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William Greider: Iraq as Vietnam

William Greider, in the Nation (May 3, 2004):

...One can begin to recognize that much of the news is  actually an old story--recycled versions of the human folly committed  by previous generations. To my eyes, the insurrection under way in  Iraq looks like"little Tet"--a smaller version of the original Tet  offensive the Vietcong staged in 1968. It shocks Americans in much  the same way. Iraq is a"little war" compared with Vietnam, but  Americans are learning, once again, that the indigenous people we "liberated" do not love us. Many want our occupying army to withdraw.  Insane as it may seem to Americans, they are willing to die for this  objective. But what about the schools and roads we built for  them?

Every day I hear echoes from the past. George W. Bush  even invokes the same phrase--"stay the course"--that four decades  ago was understood, ironically, as an expression of official  obstinacy and ignorance. A prominent newspaper columnist, one of the  most ardent advocates of this war-for-democracy, scolds the"silent  majority" in Iraq, urging them to stand up against the killers and  proclaim their solidarity with the US troops. He seems angry at their  cowardice. His kind of frustration was a constant theme during  Vietnam too.

When popular resolve among the Vietnamese  disappointed Washington, US strategists would change the government  in Saigon. The US proconsul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, fired the  interior minister in charge of the Iraqi police we trained to  maintain civil order, because they fled the police stations rather  than shoot it out with their countrymen. The"hearts and minds" thing  was never resolved in Vietnam either. After the Americans withdrew,  they discovered that some of their Vietnamese employees (even in news  bureaus) had been Vietcong agents all through the war.

What  did you learn from that war, Grandpa? Like most Americans, I never  saw the battlefield in Indochina, but I did learn painful, indelible  lessons as a citizen. My grandchildren are watching this war on  television, so I will tell them: I learned that the government  sometimes lies to the people--big lies with awful consequences--and  sometimes government begins to believe its own lies. As a reporter, I  learned with embarrassment to listen to the people in the street,  because sometimes they tell you things the government is concealing.  Again and again, antiwar dissenters and civil-rights activists told  me the FBI and CIA were spying on them, tapping their phones,  infiltrating their ranks and disrupting their organizations. The  stories I dismissed as paranoia all turned out to be true. I also  learned that military conquest, regardless of the stated intentions,  seldom succeeds in creating democracy.

The war in Iraq is  different from Vietnam in one fundamental respect: A substantial  portion of Americans (and others around the world) were in the  streets protesting this venture before the shooting started. The  media generally dismissed them and often caricatured the protesters  as aging hippies on a sixties nostalgia trip. It's a pity reporters  didn't listen more respectfully. Virtually every element of what has  gone wrong in Iraq was cited by those demonstrators as among the  reasons they opposed the march to war....

"Tell me how this ends?" an American field  commander asked a battlefield reporter. I will tell him how it ought  to end: Declare victory and get out. Withdraw now, not later, as  responsibly as this can be arranged. That wise formulation was first  proposed during the bloodiest Vietnam years by the late Senator  George Aiken, a Vermont Republican. Neither LBJ nor Nixon had the  courage to listen."Stay the course.""Light at the end of the  tunnel.""Peace with honor." The war continued for years, with many  more deaths on both sides and eventual defeat for ours. US military  power can proceed now to pulverize the cities of Iraq, but there is  no victory ahead, only more killing, and when it is over, a  well-earned sense of shame.