Vietnam was, for the United States, the war that never ended. Administration after administration has tried, with remarkable lack of success, to wipe it from memory or turn it, at least, into a curable medical condition (“the Vietnam syndrome”). After that war, a shattered military based on a national draft was rebuilt as an all-volunteer force on supposedly non—Vietnam-era principles; the war itself was reconceived as a “noble cause” by President Ronald Reagan; under the rubric of the “culture wars,” assaults were launched from the Right against all aspects of 1960s thinking and behavior (especially those that had to do with antiwar protest); our leaders swore that we would never again get involved in a war abroad without “an exit strategy” and concluded that the American people had to be broken of various bad habits incurred in that dreadful era — especially an unreasonable resistance to the idea of further American blood-letting abroad in long-term foreign adventures and interventions; and the media was to be reorganized (and finally “embedded” in the military) to prevent the sort of reporting that many on the Right considered the main culprit in a Vietnam disaster in which we had reputedly “won” every battle but lost the war on the home front. Our present President’s father, after his Gulf War, exulted, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” And yet Vietnam as a catastrophic experience had sunk deep into American consciousness and tenaciously refused to be expunged.
Not surprisingly then, the Vietnam analogy (or fear of it) was deeply entwined with Bush administration thinking and planning from the get-go when it came to an invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Hence, for instance, the careful planning to bring the bodies of the American dead back to Dover Air Force Base in Maryland in the dead of night — no reporters, no ceremonies, no evidence of their arrival. None of those nasty “body bags” (which were, in any case, renamed “transfer tubes”) were to return in the glare of day to appear on the national news, as in the Vietnam era. This was another of those to-be-avoided factors, believed to have helped cause loss of support on the domestic front for that war. Similarly, there was to be no counting of enemy dead on the battlefields of this new war, and so none of the notorious “body counts” of the Vietnam era which again were believed to have sapped support. Desperate as top Bush officials and their neocon allies were to be fighting a new World War II (or at least a new Cold War), much of Bush administration planning proved a kind of opposites game based on banishing Vietnam memories. In occupying Iraq, we were to replicate our experience bringing democracy to Germany and Japan in 1945 (an analogy administration officials flogged ad nauseum), but not — no, never — bringing on death and destruction, a fierce guerrilla war, and finally our own defeat in the style of Vietnam.
No one should be shocked then that in practically the first moments of the invasion of Iraq, the Vietnam analogy instantly burst back into consciousness. The very phrases of that former war — winning hearts and minds, search and destroy, credibility gap, hard to tell friend from foe, civilian interference in military affairs — were almost immediately on the lips of military men, administration officials, soldiers, and critics alike. Marilyn Young, who wrote an essential history of that previous era, Vietnam Wars, 1945—1990, caught the strangeness of all this back in February 2003, before the invasion of Iraq even began — and then, with the actual invasion barely underway, pronounced the Iraq War, “Vietnam on crack cocaine,” a description that remains remarkably accurate to this day.
Somehow Americans just couldn’t help themselves. Vietnam was still on the brain. The “Q-word,” for example, made its ominous appearance even before Baghdad fell, an embarrassed shorthand stand-in for that Vietnam era classic, “quagmire” — what the United States was supposedly stuck in while in Vietnam. (Forget, for the moment, that to the Vietnamese, Vietnam was neither swamp nor bog, but home).
Even where Vietnam-era terms were avoided — a good example would be the infamous “light at the end of the tunnel,” that hopeful official statement of progress in Vietnam that became a catch-phrase for American failure and defeat — they could still be felt lurking just over the horizon. In the case of the ever-evasive, ever desired “light,” the phrase remained lodged just behind the repetitive assurances of top military commanders and administrations officials that we had reached various “turning points” or “tipping points” or “landmarks” in Iraq, that “progress” was indeed constantly being made, that “violence” was just on the verge of beginning to fall away. (After each such point, as it happened, there would only be more and worse of the same to come.)
Now, of course, we’ve reached the “withdrawal” phase of a disastrous war and we’re already seeing the appearance of administration “withdrawal strategies,” so reminiscent of Vietnam, that don’t actually involve leaving Iraq — just as, in the Vietnam era, “withdrawal” from that war involved endless departure-like maneuvers that only intensified the war (bombing “pauses” that led to fiercer bombing campaigns, negotiation offers never meant to be taken up). In fact, with the recent return of Nixon Defense Secretary Melvin Laird in Foreign Affairs magazine calling for the use of his over-three-decade old “Vietnamization” strategy as an end-game policy for success in Iraq, we even have a new Vietnam-era-adapted word to kick around — “Iraqification” (and the “Iraq Syndrome” has already made more than one appearance as well). It’s unending.
As long as we occupy Iraq in some fashion, that Vietnam = Iraq analogy will simply never go away, however much it may be argued about and however many writers (including this one) point out the obvious, glaring differences between the two wars and the two moments. But none of this matters. Something deep and essential and American remains familiarly unsettling across the two eras, no more so, it seems, than for those who actually fought in Vietnam. When it comes to Vietnam veterans, the Vietnam analogy naturally comes alive in a special way — as in the case of a spate of letters that arrived in the Tomdispatch email box after the site posted a piece by Michael Schwartz entitled A Formula for Slaughter, The American Rules of Engagement from the Air. Schwartz focused on an incident in Baiji, a small town about 150 miles north of Baghdad. The cameras on an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flying over the town spotted three men who might have been planting a roadside explosive. The men seem to flee into a nearby house. Navy F-14s were then called in to strafe the house with cannon fire and drop a “precision guided munition,” presumably a 500-pound bomb on it. The attack, according to reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post, left 12—14 members of a single Iraqi family, who happened to be living there, dead. Schwartz went on to examine the nature of the brutal American “rules of engagement” under which this attack was allowed and, in that context, considered the Bush administration’s draw-down strategy in Iraq which involves relying on the ever escalating use of airpower. Schwartz concluded: “The new American strategy, billed as a way to de-escalate the war, is actually a formula for the slaughter of Iraqi civilians.”
As it happened, this piece spurred powerful memories in a number of Vietnam veterans who wrote vivid e-responses — striking enough to me that I chose two of them to post below. Wade Kane, once a helicopter door gunner and crew chief, wrote in from Crescent City, Florida, as did George Hoffman, a former medic, from Lorain, Ohio, which he describes as being “thirty miles west of Cleveland, in the heart of the industrial rust belt, and my apartment has a scenic view of the smokestacks and the steel mill.” Both in their accounts give the Vietnam analogy painful meaning.
The Devastation We Inflict: Two Letters from Vietnam Vets on “Collateral Damage” in Iraq
Wade Kane writes:
Although I’m sure we occasionally execute some innocent person after years on Death Row, we as a nation go to great lengths not to execute any innocents. Only the worst of murderers seem to reach death row. So it seems quite ironic that we accept seeing some men apparently planting a bomb on the side of a road in Iraq via a video from a Predator drone and, using that information, decide to drop a 500-pound bomb on a house where they might be hiding, a house where we don’t have a clue if there are other people.
Killing innocent women and children is okay, “just” collateral damage… If this is “okay,” then why wasn’t what Lt. Calley did in Vietnam okay? Similarly, why were Hiroshima and Nagasaki okay, but My Lai wasn’t? Somehow, when our soldiers shoot innocents at close range we are appalled, but when it is done via bombs or artillery it’s “okay.”
At about the same time My Lai occurred, I was flying as a crew chief/gunner on a Chinook [helicopter]. Passing a small village I thought I heard a single shot directed at my helicopter. Or maybe it was just “blade pop.” Looking into the village, I could see women and children in the streets in what I’d call a “pastoral scene.” I elected not to “return fire,” though by my unit’s rules of engagement I could have done so. About an hour later we happened to fly past that village again. There was no one in sight, but there were numerous bomb craters in the rice paddies and where homes had been. My guess is that someone else received fire, or thought they received fire, returned fire, and the pilots called for an air strike. I doubt any of the people in the village had time to flee from the attack. Never ever have I heard anything about that event, just My Lai…
I’m not guiltless. At about the same time, flying low level — like 20 feet AGL [Above Ground Level] at 140 mph — we passed a family tending a tapioca field. As we came by, a young boy of 12 or so picked up his hoe and pointed it at us like a weapon. I tried to swing my M-60 around and shoot him, but we were going too fast. At the time, I would have felt it was a good shoot as he was “practicing” shooting us down. Now, with young sons of my own, I’m appalled I could have been so callous.
People here got really worried about a flashlight at a Starbucks (which might have been a bomb). Had it been a bomb, which it wasn’t, it would have weighed about 1/500th of what we routinely drop in residential neighborhoods in Iraq. It’s like most people don’t seem to realize what devastation we inflict there on a frequent basis. Today, for example, someone I know sent me some “feel good pictures” about our troops in Iraq. You know: old ladies holding up “Thanks, Mr. Bush” signs, smiling kids. Pictures she said that “just don’t make the news.” For “don’t make the news,” how about some pictures of kids that our bombs have eviscerated? Pictures of the sort that are found in Where War Lives, a Photographic Journal of Vietnam by Dick Durrance (intro by Ron Kovic).
We should be the bright light to the world, spending our tax monies on cures for malaria, not on killing innocents.
Have we no shame?
From the bottom of my heart I wish to thank those who, like yourself, are trying to bring an end to this war madness.
