, then you probably should be thinking futuristically
– and consider all the fun your researchers can have along the
way, playing Blade
in their labs.

After all, somebody has to consider the future and plan for it.
Let’s keep in mind that the only part of the Bush administration
to openly explore the problems associated with our coming globally
warmed planet, to give but an obvious example, has been the Pentagon
which issued a
reasonably hair-raising report
last year on the phenomenon’s
potential effects – on national security, of course. (“Learning
how to manage those populations [of desperate illegal immigrants],
border tensions that arise and the resulting refugees will be critical.
New forms of security agreements dealing specifically with energy,
food and water will also be needed… Disruption and conflict will
be endemic features of life. “)

But be as futuristic as you want, or DARPA desires; create those
“urban canyon flying vehicles” out of Star Wars, or those
“perching machines” fit for Minority
, or for that matter ray guns out of Flash
. It doesn’t matter. All ideas about the future really
come from and reflect present problems, concerns, realities, and
projections thereof.

It always comes back to the present – which is unsurprising, since
it’s the only place we ever actually are. From the Pentagon’s point
of view, of course, the problems of the present very distinctly
involve overstretched American troops, often Reserves or National
Guards, in body armor and kevlar helmets, sweating hard in sweltering
heat as they walk or ride through Iraq’s “three-dimensional urban
environments,” many of them undoubtedly wishing like the dickens
that there were a few “force multipliers” available to multiply
them homewards.

Here, for instance, is Knight
Ridder’s Nancy A. Youssef
describing the experience of patrolling
the no-go areas of Baghdad’s vast Shiite slum, Sadr City:

dirty look is better than no one out at all, the soldiers said.
When parents are willing to venture out and let their children
play, it means the insurgents aren’t planning an attack, at least
for the moment. These are more than casual observations by the
soldiers. The military calls it atmospherics, and it passes for
military intelligence at a time when U.S. troops near Baghdad’s
Sadr City neighborhood no longer can interact openly with Iraqis.
It comes mostly from the limited view through the windows that
line their Humvees. The soldiers said such looks helped them determine
how dangerous their patrol route could be that day.

atmospherics ‘are almost like the old Indian smoke signals,’ said
Capt. Clint Tracy, 30, of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, A Company
1-12 Cavalry, from Fort Hood, Texas, which has a base at the edge
of Sadr City. ‘A lot of people have lived in the same place for
quite a while. They know everything before we do.'”

While the Pentagon considers the future, it makes sense not to forget
the past (that other place where we don’t exist – except in memory).
And the past in the American context is Vietnam. Everyone old enough
to have lived through that era, for example, should recognize that,
were you to replace one “three dimensional” landscape with another
– the city with the countryside – Youssef’s could be a description
of any patrol on foot or by halftrack through the hostile villages
of Vietnam some forty-odd years ago.


One of the fantasies of the present presidential race is that Vietnam
is ancient history. It’s a matter of musty documents, disputed records,
ancient statements, and youthful acts of heroism, shame, or indiscretion
by our two candidates. Been there, done that – move on. And these
days, when we do move on, it suddenly seems as if many people are
in a rush to say that Iraq is certainly not Vietnam. Anything but.
And in various ways this is obviously true (in part because nothing
historically is ever anything else).

You could certainly start to make the case for the inapplicability
of our Vietnam experience to Iraq with the greatest difference between
the eras – that we are now in a one, not two, superpower world.
As a result, the Iraqi guerrillas have no “great rear area” as the
Vietnamese ones did. No equivalent of North Vietnam, China, or the
USSR. Nor do they have the greatest “rear area” of all, which was
the fear of a superpower nuclear war that would engulf and incinerate
the planet. This was an apocalyptic scenario that, in its own way,
possessed both Lyndon Johnson, who feared not just a ground war
with China (as in Korea in the early 1950s) but a wholesale nuclear
conflagration, and Richard (“I will not be the first president to
lose a war”) Nixon, who privately threatened to launch a nuclear
attack to scare the North Vietnamese into a deal. As Nixon’s aide
H. R. Haldeman reported the President saying:

want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where
I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the
word to them that ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed
about Communists. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry – and
he has his hand on the nuclear button’ – and Ho Chi Minh himself
will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

Well, so much for end-of-the-world fantasies. North Vietnamese leader
Ho Chi Minh never arrived.

All that’s now left of such fears of global conflagration and incineration
in our single superpower era of asymmetric warfare is the smaller
fear (which has nonetheless gripped the country tightly) of a terrorist
nuclear attack on a city, a “lost” bomb from the old Russian arsenal,
say, or a new one bought from the North Koreans and snuck into…
gulp… New York where I live.

