There are, of course, important differences between the US invasions of Vietnam and Iraq. In Vietnam, from 1954 and till 1965 the United States simply tried to impose an imported puppet government on a populace that supported a deeply-rooted communist leadership and movement, and only in the last phase of the US intervention did this country move to a full-scale direct invasion. That invasion ultimately failed to conquer the target country, even after a multi-year and devastating effort. By contrast, the ongoing invasion-conquest of Iraq displaced an unpopular regime, although one that had been supported by the invaders only 15-20 years back when its use of "weapons of mass destruction" was serviceable to -- and the weapons provided by -- the current invaders. The Iraq invasion effort also took little time to oust the target regime, although the pacification process is just under way.
But there are also important similarities that reflect both the continuity in character and policy of the imperial state managers and their agents of propaganda and the minimal constraint on the US exercise of power in the global system. One important similarity is that both invasions represent cases of aggression in the accepted meaning of the word, while in both cases the propaganda agencies simply brushed aside or ignored such charges and usages, considering them irrelevant to the operations of their leaders, just as the right to exterminate the Native Americans and seize Mexican territory had been unquestioned by their predecessors. In the case of Vietnam, while admitting that its chosen and imposed minority government couldn't compete politically with Ho Chi Minh and the forces we were fighting, US officials and media charged that it was Ho and the National Liberation Front (NLF) that were committing aggression in resisting the rule of our puppet. We even coined the wonderful phrase "internal aggression" to describe the resistance of the South Vietnamese to our imposed government -- the people in the country were committing aggression, whereas we were "defending South Vietnam," meaning protecting against its own citizenry a government of our choosing. The media never challenged this Orwellian usage.
Of course, US officials claimed to be fighting for "self-determination" and "freedom" for the South Vietnamese who were committing this internal aggression against our puppet. The reasoning here was never too clear, but it ran along this line: people would never choose communism freely, so that those who did make that choice were surely brainwashed, and they would want the rule of our puppet if they were properly instructed, which those who survived our onslaught would have been if we had won. It didn't work out despite our killing vast numbers, but the mainstream media never doubted that we were fighting the good fight, for self-determination and freedom. They never blanched at "internal aggression," and only got very unhappy when we couldn't pull it off, the costs (to us) turning out to be excessive.
The media also never blanched at the fact that the US-chosen leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, was an expatriate who was imported directly from the United States, and who US officials as well as Diem himself recognized as having no significant support in the country he was assigned to lead. The recent US import of Ahmed Chalabi following its military victory, a man who had not set foot in Iraq for 45 years, but who is apparently prized by Vice President Cheney and targeted for a leadership role by the conquerors, is in a great tradition of backyard "good neighbor" -- as well as Vietnam -- policy.
Bush and Blair have committed an even more straightforward aggression in Iraq, a case as clear as Mussolini's attack on Ethiopia in 1936 or Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939, with an armed invasion of conquest against a small, distant country that posed no threat to the aggressors, who were unable even to get a Security Council legal cover for their attack despite bribery and intense arm-twisting. It goes almost without saying that the mainstream media are no more able to call this attack aggression than the Italian and German media of the 1930s called their attacks by their right name.
Another similarity between the Vietnam and Iraq invasions is the brazenness with which the United States ignored international opposition and brushed aside attempts to settle the conflicts by means other than violence. In Vietnam, the United States ran roughshod over the settlement terms of the Geneva Accord of 1954, imposed its own tyranny on the southern half of Vietnam, and then, when this puppet regime faltered, disregarded numerous UN, NLF and allied attempts at a compromise solution in favor of full-scale invasion and aggression. In the Iraq case, the United States, which had appeased Saddam Hussein almost without limit prior to his invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, thereafter insisted on aggressive and genocidal sanctions, and, finally, carried out an aggression to accomplish "regime change" against the will of the bullied and threatened Security Council and the vast global majority.
In the case of both Vietnam and Iraq, the "international community" failed to halt the aggressions or to penalize the aggressor in any way. In the case of Vietnam, Japan and South Korea were greatly enriched as suppliers of the US invasion-occupation, and no boycotts or severed relationships were imposed by anybody. (Such penalties were imposed on the Soviet Union after it shot down a Korean civilian airliner in 1983, but not on the United States even after it invaded Vietnam and the rest of Indochina, devastating the region and killing millions.) The UN General Assembly passed a resolution against the US use of chemical warfare against Vietnam by an 83 to 3 vote in 1969, but this was never translated into policy action by any member of the international community. After the war, the United States boycotted its victim for 18 years, with the cooperation of the international community, including the international financial institutions. The World Bank, which maintained a generous loan and gift program on behalf of dictator Suharto's Indonesia throughout the years of its genocidal invasion and occupation of East Timor, supported the US boycott of Vietnam, making clear the political basis of its lending operations.
