“Two, Three, Many Vietnams”! was Che Guevara’s famous call to arms. Today we remain in the throes of our third Vietnam, Iraq. This is the third time since World War II that hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops have been sent abroad in a neo-colonialist war (1).
The first “Vietnam” was in fact Korea. And it was the first war to be televised to the relatively few TV sets then in existence. Americans saw the bloody battles in black and white with American soldiers killed day after day. At the end of it all about 50,000 Americans and a million Asians were dead, at the hands of Harry S. Truman who was deeply reviled as the result of the war. Truman was unexpectedly defeated in the first New Hampshire primary and withdrew from the presidential race, which Eisenhower won on the promise of “going to Korea” and ending the war–which he did, much to his credit. Today we do not hear much about Eisenhower; but the bloodthirsty Truman, the only human being to order the incineration of hundreds of thousands with nuclear weapons of mass destruction, is hailed by the likes of Democrat neocon Peter Beinart and other Democratic neocons as a model for Democrats today. However, at the time of Korea organized, antiwar sentiment was miniscule and there was little to no protest over the draft.
Next was Vietnam itself where our historical memory often seems to begin when most pundits discuss war, apparently because their knowledge of history only springs from their own personal memories. Kennedy and the rest of “the best and the brightest” Democrats started this war and by its ending another 50,000 Americans and two million Southeast Asians, by Robert McNamara’s count, had been killed. Kennedy was another “tough” Democrat, decrying a supposed missile gap and promising to send troops anywhere in the world for “freedom.” But this time a massive opposition grew, slowly at first and then gaining in speed. By 1968, Johnson had suffered the same fate as Truman in New Hampshire and he was driven from office. By 1964 there were sizable campus and street demonstrations against the war, driven by Old Left and New, and by 1969 the demonstrations had grown to hundreds of thousands. The draft became untenable and was abolished. From now on the empire builders would have to make do with an “all-volunteer” army recruited mainly from the ranks of those who were strapped for cash or mesmerized by the culture of war.
Now we have Iraq. And in this last election, the President who brought it upon us was handed a resounding defeat–just as were Truman and Johnson before him. But this time millions in the U.S. marched against the war before it started, and 23 Senators refused to rubber stamp Bush’s call to arms. Even the military was reluctant, and it took enormous exertions of deception and manipulation, like calling for a vote a month before the 2002 elections, leading most politicians to vote their careers and ambitions instead of stopping the unnecessary slaughter that knew lay ahead. Once again the United States has left its signature in Iraq, killing around 500,000 so far and probably more than that due to the Clintonian sanctions leading up to the war. It seems that a consistent U.S. strategy, its signature, is to level any third world country and visit mass murder on its population if that country is considered an enemy. The hope is obviously that those who displease the American Empire will know that there is a great price to pay. Although American deaths have fallen far short of those in Korea and Vietnam, the tens of thousands of injuries would have been deaths in those earlier wars.
Vietnam generated more opposition than Korea and now Iraq has generated more opposition and earlier opposition than Vietnam–despite the absence of the draft, which did so much to mobilize opposition to the war on Vietnam. (Now we have Max Boot, resident neocon at the LA Times calling for an army of foreign-born mercenaries who can be rewarded for their fighting with U.S. citizenship.) And opposition to this war does not come mainly or principally from students but from all segments of the population. It was a grown-up opposition, symbolized by Lila Lipscomb and Cindy Sheehan, whose sons were taken from them by the machinations of the neocons. (The drawback to the lack of youth has been a dearth of militancy and radicalism and uncompromising idealism.) The opposition has sprung not only from the Left, but from Libertarians and the non neocon Right which has returned to its anti-imperial roots, largely abandoned after WWI(2). This stance is routinely smeared with the “isolationist” label to no avail, and I soon expect to see bumper stickers proclaiming “Isolationist, and Proud of It.”
The fact is that we have come a long way. The American people are increasingly dissatisfied with war and Empire–in fact we are sick to death of it. The Vietnam syndrome is no longer adequate to describe the phenomenon since it is now the product of three colonial wars. Properly it should be called the “Korea, Vietnam, Iraq Syndrome.” The masters of Empire, both Democrat and Republican, will try to “cure” us of this sentiment, and we must be wary of this, but in the end they will not succeed. They have lost the battle in Iraq, and they have lost the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans to sustain an empire.
So we stand on the threshold of a full-blown Anti-imperial movement if we can pull it off. We need to consolidate this now before the Empire decides that it must wage war on China–which was part of the motivation for Iraq in the first place and is now finding its way into the screed of the propagandists of empire (3). We have the forces, from Left and Right, to generate such a movement. We must do it–or with the advance of technology, we may all perish by accident if not by design.
JOHN V. WALSH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is prepared from unprepared remarks at a demonstration of the Antiwar League (AntiwarLeague.org) in Boston on Veterans Day.
(1) The numerous imperial wars fought by proxy armies for the U.S. from Angola to El Salvador to Afghanistan to Iran, which killed untold millions, do not qualify as “Vietnams” in Che’s definition. No one has yet adequately tallied the toll in lives and destruction claimed by these cruel wars.
(2) Justin Raimondo. Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement.
(3) Thomas Friedman. “China: Scapegoat or Sputnik.” NYT, Nov. 10, 2006.