On the April day in 2003 when American troops first entered Baghdad, historian Marilyn Young suggested that Operation Iraqi Freedom was “Vietnam on crack cocaine.” She wrote presciently at the time:
“In less then two weeks a 30 year old vocabulary is back: credibility gap, seek and destroy, hard to tell friend from foe, civilian interference in military affairs, the dominance of domestic politics, winning, or more often, losing hearts and minds.”
That language — and the Vietnam template that goes with it — has never left us. Only this week Republican Senator and presidential hopeful Chuck Hagel, who served in Vietnam, publicly attacked the administration’s Iraq policy for “destabilizing” the Middle East and suggested that the President’s constant “stay-the-course” refrain was “not a policy.” He added, “We are locked into a bogged-down problem not… dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam. The longer we stay, the more problems we’re going to have.”
Put another way, Young’s statement might now be amended to read: “Iraq is what history looks like once the Bush administration took the equivalent of crack cocaine”; “the United States is now Vietnam on a bad LSD trip.”
After all, in Iraq, to put events in a bizarre nutshell, the squabbling government leadership just presented (kind of) on deadline a new “constitution” that has blank passages in it and then insisted on taking an extra three days, not allowed for in the present interim constitution, for further “debate.” All this despite the intense pressure U.S. “super-ambassador” Zalmay Khalilzad put on the negotiators to make it on time to the deadline, another of the Bush administration’s much needed “turning points.” (Imagine, a representative of the French king half-running our constitutional convention!) At his Informed Comment blog, Juan Cole has already referred to this as a coup d’état, though the New York Times more politely terms it a “legal sleight of hand.” (“The rule of law,” writes Cole, “is no longer operating in Iraq, and no pretence of constitutional procedure is being striven for. In essence, the prime minister and president have made a sort of coup, simply disregarding the interim constitution. Given the acquiescence of parliament and the absence of a supreme court [which should have been appointed by now but was not, also unconstitutionally], there is no check or balance that could question the writ of the executive.”)
More important yet, the politicians involved — many of them exiles, some of them with few roots in Iraq, the Sunnis among them with limited roots in the insurgent Sunni community (and in any case largely cut out of the bargaining process between Kurdish and Shiite politicians) — are fighting for a retrograde-sounding constitution (religiously based and without a significant emphasis on women’s rights) inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone. It is a constitution aimed at creating an almost impossibly starved central government guaranteed to control little.
Meanwhile, outside the Green Zone, amid a brewing stewpot of internecine killing and incipient civil war, vast parts of the country have simply passed beyond Baghdad’s rule, and significant parts of central Iraq seemingly beyond any rule at all. The Kurdish areas in the north have long been autonomous with their own armed militia. In the largely Sunni areas of central Iraq, chaos is the rule, but whole towns like Haditha are now “insurgent citadels,” run, as Falluja was less than a year ago, as little retro-Islamic statelets. (Grim as this may be, such statelets can offer — as Taliban-ruled Afghanistan did after two decades of civil war and chaos — order of a harsh kind that ensures personal safety for most inhabitants. This is no small thing when conditions are desperate enough.) The Shiite south, on the other hand, has largely fallen under the control of Islamic parties and their armed militias, all allied to one degree or another with the neighboring Iranian fundamentalist regime. In the north and the south, security is increasingly in the hands of local parties, not the central government, or even the occupying forces.
Throw in a full-scale insurgency, constant interruptions in oil and electricity production (as well as production levels at or even below those of Saddam Hussein’s weakest post-Gulf-War-I days), and high unemployment, and most Iraqis may not greatly care about, or even be affected by whatever “constitution” is produced inside the relative safety of the Green Zone.
With that in mind, imagine some of the hawks and neocons who first started us (and the Iraqis) off on this glorious Middle Eastern adventure of ours as being capable of seeing the situation in a clear-eyed way. If so, they might easily conclude that they were on a bad LSD trip out of the Vietnam era. After all, they have essentially created their own worst nightmare — no small accomplishment when you think about it.
In the meantime, while Iraqi police, soldiers, judges, officials, and normal citizens continue to die in horrible ways, so do American soldiers in Iraq, in smaller but growing numbers (as in Afghanistan where a resurgent Taliban has clearly imported Iraqi tactical and IED expertise). Ominously, insurgent and terrorist tactics, including the recent missiling of two American warships docked at the port of Aqaba in Jordan, continue to spread.
Today, on the inside page of my hometown paper, under “names of the dead,” are listed: “BOUCHARD, Nathan K., 24, Sgt., Army; Wildomar, Calif.; Third Infantry Division; DOYLE, Jeremy W., 24, Staff Sgt., Army; Chesterton, Md.; Third Infantry Division; FUHRMANN, Ray M. II, 28, Specialist, Army; Novato, Calif.; Third Infantry Division; SEAMANS, Timothy J., 20, Pfc., Army; Jacksonville, Fla.; Third Infantry Division.”