This same subservience to US power was clearly observable in the international community's handling of the invasion of Iraq and its preliminaries. The UN had allowed itself to be used by the United States and Britain from 1991 through February 2003 in an inspections-sanctions regime that was both fraudulent and genocidal. The fraudulence flowed from the fact that the inspections were used by the United States not just to remove Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction -- the nominal objective and the one written into the inspections agreement -- but to punish him and force him out in "regime change" -- the real aim, openly reiterated by US officials, but with no effect on the willingness of the UN and international community to support the inspections system. It was also evident in the complete failure of the UN to extend the removal of weapons of mass destruction to Israel, as was also called for in Security Council Resolution 687. The United States disapproved that part of the agreement, therefore it was ignored. Meanwhile, it could use alleged deficiencies in the inspections regime to enforce sanctions on Iraq that killed over a million Iraqi civilians. In the end, when the United States could not get Security Council approval for an invasion, it did it anyway in straightforward violation of the UN Charter.
As in the case of the Vietnam War invasion, the UN and international community not only failed to stop the invasion of Iraq, they took no actions to penalize the aggressor. In fact, the UN has been cooperating with the aggressor in planning for joint operations in the conquered state, so the UN is regaining a modicum of "relevance" as collaborator in picking up the pieces broken in the aggression and giving it de facto international sanction.
US officials and their supportive propaganda system claimed that our benevolent aims in Vietnam went beyond merely defeating "internal aggression," and included allowing the Vietnamese the right to "self-determination." If we seemed to be fighting against self-determination because our puppet was exceedingly unpopular and admitted an inability to compete with the communists on a purely political basis, this was because the people there didn't know their own interests and minds, which US politicians and military officials across the Pacific Ocean did know. So we had to "destroy the town [country] in order to save it," in the most famous line of official-military lunacies coming out of that war of aggression and mass killing. (Second best is the words of the banner hung over the Vietnam military camp run by General George Patton Jr.: "Killing is our business, and business is good.")
In the case of Iraq as well, officials and pundits naturally claimed that the invasion had benevolent goals, and had nothing to do with oil, or a desire to dominate the oil-rich Middle East, or to serve Israeli (and God's own) interests. No, it was to "disarm" Saddam Hussein, and to instill respect for Security Council rulings. In the actual invasion phase of US-British operations, as it became clearer that the missing weapons of mass destruction were not going to be used or found, the stress shifted to the desire to free the oppressed Iraqis. The appropriate revision of the Vietnam formulation to make it current is: "We had to destroy Iraq in order to liberate it." You may be sure the media have not dwelt on the US role in bringing the demon into power or its support for him before August 1990; or the US role in the mass killing by the "sanctions of mass destruction" imposed between 1991 and 2003 of the people we are now "liberating." Nor will they spend much time on the issue of Saddam's threatening weapons of mass destruction that supposedly justified the invasion earlier -- or on the disrespect for the UN Charter and Security Council rulings displayed in the invasion itself, or in the failure to demand respect for UN rulings on Israel, or the absence of any concern for "liberating" the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Both the Vietnam and Iraq invasions were characterized by an enormous imbalance of forces and the use by the United States of massive firepower and highly civilian-destructive weapons, including a number that are considered "weapons of mass destruction." The aim in both wars was to keep US casualties low, for domestic political reasons, and capital intensive war was the means. But such means tend to be at the expense of heavy civilian casualties in target states. It is for this reason that the Pentagon has been eager to keep reporters out -- maybe even killing a few of them "accidentally" as a warning on the costs of irresponsible journalism -- or, under pressure and second best, to "imbed" them with troops, bonding them with the soldiers and keeping them under better discipline.
During the Vietnam War the United States used vast quantities of napalm, phosphorus-based bombs, cluster bombs, flechettes, heavy bombs with great destructive power, poison gas, and chemical warfare against forest cover and against rice crops under a program called "Operation Ranch Hand." Many of these weapons were "improved" over the course of the war, which served as a helpful testing ground for the Pentagon and means of enhancing weapons efficiency. The use of several of them, like gas and chemicals, were clearly in violation of international law, and others were arguably so. But just as there was no penalty for carrying out a war of aggression, the greatest of all war crimes, so naturally there were no penalties for using illegal weapons against a defenseless peasant society.
