No light at the end of the tunnel

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I’ve been very good about this so far. I spent five years, on and off, in Vietnam watching the Americans being ground to defeat, and I’ve covered wars all over the Middle East since then, ending for me with the US defeat of the Iraqis in the 1991 war. And I’ve spent the last two years watching the development of the latest adventure in Iraq from the safety of Collingwood Vic. 3066. And I’ve never tried to make a comparison between what happened with the Americans in Nam and what’s happening to them now.

But I’m going to do it now.

My change of heart, I should say, is relatively recent because, at the beginning, these were very different wars. Vietnam began as a pretty pure ideological war – the Americans waded into the mire in those Better Dead Than Red days because the US and Australia and its allies believed that the Domino Theory was true. The thought was that if the communists won in Vietnam, they would automatically spread their vile doctrines into the surrounding states, and before we all knew what was happening, red flags would be flying over the Brisbane town hall. All horribly misguided nonsense of course – the Vietnam War was a nationalist war fought to unite and make independent, a country divided by colonialism.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

The reasons for invading Iraq were entirely different. After the lies about Weapons of Mass Destruction had been exposed, it became clear that Iraq was targeted for a variety of non-ideological reasons. George Bush personally wanted to get Saddam Hussein, because as he once famously said, ‘He tried to kill my Daddy’, his neo-con advisors wanted to knock out the country seen then as the most dangerous threat to Israel, America needed a thoroughly docile middle east base to take the place of a dangerously unstable Saudi Arabia, and finally, everyone wanted a lick of oil.

So about Vietnam-Iraq.

The most striking parallel is the slide into an all encompassing war which was never meant to happen. America sent a few hundred ‘advisors’ to Vietnam in the mid-sixties, whose job it would be to teach the South Vietnamese how to use the immensely sophisticated and numerous weapons the US would provide to knock out a small number of commie rebels known as the Viet Cong. Then they would get out, leaving their ‘game little tigers’ to finish the job. They ended up with half a million men engaged for a decade, and lost more than fifty thousand. In Iraq, the US started with much bigger numbers, but the aim was the same – they would knock out the main enemy, Saddam this time, and then train the locals to set up and defend a country that would love its American saviours.

It was easy. The Americans charged into Iraq, Saddam’s army fled or surrendered as they did in 1991, the people cheered, they pulled down the statues of Saddam Hussein, and President Bush declared a year later that the war was, to all intents and purposes, over. ‘Mission Accomplished’ read the sign above his head when he announced on 1 May 2003 on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln that ‘Major combat operations in Iraq have ended’.

Then the real war began. The Americans have now lost over 1730 men and women, Iraqis have died in their tens of thousands, and late last month Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appeared on television saying the war could last ‘twelve years’ – which is astonishingly close to the eventual length of the Vietnam debacle.

As with Vietnam, the enemy is getting better as the war goes on. The Vietcong did a lot of their fighting with captured American weapons and munitions. In Iraq, in May and June about seventy Americans were killed by IEDs, improvised explosive devices; bombs made with commercial explosives or shells and other ordnance planted by roadsides. An American military bomb expert, Col. Bob Davis, quoted by the New York Times, said the sophistication of the weaponry ‘is increasing and will increase further’, and in a classic understatement, said the new stuff is ‘pretty disturbing’.

In Vietnam, US leaders were always telling us the war was nearly won; ‘We can see the light at the end of the tunnel’. The US civilian leadership is doing it again, with the sinister Vice President Dick Cheney saying last month that the insurgents were in ‘their last throes’. The only difference is that in Vietnam, arse-licking generals would have agreed with every White House pronouncement. But current commanders have a little more integrity – and they remember how Vietnam lying eventually ruined many careers. Just after Cheney’s declaration, the overall US commander in the Middle East, Gen John Abizaid, said the insurgency strength was ‘about the same’ as it was six months ago, and that ‘There’s a lot of work to be done’.

The other eerie parallel with Vietnam is the unease about the war at home, the growing distrust of what the administration says, and the growing fear among families that their boys (and girls) are being killed in a wrongful and hopeless cause. This distrust was probably best summed up by a Republican Senator of all people, Chuck Hagel, from very conservative Nebraska who said simply a few days ago, ‘The White House is completely disconnected from reality. It’s like they’re making it up as they go along. The reality is that we’re losing in Iraq’.

Because of Vietnam, public anger reached a point where a president, Lyndon Johnson, was forced to say he would not campaign for re-election in 1968. The Americans today are stuck with Bush, unless of course the war turns into such a disaster he is forced to resign. A poll in May for the Wall Street Journal and NBC television found his approval rating is under 50 per cent, more than half of Americans think he is heading the country in the wrong direction, and 51 per cent (against 40 per cent) now think the war is not worth the casualties and money spent on it.

Civilian opinion to the war in Vietnam drove out Lyndon Johnson and finally forced America’s leaders to admit they had lost a war. The opposition came from an American public that revolted against watching its sons die for no purpose in a war half way round the world, against an enemy who would never give in because it was fighting in and for its own country. The major indicator of public distrust in the US today is the calamitous drop in recruitment for America’s volunteer army.

Vietnam had all the cannon fodder it needed because like Australia, it had conscription, and if you weren’t rich enough, like George Bush, to get a cushy, stateside, very much part-time posting in the reserves, or your family couldn’t afford to keep you at college indefinitely, you went off to war. Now the US army is all volunteers, and until Iraq it had no trouble keeping up to strength. The pay was good, and until George Bush was elected, you could be pretty sure you wouldn’t get killed other than in a road accident.

Now with the death toll rising, recruitment is at historically low levels, and exhausted troops are shovelled back into Iraq after minimum leave because the army doesn’t have the reserves for proper rotation. Despite offering increasing bonuses and other incentives to potential recruits, the Army, for the first time since 1999 (when all was peaceful), will miss their annual recruiting quota this year.

There are two solutions to this problem – end the war and get out, like Richard Nixon finally did in Vietnam – or reintroduce the draft and allow the killing to go on indefinitely, which Bush currently seems to favour, by saying he can’t give a cut-off point because ‘it would send the wrong message’ to both allies and enemies. Conscription rumours were strengthened with a report recently that the Pentagon has built a database of thirty million 16 to 25-year-olds. To help seek out volunteers, they say (as they would).

If you weren’t dealing with a cowardly, gullible and stupid man like George Bush, you would say he would never try to re-introduce a draft. But Bush, knowing no history, could be stupid enough to try – and it will be interesting to see how his most die-hard supporter John Howard would react to such a move. (See ‘Puckapunyal, here we come’ in New Matilda October 2004). It is to be hoped that the American Congress, and its military, will remember what Vietnam did to America, and stop this deluded man before the mass of outraged Americans take to the streets again to shout, ‘Hell no, we won’t go’.

New Matilda

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