Vietnam and Iraq, the Heartland Experience

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On the April day in 2003 when American troops first entered Baghdad, historian Marilyn Young suggested that Operation Iraqi Freedom was “Vietnam on crack cocaine.” She wrote presciently at the time:

“In less then two weeks a 30 year old vocabulary is back: credibility gap, seek and destroy, hard to tell friend from foe, civilian interference in military affairs, the dominance of domestic politics, winning, or more often, losing hearts and minds.”

That language — and the Vietnam template that goes with it — has never left us. Only this week Republican Senator and presidential hopeful Chuck Hagel, who served in Vietnam, publicly attacked the administration’s Iraq policy for “destabilizing” the Middle East and suggested that the President’s constant “stay-the-course” refrain was “not a policy.” He added, “We are locked into a bogged-down problem not… dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam. The longer we stay, the more problems we’re going to have.”

Put another way, Young’s statement might now be amended to read: “Iraq is what history looks like once the Bush administration took the equivalent of crack cocaine”; “the United States is now Vietnam on a bad LSD trip.”

After all, in Iraq, to put events in a bizarre nutshell, the squabbling government leadership just presented (kind of) on deadline a new “constitution” that has blank passages in it and then insisted on taking an extra three days, not allowed for in the present interim constitution, for further “debate.” All this despite the intense pressure U.S. “super-ambassador” Zalmay Khalilzad put on the negotiators to make it on time to the deadline, another of the Bush administration’s much needed “turning points.” (Imagine, a representative of the French king half-running our constitutional convention!) At his Informed Comment blog, Juan Cole has already referred to this as a coup d’tat, though the New York Times more politely terms it a “legal sleight of hand.” (“The rule of law,” writes Cole, “is no longer operating in Iraq, and no pretence of constitutional procedure is being striven for. In essence, the prime minister and president have made a sort of coup, simply disregarding the interim constitution. Given the acquiescence of parliament and the absence of a supreme court [which should have been appointed by now but was not, also unconstitutionally], there is no check or balance that could question the writ of the executive.”)

More important yet, the politicians involved — many of them exiles, some of them with few roots in Iraq, the Sunnis among them with limited roots in the insurgent Sunni community (and in any case largely cut out of the bargaining process between Kurdish and Shiite politicians) — are fighting for a retrograde-sounding constitution (religiously based and without a significant emphasis on women’s rights) inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone. It is a constitution aimed at creating an almost impossibly starved central government guaranteed to control little.

Meanwhile, outside the Green Zone, amid a brewing stewpot of internecine killing and incipient civil war, vast parts of the country have simply passed beyond Baghdad’s rule, and significant parts of central Iraq seemingly beyond any rule at all. The Kurdish areas in the north have long been autonomous with their own armed militia. In the largely Sunni areas of central Iraq, chaos is the rule, but whole towns like Haditha are now “insurgent citadels,” run, as Falluja was less than a year ago, as little retro-Islamic statelets. (Grim as this may be, such statelets can offer — as Taliban-ruled Afghanistan did after two decades of civil war and chaos — order of a harsh kind that ensures personal safety for most inhabitants. This is no small thing when conditions are desperate enough.) The Shiite south, on the other hand, has largely fallen under the control of Islamic parties and their armed militias, all allied to one degree or another with the neighboring Iranian fundamentalist regime. In the north and the south, security is increasingly in the hands of local parties, not the central government, or even the occupying forces.

Throw in a full-scale insurgency, constant interruptions in oil and electricity production (as well as production levels at or even below those of Saddam Hussein’s weakest post-Gulf-War-I days), and high unemployment, and most Iraqis may not greatly care about, or even be affected by whatever “constitution” is produced inside the relative safety of the Green Zone.

With that in mind, imagine some of the hawks and neocons who first started us (and the Iraqis) off on this glorious Middle Eastern adventure of ours as being capable of seeing the situation in a clear-eyed way. If so, they might easily conclude that they were on a bad LSD trip out of the Vietnam era. After all, they have essentially created their own worst nightmare — no small accomplishment when you think about it.

