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The new national pastime of comparing the Iraq war today with America’s Vietnam disaster a generation ago continues. Secrecy, half-truths and outright lies were the guiding principles followed by two presidential administrations during the Vietnam War and, of course, appear to be the hallmarks of President George Bush’s administration. A closer look at the parallels is interesting to the point of being frightening.
Today the ‘surge’ is proclaimed by Mr. Bush to be the tool to accomplish what ‘escalation’ was supposed to have done then. This ‘augmentation’ is to be accompanied by the Iraqi army taking more responsibility for fighting its own people, as ‘Vietnamization’ was the stated process of the Vietnamese army doing the same then.
On the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war, at least partly in response to the countless thousands of people who marked the day with peace rallies, Mr. Bush spoke to the American people. Among other things, he said the following: “It can be tempting to look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude our best option is to pack up and go home. That may be satisfying in the short run. But I believe the consequences for America’s security would be devastating.”
Thirty-eight years ago America had lost any enthusiasm it might once have had for the Vietnam War. Cities across the nation saw huge war protests as that war tore the United States apart. President Richard Nixon, in a speech delivered on November 3, 1969 said the following regarding the wish of so many for an immediate withdrawal:
“the immediate reaction would be a sense of relief that our men were coming home. But as we saw the consequences of what we had done, inevitable remorse and divisive recrimination would scar our spirit as a people.” He further said, in the same speech, ” that the precipitate withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam would be a disaster not only for South Vietnam but for the United States and for the cause of peace.”
There has been much discussion about certain milestones that Iraq must meet before the U.S. can begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. What these are have not been clearly defined by the Bush Administration, nor have the consequences for the U.S. or Iraq been identified if Iraq does not meet them. This, however, does not keep Mr. Bush from discussing them. On December 1, 2006, he said that he wanted to begin troop withdrawals “as soon as possible.” One of the factors necessary to do say, he said, is “the importance of speeding up the training of Iraqi security forces.”
In 1969, the chorus of ‘Peace Now!’ could not be avoided. In his November 3 speech, Mr. Nixon commented on withdrawal: “The other two factors on which we will base our withdrawal decisions are the level of enemy activity and the progress of the training programs of the South Vietnamese forces.”
It is not easy to forget Vice President Dick Cheney’s statement in June of 2005 that the ‘insurgency’ in Iraq was then in its “last throes.” For the first five months of 2005, approximately 66 U.S. soldiers were dying in Iraq each month and about 395 Iraqis
were dying monthly. For the five months following Mr. Cheney’s happy prediction, approximately 72 U.S. soldiers died each month while the average monthly death rate for Iraqis was 989. Perhaps some Americans, still striving to believe an administration that built an entire war on a foundation of lies, found some comfort in Mr. Cheney’s words which, like much of what the Bush administration has claimed over the years, had no basis in fact. Nearly two years later Mr. Bush determined that the war needs a significant ‘augmentation’ of troops to quell this still-thriving ‘insurgency.’
Just prior to the presidential election of 1972, when the fabric of U.S. society was ripped to shreds due to the Vietnam War, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger proclaimed to the world that “peace is at hand.” This statement may have contributed to Mr. Nixon’s landslide victory of the Democratic candidate, Senator George McGovern, but was, unfortunately, completely untrue. Peace did not come until the last American troops finally left that country in 1975.
In January of 2007, Mr. Bush announced that he had reviewed the recommendations of the bi-partisan Iraq Study Panel and had chosen to ignore them. His solution to the increasing violence in Iraq was to add 21,000 more troops to that nation, already devastated by U.S. occupation. Within weeks it was revealed that the actual number was closer to 30,000.
In 1965, Operation Rolling Thunder began in Vietnam. This major bombing of North Vietnam was purported to be in retaliation for acts committed by the Viet Cong. When President Lyndon Johnson announced this operation, he withheld the information that he was planning a major escalation of the war. Americans and the rest of the world soon learned the truth.
In 1969, Mr. Nixon ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia, ostensibly to protect American troops. Today Mr. Bush states that he ‘knows’ Iran is supplying the Iraq insurgency, and he plans to do ‘something’ about it. Once again, a sovereign nation suffers from guilt by proximity, and is at risk of an American president’s brutal and violent wrath.
In discussing the dire consequences of defeat in Vietnam, Mr. Nixon said this in 1969: “For the United States, this first defeat in our nation’s history would result in a collapse of confidence in American leadership, not only in Asia but throughout the world.”
Fast forward again to 2006, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates comments at his swearing in: “Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility, and endanger Americans for decades to come.” And on February 11, 2007, at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy attended by over 300 participants, Mr. Gates broadened his reach: “But the reality is, as of today, failure in Iraq will impact every country represented in this room.”
There are some who claim that Iraq does not mirror Vietnam, and in some respects that is true. Vietnam was in civil war when the U.S. first intervened; Iraq was a sovereign nation at peace until the U.S. invaded and caused civil war. But as has been shown, the arguments for continuing an unnecessary and losing war have not changed over nearly 40 years.
What can the world expect because of this? More soldiers’ and civilians’ lives wasted, more hatred toward the United States, an increase in world terrorism, increased global destabilization. Here again Iraq does not mirror Vietnam. In America’s earlier failed attempt at colonial conquest the war did not have the potential for nearly the degree of disaster as does continuation of the Iraq war.
The only people who can prevent the continuation of this calamity are members of the U.S. Congress. From all evidence thus far shown by their actions, they appear disinclined to put forward the statesmanship necessary to accomplish peace. This is tragic for Iraq, American and the world.
ROBERT FANTINA is author of ‘Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776–2006.‘