Three or four American dead a day seems now close to the norm — seldom enough to make the front-pages of any but the most local newspapers, yet enough evidently to penetrate the consciousness of growing numbers of Americans. The fact is — and this can be put down, if not simply to Cindy Sheehan, then to the Sheehan moment we’re living through — a genuine conversation/debate has begun about being in Iraq, about the Bush administration lies that got us there, and about how in the world to get out. Most important, this surprisingly noisy and discordant discussion is taking place not, as in the last couple of years, in the shadows, or on the Internet, but right in plain sight: in our newspapers, on television, in the streets, in homes, even in the corridors of Congress.
One symbol of this change could be seen in the decision of Democratic Senator Russell Feingold to break “with his party leadership last week,” as Peter Baker and Shailagh Murray of the Washington Post wrote, “to become the first senator to call for all troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by a specific deadline.” On the other end of the political spectrum, Republicans like Senator Hagel and conservatives of many stripes are raising danger flags ever more often -? and in some cases calling directly for us to depart from Iraq. For instance, Andrew Bacevich, who served in Vietnam and is the author of the superb book The New American Militarism, wrote recently in the Washington Post:
“Rather than producing security, our continued massive military presence [in Iraq] has helped fuel continuing violence. Rather than producing liberal democracy, our meddling in Iraqi politics has exacerbated political dysfunction… Wisdom requires that the Bush administration call an end to its misbegotten crusade. While avoiding the appearance of an ignominious dash for the exits, but with all due speed, the United States needs to liquidate its presence in Iraq, placing the onus on Iraqis to decide their fate and creating the space for other regional powers to assist in brokering a political settlement.”
Similarly, Donald Devine of the American Conservative Union Foundation, wrote, “The only solution is for the U.S. to exit before the whole thing comes apart.”
On Monday, the President, roused from his rounds of vacation bicycling by a ton of bad news and ever worse polling figures, was flown into Salt Lake City to give a speech to the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Inside the convention hall, he was received by a friendly audience; while outside, in the streets of a red-state capital, demonstrators including Rocky Anderson, the Democratic mayor of Salt Lake City, gathered to hold the President’s feet to the Iraqi fire. The last time a President was so dogged by demonstrators in otherwise friendly settings was certainly in the Vietnam era. (“We are here today,” announced Anderson, “to let the world know that even in the reddest of red states, there is enormous concern about the dangerous, irresponsible and deceitful public policies being pursued by President Bush and his administration.”) Note, by the way, another sign of the “chickenhawk” nature of this administration: The President not only won’t attend funerals or meet with Cindy Sheehan again; he clearly doesn’t dare venture into any area where he’s likely to meet a challenging reception of any sort. It may, however, already be too late for him to find unchallenging safety anywhere in the United States.
In his stay-the-course VFW speech, you could feel that the President now found himself in a new and confusing situation. Step by step, he’s slowly been backing up. This time — contradicting the anti-Vietnam, no-attention-to-casualties playbook he has long been working off — he specifically spoke the numbers of dead American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, something of a first for him. Though he never mentioned Cindy Sheehan’s name, he might as well have. Its absence acted like a presence, all but ringing from the speech. Read it yourself and you can sense the degree to which he is now uncharacteristically on the defensive. Even to friendly crowds, he finds himself answering questions that, not so long ago, never would have come up. Wherever he is, he is now essentially responding to what is, in effect, an ongoing news conference with the nation in which challenging questions never stop being tossed his way.
All and all, in the last weeks, it’s been like watching a nation blinking and slowly emerging from an all-enveloping state of denial. Such a state of mind, once pierced, will be hard indeed for this administration to recreate. In the meantime, the Vietnam template remains stuck in our collective heads. Even the images on the television news — for instance, the showing of American GIs dragging off the bodies of American casualties under fire as the President calls on the public to stay the course — have suddenly grown more Vietnam-like.
This is, of course, Vietnam as seen in an Alice-in-Wonderland, crazy-mirror version of itself. For instance, despite what many think, post-invasion opposition to the Iraq war has grown far more quickly than in the Vietnam era; and a mass antiwar movement is now being jump-started into visible existence by the families of soldiers in Iraq (and by small numbers of resisting soldiers too) rather than, as in the Vietnam era, ending on such a movement. Expect the antiwar demonstrations scheduled for Washington on September 24 to be enormous, to feature Cindy Sheehan, and to be led by military families.
It may be that, despite certain visible similarities between the two, Iraq is not Vietnam, as Time magazine editor Tony Karon argued especially eloquently at his blog recently: But in the US at least, there are certain striking similarities, especially in the unequal burden of pain, suffering and death laid by enthusiasts of each war on working-class, heartland America.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War.
Copyright 2005 Tom Engelhardt
This article first appeared at Tomdispatch.com, as an introduction to Military Families May Once Again Lead Us Out of War, by Christian Appy.