In the meantime, while Iraqi police, soldiers, judges, officials, and normal citizens continue to die in horrible ways, so do American soldiers in Iraq, in smaller but growing numbers (as in Afghanistan where a resurgent Taliban has clearly imported Iraqi tactical and IED expertise). Ominously, insurgent and terrorist tactics, including the recent missiling of two American warships docked at the port of Aqaba in Jordan, continue to spread.

Today, on the inside page of my hometown paper, under “names of the dead,” are listed: “BOUCHARD, Nathan K., 24, Sgt., Army; Wildomar, Calif.; Third Infantry Division; DOYLE, Jeremy W., 24, Staff Sgt., Army; Chesterton, Md.; Third Infantry Division; FUHRMANN, Ray M. II, 28, Specialist, Army; Novato, Calif.; Third Infantry Division; SEAMANS, Timothy J., 20, Pfc., Army; Jacksonville, Fla.; Third Infantry Division.”

Three or four American dead a day seems now close to the norm — seldom enough to make the front-pages of any but the most local newspapers, yet enough evidently to penetrate the consciousness of growing numbers of Americans. The fact is — and this can be put down, if not simply to Cindy Sheehan, then to the Sheehan moment we’re living through — a genuine conversation/debate has begun about being in Iraq, about the Bush administration lies that got us there, and about how in the world to get out. Most important, this surprisingly noisy and discordant discussion is taking place not, as in the last couple of years, in the shadows, or on the Internet, but right in plain sight: in our newspapers, on television, in the streets, in homes, even in the corridors of Congress.

One symbol of this change could be seen in the decision of Democratic Senator Russell Feingold to break “with his party leadership last week,” as Peter Baker and Shailagh Murray of the Washington Post wrote, “to become the first senator to call for all troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by a specific deadline.” On the other end of the political spectrum, Republicans like Senator Hagel and conservatives of many stripes are raising danger flags ever more often — and in some cases calling directly for us to depart from Iraq. For instance, Andrew Bacevich, who served in Vietnam and is the author of the superb book The New American Militarism, wrote recently in the Washington Post:

“Rather than producing security, our continued massive military presence [in Iraq] has helped fuel continuing violence. Rather than producing liberal democracy, our meddling in Iraqi politics has exacerbated political dysfunction… Wisdom requires that the Bush administration call an end to its misbegotten crusade. While avoiding the appearance of an ignominious dash for the exits, but with all due speed, the United States needs to liquidate its presence in Iraq, placing the onus on Iraqis to decide their fate and creating the space for other regional powers to assist in brokering a political settlement.”

Similarly, Donald Devine of the American Conservative Union Foundation, wrote, “The only solution is for the U.S. to exit before the whole thing comes apart.”

On Monday, the President, roused from his rounds of vacation bicycling by a ton of bad news and ever worse polling figures, was flown into Salt Lake City to give a speech to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Inside the convention hall, he was received by a friendly audience; while outside, in the streets of a red-state capital, demonstrators including Rocky Anderson, the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City, gathered to hold the President’s feet to the Iraqi fire. The last time a President was so dogged by demonstrators in otherwise friendly settings was certainly in the Vietnam era. (“We are here today,” announced Anderson, “to let the world know that even in the reddest of red states, there is enormous concern about the dangerous, irresponsible and deceitful public policies being pursued by President Bush and his administration.”) Note, by the way, another sign of the “chickenhawk” nature of this administration: The President not only won’t attend funerals or meet with Cindy Sheehan again; he clearly doesn’t dare venture into any area where he’s likely to meet a challenging reception of any sort. It may, however, already be too late for him to find unchallenging safety anywhere in the United States.

In his stay-the-course VFW speech, you could feel that the President now found himself in a new and confusing situation. Step by step, he’s slowly been backing up. This time — contradicting the anti-Vietnam, no-attention-to-casualties playbook he has long been working off — he specifically spoke the numbers of dead American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, something of a first for him. Though he never mentioned Cindy Sheehan’s name, he might as well have. Its absence acted like a presence, all but ringing from the speech. Read it yourself and you can sense the degree to which he is now uncharacteristically on the defensive. Even to friendly crowds, he finds himself answering questions that, not so long ago, never would have come up. Wherever he is, he is now essentially responding to what is, in effect, an ongoing news conference with the nation in which challenging questions never stop being tossed his way.

