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Tom Engelhardt: Those Persistent Vietnam Echoes

Tom Engelhardt, at tomdispatch.com (4-25-05):

[Mr. Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture and co-editor of History Wars, the Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past.]

Okay, okay, Iraq's not Vietnam. For one thing, just about no one there speaks Vietnamese. Oh, but here's a similarity, almost no Americans sent into Vietnam spoke Vietnamese (including diplomats); and almost no Americans sent into Iraq spoke Arabic (including diplomats). Oh, but here's a difference, the iconic photos of the horrors of the war in Vietnam were largely taken by a series of remarkable war photographers like Don McCullin, Eddie Adams, and Catherine Leroy (whose book Under Fire: Great Photographers and Writers in Vietnam is just out); on the other hand, the iconic photos of the Iraq War were not taken by our embedded photojournalists, but on digital cameras by a group of prison guards.

Obviously the two places/wars aren't the same and let's toss in another difference for good measure. The two wars occurred at different moments, allowing the crucial players in only one of them to refer to the other. So, while in the Vietnam era people spoke of the United States entering a"quagmire" (forget, for a moment, that the Vietnamese saw the matter rather differently), Americans after the invasion of Iraq worried about the"Q-word." And they weren't the only ones entering the pop-referentiality game. After all, as the journalist Christian Parenti wrote, the Iraqis jumped in as well -- as in the Baghdad Shiite slum of Sadr City:

"On one of the slum's main thoroughfares, al-Radhewi Street, are several walls marked with a message in English. Big block letters read Vietnam Street. Farther on, a wall bears a crudely painted mural depicting a modified version of an infamous Abu Ghraib torture photo. It is the prisoner in the hood and cloak standing on a box, arms outstretched, electrical wires dangling from his limbs. Next to him in the mural is the Statue of Liberty, but in place of her torch she holds the lever of an electrical switch connected to the wires. Below is scrawled: The Freedom Form George Bosh."

But now that we're deep in the mire, here's the strange thing: No one bothers to mention the"Q-word" at all. Evidently, there are no words to adequately describe where we are -- though that hasn't stopped various military commanders and Bush administration officials from trying.

In fact, the phrases that have been cropping up ever since the January 30th elections in Iraq --"progress,""tipping point,""turning the corner" -- rang strangely familiar. Admittedly, no general actually got up and claimed, as Westy Westmoreland did just months before the Tet Offensive of 1968, that he had seen The Light -- at that tunnel's end. In the brief double-period of euphoria after the November election in the U.S. and then the January one in Iraq, however, there was a distinct"uptick," even an up-rush of heavily qualified but exceedingly positive statements -- call it wishfulness, call it propaganda -- from military men in Iraq and at home, civilian Defense Department officials, and others in the Bush administration including the President himself (see quotes above). The insurgency had, it seemed, reached its zenith -- call it, in the mode of recent oil discussions,"peak insurgency" -- and was now"on the wane." It had begun the slow slide downhill toward oblivion in 2006 or 08 or 10 or… We had reached -- and here, let me introduce a phrase from Vietnam that somehow hasn't made it into the Iraq discussion yet (an obvious oversight by otherwise scrupulously repetitive people) --"the crossover point."

That term, used by the military in the Vietnam era, referred to the moment when"body counts" would show that we had killed more of the forces of our Vietnamese enemy than they could replace through recruitment in South Vietnam or infiltration from the North. Of course, here's a difference between the two war eras. As Donald Rumsfeld likes to say, we don't have (or at least often broadcast) the"metrics" for how we're doing in Iraq. In Vietnam, on the other hand, the statistics of triumph were omnipresent, regularly made public, and overwhelming. These were summed up in the military's Measurement of Progress system, monthly reports on everything from"strength trends of the opposing forces; efforts of friendly forces in sorties… enemy base areas neutralized… and the degree of government control of roads, population, etc."

There were figures on every form of destruction rained down on North Vietnam (sorties flown, tonnage dropped,"truck kills" and the like); while in the South, special effort went into the creation of numerical equivalents for death. Visiting Washington officials received son et lumière briefings in which death was quantified in elaborate charts and diagrams. General Westmoreland, for example, had his"attrition charts," multicolored bar graphs illustrating various"trends" in death and destruction; while, in the field, Lieutenant General Julian J. Ewell had his codified kill ratios of"allied to enemy dead," ranging from 1-50 ("Highly skilled U.S. unit") to 1-10 ("Historical U.S. average"). Collated, sorted out, broken down, interpreted, and illustrated, such statistics -- a genuine numerology of death -- flowed tidally toward policy makers in Washington.