Then, if you’re still in the mood to enumerate differences, there’s
the fact that the Iraqi insurgency seems to be a hodgepodge of at
least four loosely interconnected groups: “Sunni
, former Saddam regime loyalists, [Shiite] fighters
loyal to anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and foreign jihadists.”
Infused with a powerful brew of intense nationalistic and religious
emotions, this movement has no named leaders other than al-Sadr
and the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There is no equivalent
of Vietnam’s disciplined, nationalistic communist party. (“Muqtada
al-Sadr/Abu Musab al-Zarqawi/Saddam Hussein, I knew Ho Chi Minh
and you’re no Ho Chi Minh.”) I’m sure many of you could list any
number of other ways in which Iraq is not, and never will be, Vietnam.

But let me note here another phenomenon, which is a bit puzzling
– the loss not just of the power of the Vietnam analogy, but
of all potentially useful historical analogies. There was a time,
not so long ago, when Vietnam was on people’s lips as a living example
of disaster – think, for instance, of the way “quagmire” reentered
the language in the wake of the invasion of Iraq) – and a whole
host of critical writings cited, among other places and historical
parallels, the French in Algeria in the 1950s (the
Pentagon’s special operations chiefs
even scheduled a special
screening of the film The
Battle of Algiers
), the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the
early 1980s, Afghanistan during the war against the Russian occupation,
and Israel in the occupied territories. Now, with the exception
of the odd report, analogies seem for the time being largely to
have departed the scene; while Vietnam, always just under the surface
of American consciousness, has retreated to a musty debate topic
in our media – what people did long ago. Here, for instance,
is a typical headline from a late August piece in the Los Angeles
Times: Kerry
Shifts Focus From Vietnam to Iraq
– that is, from Swift
Boats to something living.

Perhaps we’re just ducking. Analogies, after all, can hurt because
in them we usually know how the story ends – painfully. (The French
withdrew from Algeria under chaotic conditions; the Americans were
driven from Vietnam, the Israelis from Lebanon, and the Russians
from Afghanistan.) Or perhaps things in Iraq have gotten so bad
at such an ungodly, even a-historical gallop that the analogies
have begun to look pallid by comparison (as in the recent headline
for a Sidney Blumenthal piece, Far
graver than Vietnam
, that quotes retired general and former
head of the National Security Agency William Odom as saying:

is far graver than Vietnam. There wasn’t as much at stake strategically,
though in both cases we mindlessly went ahead with the war that
was not constructive for US aims. But now we’re in a region far
more volatile, and we’re in much worse shape with our allies.”

jungle is this anyway?

So let me try to return us to the analogy fray by suggesting a way
in which Iraq is indeed Vietnam. With a few rare and striking exceptions
like the Tet Offensive, the war in South Vietnam took place in the
rural areas. On one side, the massive American bombing campaigns,
the endless patrols, the free-fire zones, the search-and-destroy
missions; on the other, the expanding and shrinking patchwork of
“liberated areas,” the booby-trapped mines and artillery shells
that took such a toll (the equivalent of today’s IEDs and car bombs),
the hit and run attacks – these all took place in the countryside.
In Vietnam, in other words, the jungle was actually jungle.

Iraq is, in this sense, Vietnam but transposed to the cities –
to, that is, an urban jungle. And as the foliage protected the guerrillas
in Vietnam, helping to even the odds slightly in a technologically
unbalanced war – hence our urge to defoliate so much of the countryside
with Agent Orange to deprive the guerrillas of cover – so the alleyways,
side streets, buildings, markets, mosques, the unfamiliar urban
terrain, all offer a protection which evens the odds slightly in
an asymmetric war in Iraq. These, however, can only be “defoliated”
by – as in the old city of Najaf recently or in Falluja today –
being turned into rubble. As in the countryside in Vietnam, so in
the city in Iraq, American troops face a literal jungle of hostility
– those same unfriendly eyes and hostile adult stares; the same
kids running alongside Bradleys or beside foot patrols pleading
for candy. There is the same inability or limited ability to communicate
in a language and to a culture that seems alien to our soldiers
and officials. There is the same inability to get serviceable information
on the enemy from the civilian population (hence the feverish tortures
at Abu Ghraib).

In this context so much is, in fact, the same. The infiltrated military
and police forces, our “allies” who simply can’t be counted on;
a corrupt and weak central government which can’t extend its sway
to the “jungle” areas; the frustrating inability to tell friend
from foe, civilian from rebel; the no less frustrating ability of
the enemy to blend into the local population; the growing “body
count” which seems proof of military victories that inevitably turn
out to be political losses.

As an American NCO stationed in Iraq recently wrote at
the Libertarian website

have fallen victim to the body count mentality all over again.
We have shown a willingness to inflict civilian casualties as
a necessity of war without realizing that these same casualties
create waves of hatred against us. These angry Iraqi citizens
translate not only into more recruits for the guerilla army but
also into more support of the guerilla army.”

All of this is taking place within “congested, three-dimensional
urban environments” of sweltering animosity and misery which –
whatever Saddam Hussein inflicted on his people (and that was plenty)
– we are now inflicting on the Iraqis. And it’s bound to get worse
for Iraqis and Americans.

The reason to make analogies in the first place is to extrapolate
from a known experience to an unknown one, and it’s really not so
terribly hard to extrapolate here. All you need to do is use the
famed testimony
of the young John Kerry (“I am not here as John
Kerry. I am here as one member of the group of veterans in this
country, and were it possible for all of them to sit at this table
they would be here and have the same kind of testimony.”) before
the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on April 22, 1971. He
summarized then events
and acts
to which other soldiers back from Vietnam had testified
only months earlier in the Winter Soldier hearings, a set of informal
war crimes inquiries organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the
War. He said, in part, in words that should still reverberate as
a warning for all who care to listen:

told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears,
cut off heads, tape[d] wires from portable telephones to human
genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies,
randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in [a] fashion reminiscent
of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks,
and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition
to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular
ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country…

saw Vietnam ravaged equally by American bombs as well as by search
and destroy missions, as well as by Vietcong terrorism, and yet
we listened while this country tried to blame all of the havoc
on the Vietcong. We rationalized destroying villages in order
to save them. We saw America lose her sense of morality as she
accepted very coolly a My Lai and refused to give up the image
of American soldiers who hand out chocolate bars and chewing gum.
We learned the meaning of free fire zones, shooting anything that
moves, and we watched while America placed a cheapness on the
lives of Orientals.”

watched the U.S. falsification of body counts, in fact the glorification
of body counts. We listened while month after month we were told
the back of the enemy was about to break. We fought using weapons
against “oriental human beings,” with quotation marks around that.
We fought using weapons against those people which I do not believe
this country would dream of using were we fighting in the European
theater or let us say a non-third-world people theater, and so
we watched while men charged up hills because a general said that
hill has to be taken, and after losing one platoon or two platoons
they marched away to leave the high [ground] for the reoccupation
by the North Vietnamese because we watched pride allow the most
unimportant of battles to be blown into extravaganzas, because
we couldn’t lose, and we couldn’t retreat, and because it didn’t
matter how many American bodies were lost to prove that point.
And so there were Hamburger Hills and Khe Sanhs and Hill 881’s
and Fire Base 6’s and so many others.

we are told that the men who fought there must watch quietly while
American lives are lost so that we can exercise the incredible
arrogance of Vietnamizing the Vietnamese.”

Now, of course, we are dealing in the cheapness of Iraqi lives while
we Iraqicize them. Like the “liberated areas,” the free-fire zones
have begun to spread in Iraq’s cities, as they once did in Vietnam’s
countryside; while American troops, spread thin, take parts of Najaf,
or Falluja, or Haifa Street and Sadr City in Baghdad only to give
them up again. And as we already know from the photos at Abu Ghraib,
the abuses, the tortures, the humiliations have begun. Imagine what
will follow when the sweltering, “disillusioned
and bitter”
as well as beleaguered troops the Bush administration
– which can’t lose and can’t retreat — has put in harm’s way can’t
take the hostility, the casualties, the mortarings, the seeming
ingratitude, the IEDs, the suicide bombers, the Iraqi police who
don’t police and the Iraqi soldiers who won’t soldier against other

You don’t have to be some historical genius to know where our splendid
little adventure in Iraq is headed now that everything’s visibly
going wrong. You don’t have to guess too hard what exactly will
happen if, after our November election, the administration really
does order the “taking” of Falluja, or Ramadi, or Baquba, or Sadr
City. We’re already willing to bomb the urban jungle just as we
once were willing to bomb the actual jungle. The further devastation
and the crimes will follow as night does day. This – more than
anything else – is why our war in Iraq must be stopped now before
embittered representatives of a new generation of American soldiers
decide to throw their medals back on the White House lawn.

of course, represents one solution to the urban jungle of Iraq and
soon, you can be sure, scientists and researchers in its pay will
be hard at work on miraculous vehicles and spying eyes and perching
machines, those “multiplication factors,” meant to pacify future
urban jungles. But there’s another simpler, cheaper way to go. Leave
the jungle.

22, 2004

Tom Engelhardt [send him
] is editor of,
a project of the Nation
. He
is the author of several books, including The
Last Days of Publishing: A Novel
and The
End of Victory Culture

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