All and all, in the last weeks, it’s been like watching a nation blinking and slowly emerging from an all-enveloping state of denial. Such a state of mind, once pierced, will be hard indeed for this administration to recreate. In the meantime, the Vietnam template remains stuck in our collective heads. Even the images on the television news — for instance, the showing of American GIs dragging off the bodies of American casualties under fire as the President calls on the public to stay the course — have suddenly grown more Vietnam-like.

This is, of course, Vietnam as seen in an Alice-in-Wonderland, crazy-mirror version of itself. For instance, despite what many think, post-invasion opposition to the Iraq war has grown far more quickly than in the Vietnam era; and a mass antiwar movement is now being jump-started into visible existence by the families of soldiers in Iraq (and by small numbers of resisting soldiers too) rather than, as in the Vietnam era, ending on such a movement. Expect the antiwar demonstrations scheduled for Washington on September 24 to be enormous, to feature Cindy Sheehan, and to be led by military families.

It may be that, despite certain visible similarities between the two, Iraq is not Vietnam, as Time magazine editor Tony Karon argued especially eloquently at his blog recently: But in the United States at least, there are certain striking similarities, especially in the unequal burden of pain, suffering, and death laid by enthusiasts of each war on working-class, heartland America. Below, Vietnam historian Chris Appy, whose Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides (now in paperback) is the single best book on the Vietnam experience to appear in years and a distinctly eerie read at present, explores two heartland turning-point moments, involving war casualties in Ohio — one in 1968, the other now. Tom

Military Families May Once Again Lead Us Out of War: Casualties in the Heartland, 1968/2005

By Christian Appy

“You bet your goddamn dollar I’m bitter. It’s people like us who give up our sons for the country,” said a firefighter whose son was killed in action. “Let’s face it: if you have a lot of money, or if you have the right connections, you don’t end up on a firing line over there. I think we ought to win that war or pull out. What the hell else should we do — sit and bleed ourselves to death, year after year?” His wife jumps in to add, “My husband and I can’t help but thinking that our son gave his life for nothing, nothing at all.”

These may sound like voices from the present, perhaps from grieving parents who have taken up Cindy Sheehan’s vigil in Crawford, Texas as she visits her ailing mother. Actually though, they come from 1970, and their lost son died in Vietnam. In recent weeks, as American casualties in Iraq continued to mount and opposition from military families has grown, as Ohio families mourned their dead and the Cindy Sheehan’s story would not go away, I kept remembering the many people I had interviewed about a similar moment during the Vietnam War, a time in 1968 when millions of Americans who had trusted their government to tell the truth about a distant war and believed it was every citizen’s absolute duty to “fight for your country,” began to turn, like a giant aircraft carrier slowly arcing in another direction, began to doubt, question, and finally oppose their nation’s policies.

Many voices of the Vietnam era are long forgotten or were never clearly heard, especially those of people like the firefighter and his wife. In their place, we have a canned image of Vietnam-era working-class whites as bigoted hard-hats, Archie Bunkers all (as in the famed 1970s television sit-com “All in the Family“), super-patriotic hawks who simply despised long-haired protestors and supported their presidents.

In that stereotype lies a partial, but misleading, truth. Many working-class families were indeed appalled by the antiwar movement of those years. “I hate those peace demonstrators,” the same firefighter said. But his hostility did not make him a hawk. He was furious because he saw antiwar activists as privileged and disrespectful snobs who “insult everything we believe in” without having to share his family’s military and economic sacrifices. In virtually the same breath, however, he said about the war of his time, “The sooner we get the hell out of there the better.”

In fact, poor and working class Americans were profoundly disaffected by Vietnam. A Gallup poll in January 1971 showed that the less formal education you had, the more likely you were to want the military out of that country: 80% of Americans with grade school educations were in favor of a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam; 75% of high school graduates agreed; only among college graduates did the figure drop to 60%.

