As the war in Iraq grinds on and American casualties mount, the situation there is increasingly coming to resemble the one in Vietnam some 35-40 years ago. We even have a Defense Secretary who, like Robert McNamara before him, is an over-confident egotist devoid of self-doubt and incapable of tolerating criticism, and who thinks himself so brilliant that he can outsmart a popular insurgency and overpower it with fancy weaponry. What makes this historic parallel particularly haunting is the return of terminology, some of which hasn’t been heard in years. To help readers understand likely future developments in Iraq, here is a glossary of some of those terms:
Guerrilla war — An unconventional conflict, in which the enemy can hide among the people, popping out to fire on U.S. soldiers and ducking back before he or she can be challenged or identified. Are we in a guerrilla war in Iraq? Ask Don Rumsfeld. His denials are starting to sound like his claims before the war about WMD’s: empty.
Quagmire — A sticky situation in which the military cannot hope to win victory, but cannot retreat for fear of losing the entire warSand face. Is Iraq becoming a quagmire? The latest testimony by Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks (who has, it is worth noting, quit his post as head of the military in Iraq before things can get worse and damage his reputation), is that at least 150,000 troops will be needed in Iraq “indefinitely.”
Body count — A tally of how many of our guys and their guys get killed each day. The U.S. body count has been averaging about one a day until recently, but now we’re starting to see two people a day get hit, and larger-scale attacks are becoming more common. We haven’t been getting the enemy body counts that used to be de rigeur (and massively inflated) at Pentagon press conferences during the Vietnam War, but as the U.S. body count mounts, the pressure will rise on the Pentagon to respond to public dismay by showing that the “score” of dead is always in our favor. (Obviously, the fact that 10 times as many Vietnamese troops were dying as Americans didn’t affect the outcome of that conflict, any more than it is likely to affect the outcome of this one.)
Light at the end of the tunnel — This gloomy image was popular for years in the White House and Pentagon during the interminable Indochina conflict. We haven’t heard it used yet with respect to Iraq, but if “quagmire” starts to be more in vogue, can this grizzled phrase be far behind?
Search and Destroy — This was a favorite tactic of U.S. forces in Vietnam. It had the effect of killing the occasional Vietcong or Vietcong sympathizer as well as many innocents. It also had the effect of driving entire rural populations into the arms of Vietnamese insurgents. Search and destroy efforts in Iraq are already having the same effect, as innocent bystanders get killed in droves each time the U.S. mounts a campaign. (Search and destroy is likely to be even more counterproductive as a strategy in Iraq than it was in Southeast Asia, given the Arab culture’s tradition of eye-for-eye vengeance.)
Allies — As in the Indochina War, the U.S. in Iraq is twisting arms to compel a few weak client states (in the Vietnam era it was Korea and Australia, now it’s Poland, Bulgaria and maybe India, a particularly weird choice given that nation’s fundamentalist Hindu government and its militant crackdown against Muslims), to send a token few troops to make the occupation and counterinsurgency look like an international effort. This is, in other words, not your grandfather’s allies of World War II.
Letting Iraqi boys defend Iraq — Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War was to “Vietnamize” it. The strategy proved a dismal failure, because he was trying to get a corrupt government to battle committed nationalists. Current plans to create a new Iraqi army of 40,000 to fight with U.S. troops against Iraqi resistance are unlikely to fare any better. (Sound familiar? For a preview of how well it works, check out the performance of the new American-made Afghan “army.”)
Winning hearts and minds — This was what U.S. military efforts in Vietnam were supposed to accomplish. The idea was that somehow by napalming villages, terrorizing populations with high-tech weapons, defoliating cropland and littering it with hair-trigger anti-personnel bomblets, and then after all that distributing some goodies–chocolate bars, medicine and food rations for example–the people’s hearts and minds would won over to the U.S. effort. This of course never happened in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. Now we’re attempting the same thing in Iraq, where similar actions can be expected to produce similar results.
