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What Vietnam Tells Us About Iraq’s Future

by RON JACOBS

 

I know these things take time and all that, but it might be instructive to take a look at events in Iraq since its supposed transition to supposed sovereignty last week. According to an Associated Press story dated July 6, 2004, the United States is not withdrawing into the background as promised but is “keeping a high profile,” with Paul Bremer barnstorming the US media circuit despite his promise to leave the scene and take a quiet vacation. His replacement, John Negroponte, meanwhile, is working hard to establish the world’s largest US Embassy (and CIA station) since the one that existed in Saigon, Vietnam during the US war on that country in the 1960s and 1970s. Meanwhile, US military forces continue to conduct military operations, run patrols, and bomb Iraqi houses.

In addition, it is the US that is providing the cash and prosecution for the trial of deposed leader Saddam Hussein. Despite the desire of many Iraqis to see the man on trial and in prison (or dead), the US does not seem to trust the recently installed Iraqi government to even take care of this matter. In short, nothing has changed in Iraq except for the names of the various Iraqis serving on the US-created government.

That government, meanwhile, parrots the US line regarding the insurgency-calling the resistance fighters foreigners and terrorists-and gives its blessing to each and every attack on supposed insurgents that the US military conducts. Of course, many of those attacks turn out to be on ordinary Iraqi civilians, a fact which only provides the resistance with more recruits.

Despite the quite obvious differences between the US war on Vietnam and its war on Iraq, there are some aspects to the US operation in both countries that bear consideration, if for no other reason than that our history might provide us with some clues as to where this Iraqi war is going. To begin, the US-installed regime in Saigon was never very popular with the Vietnamese people, even in the southern part of that country. It was able to exist for as long as it did because of the massive US support it received-militarily and financially. In addition, many of those Vietnamese who opposed the regime were removed from their home villages and forced into what the US termed “strategic hamlets.” These so-called hamlets were little more than military camps designed to isolate the resistance forces from their popular base.

This isn’t to say that the Vietnamese resistance was popular among all sectors of southern Vietnamese society, because it wasn’t. The US client regime in Saigon had many supporters, especially among the upper classes, certain criminal and merchant circles, and a considerable portion of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). In general, however, the Vietnamese people did not want the Americans or their war and, as later events proved, just wanted to live in peace as an independent nation without foreign intervention.

What about the ARVN? Was it a popular army? Did the Vietnamese people join it for ideological reasons or for a paycheck? Was it effective? All of these questions and their potential answers are quite instructive vis-à-vis the current plans to build an army in the “new” Iraq. Perhaps the easiest question to answer regards the ARVN’s effectiveness. US Vietnam veterans who ran patrols with the ARVN will usually be quick to tell you that, for the most part, the lower-ranking members of the ARVN wanted to be fighting even less than most of the Americans. Furthermore, US veterans will tell you that many members of the ARVN could not be trusted, either because they had divided allegiances, were actually members of the resistance, or just didn’t give a shit, considering the war to be a US phenomenon that had little to do with them and was not worth risking their life for. The most obvious example of the ARVN’s ineffectiveness lies in what happened on the battlefield once US ground troops were withdrawn-they lost the war. As for the reasons the Vietnamese joined the military: just like in Iraq, most joined for a paycheck. Or, unlike Iraq, because they were drafted. Those who joined for ideological reasons were few, especially among the lower ranks. Although Iraq has yet to begin conscription, one wonders if that could occur should the resistance maintain its ability to fight.

There never was a real election in southern Vietnam. Sure, governments came and went, but the choices presented to the Vietnamese were always choices between candidates selected by the United States and subservient to its interests. If an elected official did go against Washington’s wishes, he was disposed of. This has already happened at least once in Iraq-even before any elected government has actually been installed. It will probably happen many more times given the Iraqi penchant for going their own way. When President Diem refused to listen to the US demands that he do something about his country’s “Buddhist problem,” he was killed in a US-sponsored coup. When other Vietnamese leaders expressed a desire to negotiate with certain non-communist elements of the resistance, they were told to forget about it or lose their positions (and perhaps their lives). One has to wonder how many times Iraqi “leaders” have been told something similar.

In short, if the Iraqi client governments (the current one and those sure to come in the future) ever ask the US to end its aggression and leave before the US wants to, they will most likely be replaced by individuals even more beholden to Washington. The experience of southern Vietnam proved that nationalist sentiments of any kind are not appreciated in Washington unless they are subservient to US plans. Sure, Washington will attempt to incorporate the more moderate nationalist elements into its designs, but, if it cannot co-opt even these elements, they too will become Washington’s enemies. This is one reason why Mr. Allawi and his regime are only too willing to go along with whatever the US does in Iraq. This, and the dollars they all hope they will share.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. It can be purchased by calling 1 800 233 4830.

He can be reached at: rjacobs@zoo.uvm.edu

 

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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