Iraq as Vietnam

by William Greider

The Nation magazine, May 3, 2004


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 shame.

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