In all recent US wars this country has used depleted uranium, as well as ever-improving cluster bombs, and highly destructive ton-or-more bombs. Depleted uranium is a radioactive "dirty" weapon that poses a serious health threat to civilians in the target areas, as well as soldiers, and its use is almost surely a violation of international law. But the Pentagon likes it, the United States uses it, and therefore the media and "international community" ignore its use. It was used in Iraq, along with cluster bombs and big bombs, against another enemy without an air force. Let us hope that the Pentagon was able to learn from this further testing ground to produce even more efficient dirty and cluster bombs in the next round of its civilizing mission.
In Vietnam, the United States was fighting not only internal aggression but "terrorism" by the internal aggressors. The latter would not fight fair, and after experiencing US weaponry, instead of standing up to be shot or bombed they used all kinds of guerilla tricks that reduced the always unfavorable ratio of Vietnamese to US military deaths (maybe from 50 to 1 to 20 to 1). These tricks, plus the fact that they would kill Vietnamese collaborators, made them "terrorists,' whereas the US use of napalm, heavy artillery and B-52s on "suspected Vietcong villages" or Phoenix mission killer squads was counterterror and a response to these people's outrageous refusal to recognize our right to choose their leaders. This same usage quickly entered the 2003 Iraq invasion terminology, with the paramilitary forces and occasional suicide bombers labeled terrorists; the invaders merely the "allies" and "coalition" warriors blasting their way through Iraq in assaults and mopping up operations. No terror here even if vast numbers were in terror, by the same rule that bars the use of the word aggression and the same power that makes the aggression another accepted "fact on the ground."
The killing of civilians was more massive in Vietnam than in the invasion of Iraq in March-April 2003, in large part because the resistance was far greater in Vietnam and the terrain more difficult, and the war went on for years; but there was also more killing because global attention and access to the victims was less in Vietnam, especially in the south controlled by the United States and its puppet regime (which is why napalm was used only in the south, against the people we were allegedly saving from aggression). In both cases the slaughter of target country soldiers by hi-tech weaponry was huge: over the years much of the finest Vietnamese manhood was mowed down or destroyed in ruthless bombing raids, just as many thousands of young Iraqi soldiers were mowed down trying to use small arms against enormous artillery and air firepower. The Iraqi imbalance even moved some US soldiers: "They're just dying," said Brigadier General Louis Weber, commenting on the fact that one brigade killed at least 1,000 Iraqis by direct fire alone on a single raid into Baghdad. "At the Karbala Gap the Iraqis put up a good fight, but to no avail because we had the firepower. It was way too easy." (Staff Sergeant Ira Mack). "For lack of a better word, I feel almost guilty about the massacre. We wasted a lot of people. It makes you wonder how many were innocent [sic]. It takes away some of the pride. We won, but at what cost?" (A soldier privately, in the Christian Science Monitor, April 11, 2002).
This is a continuation of a long Western imperialist tradition. In his study of The Social History of the Machine Gun [Pantheon: 1975], John Ellis notes how "In Africa, automatic weapons were used to support the seizure of millions of square miles of land and to discipline those unfortunates who wished to eschew the benefits of European civilization." The African fighters, no matter how brave, were unable to cope, so that at Omdurman, for example, the ratio of casualties was 28 British and 20 of their allies to 11,000 Dervish dead. In the Iraq invasion of 2003, the ratio of military personnel casualties was some 150 US-British dead to unknown thousands of Iraqi soldiers, probably somewhere between 10-20,000, so the ratio was somewhat lower than at Omdurman, but still staggeringly unbalanced in favor of the technologically advanced imperialism.
Ellis points out that the ability to kill vast numbers of Africans (and Asians, etc.) and seize their lands rested heavily on the belief "that Africans were not quite human, and therefore beyond the pale of Imperialist morality. Even so, consciences could be mollified yet more if they quietly ignored the fact that the breathtaking victories of the British were largely attributable to vastly superior firepower."
Ellis also notes that the pages of the journals of the day were remarkably free of any "pictures of machine guns actually in action against the natives." The journalists of that day preferred to focus on the "doughty heroes. Nobody wished to know about the real reasons for their success." Does that sound familiar?
First published in Swans
Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
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