Although Vietnam flooded instantly back into American consciousness as the invasion of Iraq was launched in March 2003 — along with its ancient vocabulary from “hearts and minds” to “quagmire” (or the deeply referential “Q-word”) — for the Bush administration the rhetorical reference point was World War II and its aftermath. From Churchillian phraseology to that famed “axis of evil," modeled on the Axis powers of that global war, to endless invocations of the successful occupations of Germany and Japan, World War II was its analogous war of choice.
Yet from the beginning, no American critic had the Vietnam War era more firmly lodged in the brain than the top officials of the Bush administration. It was as if their invasion was always aimed, as in a suicide mission, directly at America’s well-guarded Green Zone of Vietnam memories. After all, much war planning was based on what they considered the “lessons” of defeat in Vietnam.
From the dead-of-night way they brought the dead and wounded back from Iraq to the Pentagon’s decision to embed the dreaded media, long blamed for defeat in Vietnam, in military units, Iraq was to be the anti-Vietnam battlefield. If we had, as the right believed, never lost an actual battle in Vietnam, but lost every one on the home front, then the major campaigns of the Iraq War would first be launched and managed on that home front (and only secondarily in Iraq).
But even as the White House and Pentagon were attempting to erase all Vietnam-like thoughts from the reality they hoped to mold both in the Middle East and in the US, even as they were avoiding the “Q-word” or the infamous phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” (for which, in the years to come, they would substitute an endless string of Iraqi “milestones,” “landmarks,” “tipping points,” and “corners” turned), they were themselves hopelessly haunted by Vietnam.
That events in Iraq bore remarkably little relation to those in Vietnam over three decades earlier — beyond the obvious unlearned lesson that smaller powers in our time will not let bigger ones occupy them — seemed to make no difference. Forget the fact that there was no other superpower backing the Iraqi resistance or that the insurgency was a minority Sunni one in a majority Shiite country; forget that Vietnam had next to nothing of resource value other than rice to offer, while Iraq lies at the heart of the oil heartlands of the planet. Just focus for a moment on the recent thoroughly depressing jigsaw puzzle of a map of Baghdad produced by the US military “to reflect… ethno-sectarian fault lines” and leaked to the Times of London. Its various complex patterns of Sunni and Shiite stripes and solids, of flashpoints and “Christian communities,” representing the complex swirl of civil war, insurgency, and ethnic cleansing bear no relation to anything imaginable in the Vietnam era.
Vietnam was, after all, a nation that only wanted to exist and whose “insurgency” was led by a single revolutionary/nationalist party headquartered in a separate half-nation. Iraq — an insurgency inside a foreign occupation inside a civil war, all infiltrated by untold levels of corruption, criminality, and religious strife and further confused by a minority Kurdish drive for an independent state — seems to be a nation in desperate search of failed statehood (and the US in Iraq, as Nir Rosen has pointed out, is now but a larger version of all the militias fighting for turf). We are, in short, in new territory here.
And yet somehow, Vietnam only seems to draw closer to Washington’s Iraq. Just before the US midterm elections we reached what even the President agreed was a “Tet moment” (though the chaos of those weeks in Iraq bore next to no relation to the South Vietnam-wide offensive launched on the Tet holiday in 1968). It seems that, like drunks at an open bar, the President and others in this administration — no, in the capital more generally — just can’t help themselves when it comes to Vietnam.
Take one small example. Just before those midterm elections, George Bush admitted to a group of conservative journalists, as Byron York of the National Review reported, that he was frustrated by the pre-invasion decision not to do the sorts of “body counts” that in Vietnam, as the carnage continued without victory ever heaving into sight, came to seem ludicrous, horrific, and self-defeating. (“‘We don’t get to say,’ said Bush, in what was evidently an outburst of irritation, u2018that — a thousand of the enemy killed, or whatever the number was. It’s happening. You just don’t know it.'”)
The problem, the President admitted, was that, in administration war planning, “We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team.” Without any other way to measure “success” in devolving Iraq, the President only wished he could reveal the count of kills the Pentagon had long been amassing behind the scenes. Now, as things go from bad to worse he has finally given in to that primal body-count urge. Last week at the Pentagon, for the first time in over three years of post-Mission Accomplished disaster, he offered up a body count, saying:
“Our commanders report that the enemy has also suffered. Offensive operations by Iraqi and coalition forces against terrorists and insurgents and death squad leaders have yielded positive results. In the months of October, November, and the first week of December, we have killed or captured nearly 5,900 of the enemy.”
This wasn’t just a presidential slip. Take two typical recent headlines — an AP report went: “2,000 killed in Afghanistan since Sept.” (“Almost 2,100 militants have been killed in Afghanistan since Sept. 1 in operations involving coalition special forces soldiers, a U.S. Army spokesman said.”) and a Pentagon news release for Iraq, “20 Terrorists Killed, Weapons Caches Destroyed” — reveal that it is increasingly policy. It seems that we now have an official body-count team in Washington for both our failed wars.
And that’s the least of the matter. As 2006 ends, Iraq has become Washington’s Vietnam in every sense of the word. On the one hand, the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, representing the world of the elder George Bush, has opted for a policy which combines the Vietnamization program (“Iraqification”) of the Nixon years (reduce American ground troops, bulk up American advisors to local forces, increase American air power, and at the very least create a “decent interval” between the withdrawal of American combat forces and the moment when defeat becomes evident). In the meantime, the President’s upcoming revamped approach looks to be a combination of a John F. Kennedy-era massive advisor build-up and a classic Lyndon-Johnson years “surge” of troops. In the Vietnam era, another word was used for “surge” — “escalation.” And, as it happens, the newly proposed surge into Baghdad and al-Anbar Province of perhaps 20,000 extra American soldiers (along with a tripling of American advisors/trainers) is exactly the kind of “incremental” escalation that American military men, looking back on the Vietnam disaster, swore would never happen again
Just to ensure that this is indeed Vietnam we’re now enmeshed in, both sides in the present recommendation debate have been consulting a key architect of the final losing years of the Vietnam era — Henry Kissinger.
The dangers of succumbing to the Vietnam urge are remarkably quick to show themselves. Already last week Helen Thomas exposed an instant “credibility gap,” sending White House spokesman Tony Snow scrambling to explain how the President could cite a two-month body-count figure but the administration couldn’t offer a Pentagon count for four years of war. Meanwhile, the latest polls show a yawning, Vietnam-style “credibility gap” between what anyone in Washington wants to do and the urge of increasingly large majorities of Americans to withdraw all American troops on a fixed timeline from Iraq.
Even more to the Vietnam point is the evidence of collective establishment cowardice in present Iraq planning — the willingness simply to put off the loss of a war (and of a dream of global domination) into someone else’s future. In the Vietnam years, President Nixon (advised by Kissinger) could undoubtedly have gotten us out of Vietnam, but squandered his “capital” instead on his historic China opening, trying in the process — shades of Iran today — to get a neighboring regional power to do for his war what he was incapable of doing for himself.
This kind of ongoing madness — part of which, these days, passes for “realism” just as Kissinger’s particular brand of Vietnam-era madness passed for “realpolitik” — should be material for The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Unfortunately, it will also be the basis for the deaths of tens or even hundreds of thousands more Iraqis as well as hundreds or thousands more Americans in the years to come. And undoubtedly, when we’re done, the Iraqis will be forgotten and — as in the Vietnam era — this will be called an “American tragedy,” to be followed by an “Iraq Syndrome,” and so on into the Mbius strip of history, farce, and catastrophe.
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, The End of Victory Culture, and most recently, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His new blog is The Notion.