Presidential Press Secretary Scott McLellan, speaking for the world’s loudest democracy, was droning on in his mendacious monotone. When, in response to Senator Kennedy’s speech at the Brookings Institution, he avowed that Iraq was nothing like Vietnam, the practiced listener noted an edge of indignation rising through his normal torpor.
After all, in so many ways he is absolutely right.
Geographically, Iraq and Vietnam are very different. That is to say, they are in very different places. Or, to amplify further, they are far away from each other.
Also, they are not at all similar topographically. As far as I know, desert is at a premium in Vietnam. Ditto for jungle in Iraq.
Also, the flora and fauna are not very much alike. (Although they do have palm trees in both Iraq and Vietnam. I think even Scott would have to concede that.)
In terms of race and ethnicity, chief economic activities, exports, religion, diet, art, music, and choice of lingerie, there is precious little overlap between Iraq and Vietnam.
On the other hand, for those of us who remember the Vietnam War, the similarities do tend to multiply.
For instance, like the War in Iraq, the Vietnam War involved the diversion of the nation’s human and material wealth to a campaign that was unjustifiable in terms of American security.
And, like the war in Iraq, the administration based its case for war in Vietnam on sheer fabrication.
Another similarity is that the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq has adopted "The-Light-at-the-End-of-the-Tunnel Mantra" that was so prevalent in Vietnam. This well-rehearsed statement comes in many variations, but its gist is "things may seem bad now, but if we stay the course, America will usher in a new day of democracy for these pitiful __________" (fill in the blank with "Vietnamese," "Iraqis," or whatever national group we are currently liberating).
In Vietnam, one of the variations on this theme included not only staying the course, but sending just another two or three regiments which would, beyond any shadow of a doubt, without any question, undeniably, guarantee that we would win the thing and have the troops home by Christmas. We seem to be entering this phase now in Iraq also.
Another slight variation was that we just needed to drop some bombs in Laos because those dirty-fighting Vietnamese were running across the border to escape the reckoning that they had coming. With just a few bombs the border-bounding commies would be brought to their knees. Be alert for this phase in the future, Syria and Iran.
The reason that statements like this were so often repeated in Vietnam was that the tunnel kept getting longer and the light at its end farther and farther away. Again, Iraq offers some eerie parallels.
First, we were assured that once war was over, the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms. When it didn’t happen that way, we were assured that the day of democracy would dawn once the Ba’ath dead-enders (Saddam Hussein the chief among them) were dispatched. Then when Saddam pere et fils were out of the picture, we were told that the continuing violence was caused by "outside agitators" (Zarqawi the chief among them) forcing their will on democracy-loving Iraqis. Now we are told not to worry about Shia fighters killing American soldiers in Sadr City and opening fire on Spanish and Polish troops in southern Iraq because Muqtada al Sadr is only one of the minor ayatollahs. It won’t take long to deal with him, and then it will all be downhill.
The greatest similarity is that in both Vietnam and Iraq, we assumed our technical military superiority – our superior BOOM! power – would be sufficient to carry the day. We knew we could blow away those backward little yellow dudes, and we are just as sure we can blow away those backward little brown dudes. We didn’t need to attend to timing and sequence, we didn’t need to understand the people or their culture, we didn’t need to pay any attention to history, we didn’t need to have any appreciation for the objective forces that give rise to asymmetric warfare. Our superior BOOM! technologies would overcome all obstacles.
Paul Bremer provides plenty of illustrations of brute dependence on BOOM! power. It was Bremer who decided to disband the Iraqi Army, thus providing the opposition a pool of disgruntled fighters from which to recruit. In a move that makes him a prime candidate for the Ken Starr Political Tin Ear Award, Bremer shut down Maqtada al Sadr’s newspaper and arrested his deputies, thus giving him little choice but to strike back. By moving at the same time to avenge the deaths of four American mercenaries in Fallujah, Bremer gave the most volatile Shia factions and the most volatile Sunni factions grounds to unite against their common enemy. (Now, if he could just find a way to really piss off the Kurds, he would pull off the trifecta.)
It is not surprising that an administration that values power to the exclusion of all else and is infatuated with payback relies so heavily on the knee-jerk reaction. Uprising in Fallujah? No problem! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Shia running amok in Kut and Kerbala? No problem! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
The recent news has been dominated by all hell breaking loose in Iraq, including the US’s Jineen-style invasion of Fallujah, attacks on CPA troops in a number of Shia strongholds, the kidnapping of civilian workers of various nationalities, and the suicide bombings in Basra. When asked for his reaction, Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez said, without the slightest hint of irony, "We cannot tolerate acts of violence directed against the Iraqi people."
Does this mean that we have finally learned the lesson of Vietnam and will leave Iraq right away?
GREG WEIHER is a political scientist and free-lance writer living in Houston, Texas. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.