Vietnam Syndrome — This term came into vogue among Republicans and neo-con Democrats directly after the U.S. defeat in Indochina. The idea was that the loss in Vietnam had soured American policy makers and the public on foreign military actions of any kind. The Bush administration’s war-mongering in Afghanistan and Iraq was supposed to drive a stake through that syndrome, by offering an example of successful use of military force in promoting American foreign policy. With Afghanistan quickly returning to its pre-invasion condition of feuding warlords and anarchy (and continuing to prove a hospitable place for Al Qaida-type terrorists), and with Iraq becoming a guerrilla war quagmire that the U.S. has little hope of actually “winning,” it seems Bush, Rumsfeld and National Security Director Condoleeza Rice are well on their way to reviving the syndrome, though it will probably eventually get a name change, to Iraq Syndrome. Another variant of Vietnam Syndrome was The Lessons of Vietnam, a phrase more popular among liberals). The irony is that the “lesson” of Vietnam (which was supposedly taken to heart too by Secretary of State Colin Powell), was that the U.S. should not get involved in future wars unless the objective was clear and the public was solidly behind it. Yet here we have a war that, like Vietnam, was entered into based on a series of lies to the American public, and that, like Vietnam, has no clear objective. Eventually, thousands of Iraqi and American deaths hence, we will, sadly, no doubt also be hearing about the Lessons of Iraq.
Peace with honor — This was the semantic contortion that Richard Nixon attempted to use to disguise America’s embarrassing defeat by the peasant army of Vietnam. Again, as the American public loses patience with the continued slaughter of American troops in Iraq, and the lack of progress there towards some resolution of the conflict, we can expect Bush and Rumsfeld to come up with some version of peace with honor to describe their eventual humbling retreat from Iraq.
Escalation — During the Vietnam war, escalation was the term used for upping the intensity of the fighting. Whenever the U.S. found itself starting to lose the war, presidents, from Kennedy to Nixon would “escalate” the U.S. effort, adding troops and expanding the field of battle, first to North Vietnam, then to Laos, and finally to Cambodia. The more they escalated, the worst they got trounced. We’re already hearing the term escalation applied now to Iraq. So far, it’s the Iraqi resistance that has been escalating the fighting since the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime. Inevitably, though, unless the U.S. decides to declare peace with honor and quit Iraq, we can expect to see the U.S. begin escalating the counterinsurgency effort, with the addition of more troops and more aggressive search and destroy tactics.
The Draft — One big difference between the Vietnam War and the current war in Iraq is that during the decades of the Southeast Asian conflict, the U.S. had a draft, and consequently an almost unlimited supply of soldiers to throw into battle. The U.S. military now, which numbers about 1 million, is largely dependent for front-line combatants upon reservists and National Guardsmen. Already some one-third of U.S. forces are directly committed to the war effort in Iraq, counting the 150,000 actually stationed in Iraq, and the 200,000 who play supporting roles in Kuwait and other regional countries. Given the enormous back-office operation required by today’s technologically complex, highly bureaucratic, and managerially top-heavy U.S. military, there is actually little in the way of more troops that could be assigned to this conflict should it escalate in intensity. Moreover, with morale crumbling among the reservists and guard troops in Iraq, most of whom are older than typical soldiers in a draft army, and who have left behind jobs and families, the U.S. is facing a serious manpower crisis, just in terms of replacing current troops in the field. If it doesn’t turn to a draft, it will have a hard time recruiting more reservists and guard troops, since most people join those units to make a little extra money, not to actually have to go overseas and fight. If it does restart the draft, popular support for war, such as it is–in Iraq or anywhere in the world–will evaporate completely. (The mechanism for a draft–the Selective Service office and local draft boards, and a lottery machine to allocate priority numbers by birthdate–is already in place, and a national call-up could happen within 30 days of a Congressional vote authorizing a return to compulsory service.)
Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. A collection of Lindorff’s stories can be found here: http://www.nwuphilly.org/dave.html