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From the Gulf of Tonkin to the Persian Gulf

Repeating History

by ROBERT FANTINA

No exit strategy; violent resistance by the occupied nation’s citizens; opposition to the war in the United States; international anger at the U.S. because of the war; the American economy being decimated by the war; escalating casualties; presidential refusal to recognize mistakes: all of these statements apply to the Iraq war today as much as they did to the Vietnam War forty years ago.

While it is difficult to pinpoint the start of the Vietnam War, since America was involved marginally in that country as early as the 1950’s, major escalation began in 1964. The circumstances bringing about this escalation parallel the start of the Iraq war to an amazing degree. Brief descriptions of this first, major escalation in Vietnam, and the start of the Iraq war, follow.

During the Vietnam War, the staging area for the U.S. Seventh Fleet was the Gulf of Tonkin, on the east coast of North Vietnam. On August 2 1964, the U.S. destroyer Maddox was on an espionage mission when it was fired on by North Vietnamese torpedo patrol boats. The Maddox, with supporting air power, fired back, sinking one North Vietnamese boat.

Two evenings later the Maddox and another destroyer, the C. Turner Joy were again in the gulf. The instruments on the Maddox indicated that the ship was under attack or had been attacked and the captain began an immediate retaliatory strike. Both ships began firing into the night with assistance from American air power.

Hours later the captain concluded that there might not have been an actual attack. James B. Stockdale, who was a pilot of a Crusader jet, undertook a reconnaissance flight over the waters that evening and when asked if he witnessed any North Vietnamese attack vessels, Stockdale replied: ‘Not a one. No boats, no wakes, no ricochets off boats, no boat impacts, no torpedo wakes–nothing but black sea and American firepower.’

Regardless of any inconsistencies, this incident, which may not have happened at all, was presented to the world as an act of aggression against the United States. The fact that the U.S. had no legitimate business in the Gulf of Tonkin was not addressed. Congress quickly met and with the same lack of fact-finding rigor demonstrated by that body nearly forty years later, passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed the president to take all necessary measures to repel aggression. Those measures resulted in a significant escalation of the war. The ultimate result was years of death and carnage for American soldiers and Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.

On September 12, 2002, President Bush addressed the United Nations and told the skeptical delegates and the doubting world about his belief in Iraq’s progression towards creating nuclear weapons and his purported knowledge of its scientists, weapons designs and attempts to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. None of it was true, but Congress bought the story, with both Republicans and Democrats proclaiming the need to give Mr. Bush the authorization to invade Iraq. The result, to date, has been death and carnage for American soldiers and Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

During the Vietnam War, President Nixon ordered the secret invasion of Cambodia, with the apparent goal of containing communism to North Vietnam. Congress approved the bombing of that nation when it passed the Cooper-Church amendment in 1971. While this amendment restricted the ability of the president to deploy troops, it allowed him to do whatever he deemed necessary ‘ to protect the lives of American armed forces wherever deployed,’ and did little to limit the president’s use of air power. While Mr. Nixon denounced the bill, it did not prevent him from bombing Cambodia under the guise of protecting the lives of American soldiers.

Today Mr. Bush is stating categorically that he knows Iran is supplying weapons to Iraqi freedom fighters. He has further stated that he is going to do ‘something’ about it. Congress appears to be in a somewhat less receptive mood than it was four years ago, but it is likely that, in the name of ‘supporting the troops’ Mr. Bush will once again be given a free reign, with nothing more than a slap on the wrist in the form of a non-binding resolution from Congress to express its displeasure.

When Mr. Nixon opposed the Cooper-Church Amendment (it was an amendment to another bill), he said that it harmed the war effort. Mr. Bush and Co. vehemently opposed the non-binding resolution expressing disagreement with his decision to send an additional 20,000 troops, echoing Mr. Nixon’s sentiments and claiming that it would show the ‘enemy’ that America is divided, and would be a slap in the face to the soldiers serving in Iraq.

In 1967, six Vietnam Veterans founded the organization ‘Vietnam Veterans Against the War.’ These men had served in Vietnam, and knew first hand that the war was, at best, a calamitous mistake. Thirty-seven years later, a group of veterans of the Iraq war formed ‘Iraq Veterans Against the War.’ Like their predecessors, these men and women are exposing the cruelty, carnage and obscenity of the war.

The outcome of the Iraqi war will not be known until some future date; Mr. Bush has said that it will be another president, not he, who decides when American soldiers will leave that country. But history does tend to repeat itself, as has been indicated by even this cursory look at some of the major milestones of the Vietnam and Iraq wars. If that is indeed the case, the world can expect several more years of blood and death in Iraq, more American soldiers returning home in coffins, and a growing resentment of the U.S. There does not appear to exist any more optimistic precedent in America’s history.

ROBERT FANTINA is author of ‘Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776–2006.