If the American statistics of slaughter had been accepted by both sides as the ruling logic of the Vietnam struggle, the United States should have won that war any day from the mid-1960s on. That they didn't and that the defeat in Vietnam, however sanitized and reformulated in American pop culture, remains so tenaciously in memory, especially among our military and political leaders, makes any comparison between Vietnam and Iraq a mobius-strip-style experience. After all, our leaders implicitly, in their actions if not their words, compare the two all the time.

If there are no (or few)"body counts" in this war and the"metrics" flowing back to Washington are not proudly broadcast to the public as signs of impending success, it's exactly because a supposed lesson of Vietnam was that our daily body-count announcements -- that is, the gap between war promises and war results -- was a significant factor in finally alienating public support for the war.

And yet, even without the"metrics" in constant sight, we can see the same basic pattern recurring -- as in recent glowing statements about insurgency downticks that were followed, as day is night, by reports on upticks in fighting in Iraq with, it should be added, a similar slow erosion of support for the war in the United States. As Juan Cole wrote recently at his Informed Comment website:"Bush and his agendas (social security privatization, the Iraq War) continue to slide in the polls. Americans turn out to want a timetable for withdrawal of US troops just as much as Iraq's Sunni Arabs do! (69 percent want a clear goal and don't think Bush has articulated one.)"

Okay, and here's another Vietnam/Iraq similarity: As was true with Vietnam, the Iraq War is being fought by the Bush administration on two fronts. In the post-Vietnam years, the war's supporters commonly claimed that the Vietnamese had fought a two-front war -- a war on the battlefield, which they had supposedly lost to the American military and a war for hearts and minds in the American homeland (as we would now call it), which they won because Americans lacked the will to take unending casualties. (And then, of course, there were all those pesky demonstrators, not to speak of the reporters who, myth had it, worked like so many demons to undermine the public will). In reality, the American government was engaged in a vigorous two-front war long before the Vietnamese were capable of weighing in. After all, Westmoreland made his infamous tunnel-and-light statements in November 1967 because Lyndon Johnson felt he needed reinforcements on the home front. He was already fighting a losing battle for the national opinion polls and so brought his general back to offer a little good news in front of the cameras.

Similarly, the Bush administration has, from the beginning, been fighting a complex two-front war (at home against both a pathetic Democratic opposition hardly willing to oppose him and what threatened to be, but hasn't become, a formidable antiwar movement). With its carefully embedded media in Iraq, its own propaganda outlets in the mainstream in the U.S., a cowed press, and much careful planning, the administration has certainly fought a better"post-war" in the United States than in Iraq, where disaster and failure have dogged American plans every step of the way. Each break or organized"turning point" has been used here to orchestrate a chorus of positive voices and good news about the war, regularly sidelining the bad news, often for significant periods of time. The January 30th elections were only the latest round of this. (Previous major ones: the pulling down of Saddam's statue, the killing of Saddam's sons, Uday and Qusay, the capture of Saddam himself, and the turning over of"sovereignty" to the Iraqis.)

Unlike the Vietnamese, the insurgents haven't even attempted to open a"second front" in the United States. If anything, factions of them, via the omnipresent threat of kidnapping and murder, have helped embed the American media even further -- and, in videos, some parts of the fractured insurgency have offered, as with beheadings, evidence of barbarism around which no antiwar movement is likely to coalesce.

And yet… it's already clear that, as with the Johnson and Nixon administrations in the Vietnam era, the Bush administration is fighting a defensive"war" at home that it will not, in the long run, be able to win. It may be giving ground slowly, but giving it is, and years of debilitating fighting yet to come ensure that the war on the home front will end poorly for them.

So on the one hand, our leaders, military and civilian, have been ducking and twisting just not to be Vietnam-ish -- call it the attempt to learn from the Vietnam War experience. On the other hand, like so many addicts who never went into a recovery program, they just can't stop themselves, given some of the crude similarities between the two experiences. On so many subjects, all they have to do is open their mouths and out pops Vietnam. As for instance with their recent glowing descriptions of how successfully we're training"our" Vietnamese (…oops, I meant Iraqis), followed by generally unhappy results on the ground; or their awkward attempts to explain the willingness of enemy Iraqis (and associated or disassociated jihadis) to die for what they believe in, and the willingness of"our" Iraqis to run from what they don't believe in.

So much of this seems familiar; in part because it's in the nature of our world that, as Jonathan Schell has made so clear in his book The Unconquerable World, when a superpower invades a smaller country, tenacious resistance of one sort of another will result. National sovereignty, which has proved such a weak reed for so many countries and which has often enough brought little but the sovereignty of tyranny, is nonetheless prized beyond measure on the scale of what is of value, what is essential on this planet. And the results -- whether in Vietnam or in Iraq, whether the insurgents are backed by another superpower or by scattered bands of jihadis and weak states -- turn out to be not that different.

