Bush’s Baghdad Pitstop, Memories of LBJ in Vietnam


The corporate media are in a predictable paroxysm of praise and admiration for President Bush’s furtive and carefully televised and photographed quickie visit to wartime Baghdad–or at least to the airport–and his turkey dinner with some selected troops there.

“A tough act to follow” crowed the Philadelphia Inquirer in a front-page second-day banner headline that justified itself by the circular logic that the trip would be tough on the Democratic opposition because editors would be giving it front-page play in the media.

But before too much is read into this second attempt by our duty-dodging former National Guardsman turned Commander-in-Chief to bask in the reflected glory of America’s soldiers, it might be worth reflecting on prior trips to the front by American presidents.

It was on Oct. 26, 1966, that Lyndon Johnson made his then celebrated trip to Vietnam to visit the troops. The administration at that time was busily touting the line–generally parroted by the American media–that the war was going well, and that there was a “light at the end of the tunnel.” Johnson had ramped up U.S. troop levels from 185,000 in 1965 to 385,000, and had increased the size of the U.S. military overall by 1.5 million. North Vietnam was being bombed relentlessly by B-52s.

But, as Johnson’s advisers well knew, the war wasn’t going well–at least for the U.S. The number of U.S. soldiers killed in action by the time of his “morale-boosting” visit was approaching the 10,000 per year, and would reach over 16,000 in one year in 1968, when over half a million American soldiers would be in Vietnam.

By that time, Johnson’s political career had been destroyed by the war, and he had been replaced by Richard Nixon, in no small part because Nixon had promised the electorate that he had a “secret plan” to end the war.

Nixon too, made a surprise wartime visit to Vietnam, on July 30., 1969. Again there was a lot of positive spin coming from the White House about light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, about winning the war, and about Americans coming home. In fact, by that point, American troop levels were at their peak, of 540,000, and the Vietnamese were still winning. (By that time, too, an equal number of protesters could be counted on to turn out at the increasingly frequent demonstrations against the war, and the media were beginning to question the wisdom of continued fighting.) While Nixon spoke of “Vietnamization,” that is, of turning the war over to the South Vietnamese Army, nearly as many American GIs were killed during his two terms of office–25,000–as during the entire rest of the war. A total of 58,000 Americans–and three million Indochinese people–died.

It was a bit over a year after Nixon’s visit to Vietnam that he actually expanded the war, first “secretly” carpet bombing (secretly from Americans, that is) Cambodia and Laos, and then sending an invading army of American troops into Cambodia, in a disastrous move that, combined with a CIA-backed coup overthrowing the government of Cambodia, led to the ultimate victory of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge guerrillas in Cambodia and the descent of that once peaceful neutral land into a nightmare of genocidal killing and civil war.

Again, that presidential visit was hardly a positive indicator for either the people of Indochina or for the American troops who had to greet and cheer their commander in chief.

It’s worth remembering both of these two past trips–and the thumb-sucking, patriotic manner in which they were covered by the media–as we view the puerile PR photos of a smiling Bush passing the turkey to the soldiers stuck, thanks to Bush’s ill-conceived invasion, in the sands of Iraq over Thanksgiving.

Again we’re hearing the groundless claims by White House and Pentagon officials that the war in Iraq is going well, the latest spin being that the “rate of attacks” on American troops has declined. What these government propagandists carefully ignore is that while the frequency of those attacks has dropped over the past few weeks from over 50 a week to closer to 25 per week, the lethality of the remaining attacks has increased dramatically. In November a record 104 American and allied troops were killed in attacks, which included rocket assaults on helicopters, a truck bombing of Italian military headquarters, and the forced downing of a DHL cargo Airbus. All this has made November hands down the deadliest month of the war since May 1, when Bush donned a flight suit and somewhat prematurely announced the “end of major combat.” Worse yet, there are reports that members of the much touted American-trained Iraqi security forces were instrumental in organizing some of the more successful guerrilla attacks against occupation forces–a bad sign for the Bush administration’s Nixonian “Iraqization” scheme for getting the U.S. out of the Iraq war “with honor.”

No, I’m afraid there’s no light at the end of this tunnel any more than there was at the time of Johnson’s and Nixon’s visits to Vietnam, and the likelihood is that this latest presidential war-zone junket will someday be seen as a precursor not of victory, but of increased bloodshed, a wider war, and quite possibly, of another humiliating defeat for American forces.

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



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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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