SP/5 Wade O. Kane RA 14952996
Co. A, 228th AVN BN (ASH)
1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile)
June u201867 to June u201868
Door Gunner on Chinook 64-13137, Aug ’65 to Nov ’67
Crew chief/door gunner on Chinook 64-13140, Nov ’67 to June ’68
Occasional ramp gunner various Co. A Chinooks, Feb ’68 to June ’68
The Que Son Valley & LZ Leslie
Battle for the Citadel at Hue during Tet ’68
The relief of the Marines at Khe Sanh
The April u201868 A Shau Valley campaign
George Hoffman writes:
I want you to know that many Vietnam vets really have had a hard time dealing with this unnecessary war in Iraq that has taken the lives of so many innocent Iraqis as well as American men and women serving there. I am sure that the reason I have such deep feelings about this war is that, as a medical corpsman in Vietnam, every day for a year I had to go into a hospital, face such casualties, and deal with them on such a visceral level.
I served in Vietnam as a medical corpsman from May 31, 1967 to May 31, 1968 at the 12th USAF Hospital in Cam Ranh Bay. Besides treating wounded soldiers, the facility also had a special ward for Vietnamese nationals. Usually they were the officials and relatives of the Thieu administration, highly educated and employed in government positions. But occasionally the patients were peasants, average people whom the Americans were supposedly trying to win over to our side (the hearts-and-minds issue). And they were usually patients wounded by shrapnel — “collateral damage.” And, of course, having been wounded by the Americans, they were angry at them and their hearts and minds were lost to the other side, the supposedly evil VC guerillas.
With that bit of unfortunately necessary personal information, let me move on to your latest dispatch. I understand the rationale of the Bush administration’s policy of air supremacy which seems logical in military terms, but it is a complete failure in diplomatic terms. I am sure that many thousands of innocent Iraqis, whose only sin is that they lived next to some house with insurgents, or in that house, have been murdered in these so-called surgical air strikes with precision bombs; and, as in Vietnam, these operations are becoming a major reason that Americans are losing Iraqi hearts and minds as well turning Iraqi civilians into insurgents.
In addition to the reporters and editors in the mainstream media, most of whom remain ignorant of the horrible reality for Iraqi civilians in these operations, the average American citizen seems to have taken the bait of the Bush administration’s propaganda about how the war is being prosecuted, hook, line, and sinker. Civilians really have no concept of how horrible “collateral damage” can be and it will be a hard lesson to learn, since major media outlets basically refuse to report on this issue.
Of course, the insurgents love the American policy of air supremacy, because each new wound and/or death is a great tool for recruitment to their side. I think it is more than a coincidence that the married couple, who traveled from Iraq to Jordan and were found to have lived in Fallujah, were among the suicide bombers that participated in the attacks in the hotels in Amman. In one article that I read, a reporter stated that residents in Fallujah were quietly celebrating the attacks. Remember, the siege of Fallujah in November 2004 leveled close to two-thirds of all the buildings in that city. As the grunts used to say in Vietnam, payback is a real motherf—-r.
Related to the siege of Fallujah is another issue that hasn’t been well reported by the mainstream media. During the siege, the American forces used white phosphorus artillery rounds. I treated soldiers in Vietnam, who had been wounded by shrapnel coated in white phosphorus or, as the grunts nicknamed it, Willy Peter. Unlike napalm, Willy Peter shrapnel burns until it completely oxidizes with the air. So it burns through the skin and down to the bone. Again, the American military commanders in Iraq have used a weapon which turned Iraqi civilians against their so-called liberators and put them into the camp of the insurgents. As more American troops are redeployed out of Iraq, due to the political pressure applied to the Bush administration since Rep. Murtha came out so strongly against the war, I am sure that the field military commanders have been told to keep American casualties to a minimum, so they are likely to rely even more upon a policy of using air supremacy to take out insurgents.
One last personal observation: I suspect that, in the coming decades, historians will look back on the war in Iraq in the same way they now do on the war in Vietnam. Both wars were predicated on a false premise (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution versus Iraq’s nonexistent WMD and Saddam’s nonexistent links to Al Qaeda’s jihadists) and blindly accepted by congressional representatives who had the moral fortitude of jellyfish. LBJ’s [President Lyndon Baines Johnson's] propaganda about nations in Southeast Asia falling like dominoes to the communists fits all too well with Bush’s assertion that making Iraq a democratic model in the Middle East will mean the surrounding kingdoms and dictatorships then fall like so many dominoes to democratic reforms. Widespread illegal domestic spying on American civilians during Vietnam matches the current warrantless spying on Americans by the National Security Agency and the American military’s TALON program. Finally, as with key officials in LBJ’s administration, the very officials who influenced President Bush to prosecute this unnecessary war are the first to leave the administration when domestic criticism is directed at them. Of course, here I am referring to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who was the architect of the Vietnam War, and Paul Wolfowitz, who served a similar role in the war in Iraq. They both fled to the World Bank, where each later admitted that he had discounted the resolve and determination of the enemy; and, in Wolfowitz’s case, that he was surprised when the war became a guerilla-style one.
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.