Damn, It’s Nam

Damn, It’s Nam — Again!

by Eric Margolis by Eric Margolis


I recently read about a condition psychiatrists call "jamais vu." That’s where one sees something very familiar, but the brain cannot identify it. It’s the opposite of "déjà vu."

Both the White House and US military seemed gripped by "jamais vu." Many of the same political and military mistakes the United States made in the Vietnam War are being repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. But neither the White House, Pentagon, nor US field commanders seem to understand they are repeating errors from the past.

Today’s much ballyhooed testimony to Congress by Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq, will report the "progress" his troops are making in Iraq as part of the so-called "Surge" strategy. This lame idea, worthy of World War I thinking, was developed by one of America’s dimmer military minds, retired general Jack Keene, and sold to President George Bush.

Petraeus will tell Congress that despite serious problems, including Iraq’s useless government, the US still needs to keep most of the current 170,000 US troops in Iraq, and hint at some minor, brigade-sized future troop reductions in the future. "There’s light at the end of the Iraq tunnel," will be Petraeus’ message.

The report will speak of important security successes in Baghdad and restive Anbar Province, where the US occupation has been bribing local sheiks with very large amounts of cash. One can rent loyalty, but never buy it.

Gen. Petraeus is a very smart, well-respected commander, but one suspects his report will unfortunately be the latest example of "jamais vu" syndrome. And one heartily wishes that the general had the courage to stand up and tell Congress that his men were being killed and wounded in a war that has already been lost. That won’t happen because US officers are taught to be relentlessly optimistic and toe the political party line.

American commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan keep proudly reporting how their men have occupied villages or towns, killed scores of "suspected terrorists" (usually thanks to air attack), and forced the enemy to flee. They issue glowing reports about the numbers of Baghdad neighborhoods they have pacified. They do not seem to understand they are fighting a fluid guerrilla war in which territory and body counts mean very little.

Mao Zedong perfectly described the principles of such guerilla war: “When the enemy advances, withdraw; when he stops, harass; when he tires, strike; when he retreats, pursue.”

The "successes" being reported from Iraq and Afghanistan are illusory. We heard exactly the same story during the Vietnam War, when US military spokesmen trumpeted glowing daily reports about enemy body counts, strategic hamlets created, Vietcong tunnels blown up, hearts and minds won over, and smiling children waving little American flags. While the US was "winning" all these little daily battles, Communists were winning the war.

Institutional memory rarely exceeds ten years. Most of Vietnam’s bitter lessons have been totally forgotten. Guerilla wars are fought not for territory but for control of civilian populations. Recent polls show that 80% of Iraqis want US forces out.

Once again, US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have been sent into no-win wars by their poorly informed, badly advised civilian masters, and ordered to keep coming up with rosy progress reports, then blamed when these pointless wars are lost.

I have covered numerous guerilla wars in Africa, Central America and Asia in my time and have never seen western powers win a single one. Yet Americans keep forgetting this hard lesson, and the great Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s warning after the bloody Korean War, "never fight a land war in Asia."

Petraeus’s testimony is far more about US domestic politics than war in Iraq. It is a key weapon in the game of political chicken President George Bush is playing with the Democratic-controlled Congress, which wants to withdraw US forces from Iraq in accordance with the wishes of a majority of Americans.

But Bush appears determined to keep the war going until his term expires so as to avoid blame for defeat in Iraq. Congress is trying to lay all the blame for the war on Bush, get him to admit defeat, and evade its own shameful role in authorizing the trumped-up Iraq War.

But Congress is in a jam. If US troops do withdraw, Iraq may fall into even worse chaos than it now suffers — which the next president, who polls suggest will be a Democrat — will inherit. In an election year, Republicans will blast Democrats as "defeatists" for "cutting and running" and "losing Iraq." That’s why worried leading Democrats are now backing off calls for total withdrawal and mumbling about partial pullbacks and "training Iraqi forces."

Meanwhile, the administration keeps up the pretense there is a functioning government in Baghdad. Washington refuses to admit Iraq has no real national government or army, and is an anarchic stew of competing Shia militias, tribal chiefs, death squads, a score of Sunni resistance groups, and Kurdish separatists who want their own independent state.

Iran is becoming the real power in eastern Iraq, and particularly so now that British troops are pulling out of the Basra region. Iran’s intelligence agency already pretty much controls one of the two main Shia parties and its militia, the Badr Brigades.

The US occupation is largely responsible for unleashing Shia ethnic cleansing that has created four million Iraqi refugees. By using Shia death squads and militias to attack Sunni resistance forces, Washington poured gasoline on Iraq’s ethnic fires.

History does not repeat itself, but men’s mistakes and follies do. The latest somber example is Iraq, where our memory of Vietnam is…"jamais vu."