Withdrawing, Forever and a Day

On the difference side of the ledger when it comes to the two wars and two eras, consider U.S. military leadership. In Vietnam, the military was fighting in the context of the Cold War. The enemy was the Soviets (or perhaps the Chinese, or both); the Vietnamese were considered their cat's-paws. In a sense, they never existed; the fierce issue of nationalism (they had it, we didn't) was largely ignored; the degree to which a civil war was going on in Vietnam was ignored as well. In a sense, our military leadership, right to platoon level, was not well schooled in the war they were fighting. This is, I believe, no longer true.

Recently, I listened to a TV journalist, who fought in Vietnam and was embedded with the Marines in Iraq, comment that, in occupied Iraq, the people you wanted to talk to weren't the dopes staffing the CPA (headed by L. Paul Bremer), but the military guys; that they were the only ones who knew what was going down. The military leadership there had done its reading. They have, for instance, read William S. Lind on Fourth Generation Warfare -- that is, various kinds of insurgencies no longer controlled by states, or parties that could become future states; struggles in which a state military like ours faces "no single opponent." ("All over the world, state militaries are fighting non-state opponents, and almost always, the state is losing. State militaries were designed to fight other state militaries like themselves, and against non-state enemies most of their equipment, tactics and training are useless or counterproductive.") They are also well aware that such wars take, at best, years to win; and that superpower militaries are not especially well-suited to fight them.

I also listened to a Lt. Colonel, presently at the Hoover Institution, who, on becoming convinced after 9/11 that his command was going into Afghanistan promptly had 1,000 copies each of two books -- Lt. Col. Lester Grau's The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan and The Other Side of the Mountain: Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet Afghan War by Grau and Colonel A. Jalali -- airlifted to his forces and distributed widely. In the typical blunt way that soldiers can sometimes talk, he said that they had come in quite handy in the war to follow.

So you have a well-read, well-schooled, well-trained military that knows all too well how ill-suited it is to the struggle at hand in Iraq and, unlike in Vietnam, isn't begging the civilians in Washington for a little more time and some more troops to finish off the job. Unlike in Vietnam, my guess is that many of them want out and would, in fact, happily enough appropriate former Senator George Aiken's Vietnam-era suggestion to simply declare victory and -- in some phased manner -- go home.

In Vietnam, the military high command always wanted more. In Iraq, in a sense, they may want less than nothing at all. On the other hand, here's a similarity with Vietnam: As was true then, so now, in Washington (and in the field) there's a constant linguistic scramble to avoid the suggestion of defeat, which would mean thinking the unthinkable. If you were to return, for instance, to The Pentagon Papers of the Vietnam era, you would find document after document in which you can sense the chagrin, desperation, or despair that the war planners felt discussing (or often straining to avoid discussing) some version of defeat ("retreat,""humiliation" or, in that classic phrase of the time that did reenter Iraq-speak for a while and will certainly return," cutting and running").

For the first time in a while, however, we've gotten a fair amount of talk from American officials about"withdrawal." The President admittedly refuses to set a"timetable" for withdrawal, but one of his generals, Lance Smith, deputy commander of CentCom, which oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, lately suggested that American troops" could begin coming home in significant numbers if insurgent violence is low through general elections scheduled for the end of [2005]." Some American officials have recently spoken about getting American troop strength down from the present 140,000-150,000 range to perhaps 105,000 by early 2006 if all goes well. For instance, in an April 11th piece sprinkled with qualified but hopeful comments ("'They're slowly losing,' said Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, a senior aide to [Joint Chiefs Chairman] General Myers who commanded the Fourth Infantry Division in Iraq last year."), Eric Schmitt of the New York Times reported that 105,000 figure from"senior military officials… by this time next year." His story began:

"Two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the American-led military campaign in Iraq is making enough progress in fighting insurgents and training Iraqi security forces to allow the Pentagon to plan for significant troop reductions by early next year, senior commanders and Pentagon officials say. Senior American officers are wary of declaring success too soon against an insurgency they say still has perhaps 12,000 to 20,000 hard-core fighters, plentiful financing and the ability to change tactics quickly to carry out deadly attacks. But there is a consensus emerging among these top officers and other senior defense officials about several positive developing trends, although each carries a cautionary note."

At other moments, other officials were reportedly suggesting -- as did Gen. Richard A. Cody, Army vice chief of staff, in mid-March -- that:

"Any permanent reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Iraq isn't likely until sometime between 2006 and 2008… For there to be any drawdown, Iraq security forces must continue to improve their ability to fight the insurgency themselves, [Cody] told reporters. The military is planning a staggered rotation of soldiers and large units that will be in Iraq between 2006 and early 2008, Cody said. That planning is expected to include the possibility of a significant reduction in U.S. forces. [Cody] said he could not be more specific in numbers or timeframe, nor did he say how a reduction would be achieved. Sending fewer or smaller units to Iraq is one possibility; shortening the time each unit spends in Iraq is another."