In Vietnam itself, the mostly working-class American military of that era, formed by an inequitable draft, made its opposition to the war increasingly clear as the fighting dragged on. By late 1969, demoralization and resistance within the armed forces was endemic. Desertions were beginning to skyrocket; drug use was becoming rampant; avoidance of combat routine; outright mutiny not unusual; and hundreds of officers would be wounded or killed by their own enraged troops. By 1972, the military was in shambles. It is now largely forgotten that the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam not just because of domestic opposition to the war, but also because it no longer seemed possible to field a functional, obedient army.

Ohio 1968: Is This War Worth Another Child?

Such levels of opposition did not come out of the blue. They had long histories deeply embedded in that endless war. By the mid-1960s, for instance, many hard-fighting and disciplined American soldiers were already embittered by their commanders’ war of attrition that had them “humping the boonies” as “bait” to draw fire from an elusive and dangerous enemy who then determined the time, place, and duration of the vast majority of firefights. They often viewed their officers as ticket-punching “lifers,” who sought promotion by jeopardizing their troops in an effort to post the highest possible enemy body counts, the chief measure of “progress” back in Washington. GIs, who might risk everything to save a buddy, increasingly came to view the war itself as meaningless. “It don’t mean nothin’,” they commonly said.

In the face of rising opposition, Presidents Johnson and Nixon sought to rally — in Nixon’s famous phrase — the “silent majority” in support of the war, not by explaining the need for ever more sacrifice, but by demonizing critics who, it was said, threatened to turn America into a “pitiful, helpless giant.” Though the Nixon administration, unlike the present one, did not have its own media machine constantly available to attack its enemies, Nixon often sent out his Vice President, Spiro Agnew, as an attack dog to vilify student protestors (“effete corps of impudent snobs”) and the media (“nattering nabobs of negativism”).

The cynical courting of “Middle America” may indeed have exacerbated class tensions, but in the end it proved incapable of overcoming the rising tide of outrage among families who believed they were bearing the greatest burden in a war that lacked an achievable or worthy purpose. Already, in the long months after the Tet Offensive of January 31, 1968, when as many as 500 Americans were dying every week, the most basic of all questions was beginning to well up from the heartland: Is this war worth the life of even one more of our children?

You could see it, for example, in Parma, Ohio a working-class neighborhood near Cleveland that ultimately lost thirty-five young men in Vietnam. On Memorial Day, 1968, the Cleveland Press, a newspaper previously known for its strong support for the war, ran a startling front-page feature by reporter Dick Feagler under the headline: “He Was Only 19 — Did You Know Him?” It was about a Parma boy named Greg Fischer who had just died in Vietnam.

I learned about the impact of that column from Clark Dougan, now an editor at the University of Massachusetts Press. For Clark, the news of Greg Fischer’s death hit like a hammer because he had known the 19-year-old. They were classmates together at Valley Forge High School where the school’s principal often came on the intercom to ask for a moment of silence because yet another former Valley Forge student had died in Vietnam. When he read the story, with its heartbreaking details, including the letter Fischer had left behind to be opened “if I don’t come back from Vietnam,” Dougan recalls, “I understood how easily it could have been me. Like any kid who had grown up in the fifties there was a certain allure to the military. But my parents hadn’t been able to go to college and they were determined that I would. So I had gone off to this cloistered college while Greg was going off to die in Vietnam. The article was really asking, how many more people like Greg are we willing to waste? It reflected a feeling that was spreading all over working-class communities like Parma. That was the moment when u2018Middle America’ really turned against the war.”

Ohio 2005: The Chickenhawk War

The author of that article, Dick Feagler, is still on the job. Thirty-seven years later, he writes for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, now lashing out at the war in Iraq, at those who have “a bland, nitwit allegiance to the blood and death as if the carnage in Iraq were some kind of Olympic sport.” As in 1968, so now in the Ohio heartland, where the burden of death once again falls heavy, the war makes ever less sense to those most involved. Concern for the well-being of Americans in uniform goes hand-in-hand with the rising dissent. Like many other Ohioan columnists, Feagler often couples his attacks on the war with prayers for the troops, even telling readers how to send care packages and letters of support.

