Iraq as Vietnam
by William Greider
The Nation magazine, May
It is a pity the major news media have
not convened a commission of inquiry to examine their own mistakes
and derelictions concerning the war in Iraq. Wouldn't it be instructive
to go back now and re-examine the "documents" the press
and television provided Americans to understand why the United
States must invade and conquer? Many of the news stories would
sound quite naive and gullible (also hysterical) in light of present
events. The patriotic banners that accompanied TV news reports
would look irresponsibly biased. Remember those investigative
reporters uncovering Saddam's secret weapons like bomb-sniffing
dogs? Remember the bellicose columnists and editorial writers
who called for war with grotesque self-confidence?
Of course, news people don't look backward.
No time for self-examination when they are caught up in the "new"
news-a commission in Washington examining whether the White House
failed its duty to thwart terrorism; the bloody unraveling of
"nation-building" in Iraq. Both are suspenseful stories
and compete for the main headlines.
Why do I feel melancholy rather than excitement?
When reporters reach an advanced age, they sometimes become burdened
by memory (assuming their brains are still functional). One can
begin to recognize that much of the news is actually an old story-
recycled versions of the human folly committed by previous generations.
To my eyes, the insurrection under way in Iraq looks like "little
Tet"-a smaller version of the original Tet offensive the
Vietcong staged in 1968. It shocks Americans in much the same
way. Iraq is a "little war" compared with Vietnam, but
Americans are learning, once again, that the indigenous people
we "liberated" do not love us. Many want our occupying
army to withdraw. Insane as it may seem to Americans, they are
willing to die for this objective. But what about the schools
and roads we built for them?
Every day I hear echoes from the past.
George W. Bush even invokes the same phrase-"stay the course"-that
four decades ago was understood, ironically, as an expression
of official obstinacy and ignorance. A prominent newspaper columnist,
one of the most ardent advocates of this war-for-democracy, scolds
the "silent majority" in Iraq, urging them to stand
up against the killers and proclaim their solidarity with the
US troops. He seems angry at their cowardice. His kind of frustration
was a constant theme during Vietnam too.
When popular resolve among the Vietnamese
disappointed Washington, US strategists would change the government
in Saigon. The US proconsul in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, fired the
interior minister in charge of the Iraqi police we trained to
maintain civil order, because they fled the police stations rather
than shoot it out with their countrymen. The "hearts and
minds" thing was never resolved in Vietnam either. After
the Americans withdrew, they discovered that some of their Vietnamese
employees (even in news bureaus) had been Vietcong agents all
through the war.
What did you learn from that war, Grandpa?
Like most Americans, I never saw the battlefield in Indochina,
but I did learn painful, indelible lessons as a citizen. My grandchildren
are watching this war on television, so I will tell them: I learned
that the government sometimes lies to the people-big lies with
awful consequences-and sometimes government begins to believe
its own lies. As a reporter, I learned with embarrassment to listen
to the people in the street, because sometimes they tell you things
the government is concealing. Again and again, antiwar dissenters
and civil-rights activists told me the FBI and CIA were spying
on them, tapping their phones, infiltrating their ranks and disrupting
their organizations. The stories I dismissed as paranoia all turned
out to be true. I also learned that military conquest, regardless
of the stated intentions, seldom succeeds in creating democracy.
The war in Iraq is different from Vietnam
in one fundamental respect: A substantial portion of Americans
(and others around the world) were in the streets protesting this
venture before the shooting started. The media generally dismissed
them and often caricatured the protesters as aging hippies on
a sixties nostalgia trip. It's a pity reporters didn't listen
more respectfully. Virtually every element of what has gone wrong
in Iraq was cited by those demonstrators as among the reasons
they opposed the march to war.
How could such forgetfulness prevail,
especially among a smart, engaged group like news people? It is
perhaps not as sinister as it sounds. Most of the men and women
now in charge of the news processes were boys and girls during
Vietnam. The youngest reporters were not yet born. Their generation,
I imagine, experienced the war more distantly as a disturbed era
that ended in national humiliation. An air of shame hung over
their growing-up years, a residue of bitterness and guilt all
around. Did Americans wimp out? Did the news media poison their
patriotism? My hunch is that many of today's reporters and editors
came to think so and were determined to be less squeamish, more
"manly" about warmaking. Editors over 50 can't hide
behind this excuse.
It also matters that Americans are taught
a triumphalist version of our history that typically blots out
the darker passages. The Moro War in the Philippines went on for
many long years and was as brutal as Vietnam, with torture and
massacres by frustrated soldiers. Does anyone remember the Moro
War? US troops were trying to suppress a guerrilla insurrection
in this new US colony. The resistance was centered on the same
island province where "Muslim terrorists" have recently
appeared as a "threat" to civilization.
"Tell me how this ends?" an
American field commander asked a battlefield reporter. I will
tell him how it ought to end: Declare victory and get out. Withdraw
now, not later, as responsibly as this can be arranged. That wise
formulation was first proposed during the bloodiest Vietnam years
by the late Senator George Aiken, a Vermont Republican. Neither
LBJ nor Nixon had the courage to listen. "Stay the course."
"Light at the end of the tunnel." "Peace with honor."
The war continued for years, with many more deaths on both sides
and eventual defeat for ours. US military power can proceed now
to pulverize the cities of Iraq, but there is no victory ahead,
only more killing, and when it is over, a well-earned sense of
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