Meanwhile, in England, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, his prime minister now in an election fight, was also talking"withdrawal." According to Anton La Guardia of the British Telegram, Straw said that"British and American troops will be withdrawn steadily from Iraq starting next year and are likely to be completely out of the country within five years." Five years (and note that"likely")! Or in Straw's exact words,"over the next parliament British troops will be down to virtually nothing."

Virtually nothing... if all goes... likely... probably... Such statements, modest as they may be, referring as they do to dates that range from 2006 to 2010 or beyond, mentioning as they do only partial troop draw-downs, nonetheless never lack their qualifiers. Here's a phenomenon that should ring a few Vietnam bells: withdrawal as non-withdrawal. So should the increasingly anxious visits of high officials like Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Zoelick to Iraq looking for reassurance that our battered position there will not worsen.

Since we are only entering the"withdrawal" phase now, it's worth thinking about what kind of a model the Vietnam War offers policymakers on this score. In the Vietnam era, American officials, even presidents, talked endlessly, sometimes, as with Richard Nixon, incessantly about"withdrawal." And yet here was the odd thing, withdrawal never actually involved departure, merely all sorts of departure-like feints and maneuvers -- from bombing"pauses" that only led to fiercer bombing campaigns to negotiation offers never meant to be taken up to a"Vietnamization" plan in which American ground troops would be pulled out in favor of American-trained South Vietnamese forces as our air war was intensified. (Vietnamization -- like Iraqification today -- was a crucial part of Nixon's second-front campaign in the United States meant to disarm the antiwar movement, as to some extent it did. It was only in Vietnam that it failed.)

Each gesture of withdrawal allowed the war planners to fight a little longer; but if withdrawal did not withdraw the country from the war, the war's prosecution never brought it close to a victorious conclusion either. With every failed withdrawal gesture and every failed battle strategy, the sense of Vietnam as an American"nightmare" (a word from that moment that hasn't quite yet made it into ours) seemed to draw closer, and a feeling arose that the country had somehow been entrapped in Vietnam. (Think Q-word.)

This may be the strangest aspect of any reading of The Pentagon Papers, that secret history of the war commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara -- who, speaking of parallels, moved on to the World Bank presidency, just like undersecretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, once his usefulness in the Pentagon disappeared. No better documentation exists on the detailed nature of U.S. planning for upwardly ratcheted destruction in Indochina. Yet, among successive groups of planners one senses in the documents a growing feeling of inadvertence, helplessness, victimization, and self-pity.

Expect something similar from the Bush administration as things get worse. After all, though at least some significant part of our military leadership may want out, the civilians who took us in, don't. Since the civilians in the Pentagon and the rest of the administration think that even from hell there's no exit, they never planned to leave Iraq and I doubt they plan to depart now. As Donald Rumsfeld told assembled American troops during one of his surprise visits to Baghdad recently, "We don't have an exit strategy, we have a victory strategy." This, you might say, is a classic Vietnam-era formula for disaster.

Increasingly, observers from right-wing columnist Robert Novak to Juan Cole -- who believes that, speaking of Vietnam parallels, the Bush administration has put into effect its own"domino theory," creating something like a Shia crescent in the region -- sense that it's all in some fashion more or less over in Iraq. Assumedly withdrawal should be in the cards. But I wouldn't hold my breath on this one. We should watch for this administration's withdrawal maneuvers meant to hold off any exit from the country.

On the other hand -- to point to another difference between Vietnam and Iraq -- actual withdrawals are underway. If the Brits are taking the path of withdrawal maneuvers only, the Spanish, the Danes, the Thais, the Hondurans, the Hungarians, the Norwegians, the Portuguese, the New Zealanders, the Filipinos, and the Ukrainians have already left or are in the process of leaving, turning the" coalition of the willing" into the " coalition of the wilting." Just two weeks ago, the Polish government, grabbing desperately at the ending of the Security Council's mandate in Iraq, announced that their 1,700 troops would be out by year's end; and with the Berlusconi government suffering a serious setback in regional elections, the Italians now seem to be wavering as well.

We are ever more alone in Iraq; while, in Vietnam, our" coalition of the willing" -- some of whom were well-paid for their willingness -- hung on until very late in the game. The Republic of Korea's troops stayed to the bitter end, leaving only in 1973 (thanks to continuing infusions of money from the Nixon administration). Except for a small training contingent that left in 1973, the Australians pulled out in 1972, as did New Zealand and Thai forces. Only the Filipinos left relatively early -- in 1969. ...

This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.