Underlying the two moments — May 1968/August 2005 — is the fact that, once again, our wartime sacrifices fall disproportionately on the working class and, with U.S. deaths approaching 2,000, and thousands more soldiers and Marines horribly wounded, a recent CBS poll found that 57% of Americans now believe the war in Iraq not worth the loss of American lives. Another poll showed that only 34% support Bush’s handling of the war, just two points higher than the comparable figure for President Lyndon Johnson after the Tet Offensive.

As in 1968, so in 2005, as New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has pointed out, “The loudest of the hawks are the least likely to send their sons or daughters off” to war. George Bush continues to call the war a “noble cause” and “the central front in the Global War on Terrorism” even though 60% of Americans have come to believe that it has made them less safe. His five-week-long vacation is only the most obvious symbol of the obscene gulf in safety between the advocates of the war and its victims. That gulf is at the very heart of a growing disaffection in places like Ohio, where earlier this month 20 Marines from the same Reserve unit (3rd Battalion, 25th Marines) were killed in Iraq within 72 hours. That unit is headquartered in Brook Park, Ohio, a working-class suburb adjacent to Parma, and the losses included 14 men from Ohio, bringing the state’s total fatalities to more than 90.

Sam Fulwood, another Plain Dealer columnist, responded to these losses by recalling Bush’s 2003 “bring ‘em on” taunting of the Iraqi insurgents. “Two years ago, tucked in the comfort and safety of the White House’s Roosevelt Room,” wrote Fulwood, “the president challenged u2018anybody who wants to harm American troops.’ John Wayne couldn’t have said it with more cowboy swagger. u2018Bring them on.'” As Fulwood concludes with a stridency rarely seen in Midwestern newspapers until recently, “The chicken hawk got his wish.”

Now, for the first time, not just in Ohio but all over the country, media outlets are beginning to raise a previously forbidden question: Should we withdraw? As the Cincinnati Enquirer framed it on Aug. 7, in response to the local casualties, “Do we seek revenge? Do we continue as usual? Or do we leave?” The last question, once asked only in a whisper if at all, is suddenly being voiced loudly and urgently. And when it was raised by an antiwar Iraq War Marine veteran named Paul Hackett, running as a Democrat in a special election for Congress, he came within two percentage points of winning in a district east of Cincinnati that had given George Bush a whopping 64% of its votes in November, 2004, and has elected a Republican to the House of Representatives almost automatically for the past 30 years.

In presidential elections, Ohio is often spoken of as a “bellwether state.” It may turn out to play the same role when it comes to America’s wars. What we are witnessing in Ohio and elsewhere is a real sea change in public opinion being led by people with the closest personal connections of all to the President’s war. Disillusionment has soared not only because of mounting casualties and the obvious lack of progress in quelling the Iraqi insurgency, but also because the military is strained to the limits keeping 130,000 troops in Iraq. Many thousands of Americans are in their second tours of duty with third tours looming on the horizon.

During the Vietnam era, Lyndon Johnson decided to rely almost exclusively on the draft and the active-duty military to fight the war, hoping to keep casualties (and so their impact) largely restricted to young, mostly unmarried, and powerless individuals. The Reserve forces, he understood, tended to be older, married, and more rooted in their communities. Now, the Reserves and the National Guard make up half of U.S. combat forces in Iraq, a figure that has doubled since early 2004. This increasing reliance on the Reserves only serves to accelerate antiwar resistance among military families.

Soldiers, veterans, and their families have, as they did in the early 1970s, once again moved to the forefront of a growing, grass roots struggle to end an unpopular war. Cindy Sheehan’s impassioned opposition to the war has not only gained extraordinary media attention but seems to have ignited a genuine outpouring of public support. Many who may have feared that public opposition to the war could be taken as unpatriotic or unsupportive of American troops, have been emboldened by Sheehan’s example to demand that her son’s death, and all the others, not be used to justify further bloodshed in a war that cannot be convincingly justified by an administration distant from their lives and their suffering.

Note: The full text of Clark Dougan’s account of Memorial Day, 1968 in Parma, Ohio, excerpted from Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, can be read by clicking here and scrolling down.

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture. Christian Appy teaches history at the University of Massachusetts and is the author of Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers in Vietnam and Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides, which is now out in paperback.

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