Will Iraq Become Bush's Vietnam?

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Mark Weisbrot
Lima News, April 2, 2003
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services - March 31, 2003
Centre Daily Times
(State College, PA) - April 2, 2003
Bangkok Post
- April 3, 2003

"Now we're off to bombing these people," said the President in private. "I don't think anything is going to be as bad as losing, and I don't see any way of winning." 

That President was Lyndon B. Johnson. It was 1965 and he was lamenting his situation in the midst of the Vietnam War. Despite having concluded that the war was not winnable, he did not give up. His intransigence would prove costly: 57,000 more Americans and one million Vietnamese would lose their lives before U.S. troops finally left the country in 1975. 

Militarily, Vietnam was of course very different from today's war. Most importantly, the dense jungle afforded a more protective environment for guerilla warfare against a vastly more powerful invader. The Iraqi fighters do not have so many places to hide. 

Nonetheless, as the war now proves to be much longer and more complicated than anticipated, the comparison is inevitable. And there are a number of similarities. Both are seen by most of the world—and rightly so—as wars of conquest, in which our leaders have invaded another country for reasons of empire. 

Neither Vietnam nor Iraq did anything to the United States to provoke the invasion. And as we now know, Vietnam—even under a communist government since 1975—never did turn out to pose any security threat to Americans. 

Our government killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Vietnam, and pretty much got away with it. They bombed villages and cities, established "free-fire" zones where anyone in the area could be killed, poisoned the countryside, and carried out thousands of assassinations. Millions perished, but Washington still lost the war. 

The Bush team can probably "win" this war if it is willing to kill enough innocent people. Iraqi fighters have only the cities to hide in, especially Baghdad, and these can be bombed, surrounded, or even starved into submission—again, assuming that Washington does not care how many innocent people are killed and maimed.

But Americans can not be insulated indefinitely from what the rest of the world sees and thinks. Just as Iraqis use short-wave radio to get reporting from the outside world, unapproved war news filters into the U.S. via the Internet (for example: www.commondreams.org). 

Most of the "embedded reporters" on the TV news have been telling us what the government wants us to hear, even in some cases when it is factually false (for example, the alleged takeover of Basra by U.S. led forces, and a "popular uprising" there). The bombing of cities is for them just a display of fireworks. A seven-year old victim with her intestines spilling out on the way to the hospital, the wrenching grief of Iraqi families—this is not deemed fit for American viewers. Nor do the TV stations interview experts who would question the legitimacy, morality, justification, or motivation for this war. 

The print media offers somewhat more diversity, but the Bush team has so far benefited from the fact that most Americans get their news from the major broadcast sources. Their successful manipulation of the media is what got us into this war, and won both houses of Congress for the Republicans on the way there. 

But with each passing day the ugly truth of this war seeps further out into the political landscape, like foul water leaking from a septic tank. And that is Bush's dilemma: he needs to win this war in a hurry, before the American public catches up with the rest of the world and sees the war for what it really is. Iraqi life may be as cheap to him as the lives of Vietnamese peasants were to Presidents Johnson or Nixon. But it is not clear that the world today would tolerate or forgive the United States if our government committed mass murder in Iraq on the scale that it did in Vietnam. 

Even if Bush can conquer Iraq without provoking insurrections against other, Washington-friendly governments in the region, that will probably be just the beginning of his troubles. U.S.-occupied Iraq could become a giant version of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where the sheer cost if not the violence of the occupation will eventually force U.S. troops out of the country. 

Iraq could very well prove to be George W. Bush's Vietnam, even if he "wins" the war. A senior U.S. military officer summed it up last week: "Tell me how this ends," he said.


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy