The similarities between the Vietnam and Iraq wars become more marked with each passing week.We are now told that the U.S. forces have surrounded Fallujah and are about to unleash a full-scale attack to recover it from the insurgents. They are already bombarding the town with howitzers and missiles, so we can be fairly certain that the town will be destroyed and that civilian casualties will be very heavy. Fallujah must be destroyed in order to save it from control by a resistance to the U.S.-invasion/occupation and U.S. control, as was the case with Ben Tre in Vietnam, about whose destruction the famous phrase "We had to destroy the town in order to save it" was coined by a U.S. officer implementing the destruction. Then as now the U.S. right to invade and destroy in order to shape the politics of a distant country was taken as a given by the media and ready-access intellectuals.
In both cases there was this ready willingness to use advanced weaponry on relatively defenseless peoples, with heavy civilian casualties entirely acceptable, and of course kept under the rug as much as possible, with media assistance. There were no body counts of civilians in Vietnam, and U.S. leaders like Colin Powell and General Tommy Franks have been explicit that such counts as regards Iraqi civilians are not an interesting subject and in fact "We don't do body counts" (Franks). In Vietnam, U.S. legal personnel even coined the phrase "the mere gook rule," to describe the attitude toward the locals we were allegedly saving. In Iraq the natives are referred to as hajis by the invaders, a term of derogation that is matched by actions in raiding homes, dealing with prisoners, and once again the lavish use of high tech weapons in civilian-heavy locales with heavy civilian costs (heavy bombs, cluster bombs, DU ammunition).
In both cases there was a large-scale abuse of prisoners and ugly prison conditions. In Vietnam, electronic methods of torture were widely used, partly by proxy troops advised by the United States and trained in these up-to-date methods, and prisoners were regularly killed after interrogation, sometimes by being dropped out of airplanes; and Vietnam was famous for its "tiger cages" that were the predecessors of the cages used at Guantanamo.
In both cases puppet governments were installed by the occupying power with leaders who would take orders and give the United States a free hand to bomb and kill. There were "elections" in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, held under comical conditions of non-freedom, in which a military junta that openly admitted it couldn't compete with the insurgents on a purely political basis, won handily. The U.S. media were greatly encouraged by these elections. Iraq is possibly going to have an election in January that will not be very free (see my "Cheney, the New York Times, and the Afghan, El Salvador, and Iraq Elections," forthcoming in the December issue of Z Magazine). But meanwhile its is nominally ruled by Ayad Allawi, openly selected by U.S. officials, but taken by the media (and Kofi Annan and the UN) as a genuine leader of Iraq. In the runup to "saving" Fallujah U.S. military officials say that they are awaiting a go-ahead from the head-of-sovereign-Iraq, Mr. Allawi, for permission! Like the United States needed a go-ahead from Generals Ky and Thieu to ravage their country with Agent Orange and napalm!
In both cases the UN did nothing to impede straightforward aggression in violation of the UN Charter, although there has been a slight regression in that now Kofi Annan and company have been manipulated into servicing U.S. aggression: first, letting the United States play with them in making Iraq's threat of weapons of mass destruction a very serious business, even if the United States had to walk over the UN in the end when the inspections seemed to be yielding inadequate justification for conquest. But second, after the invasion-occupation, the UN was induced to give the occupation its imprimatur, therefore accelerating the UN decline to irrelevance as a peace-making body and making it an open tool of aggression and imperialism.
In both cases, the huge turmoil that resulted from the invasion-occupation was used by the aggressor to justify further intervention and killing-having produced a great deal of instability, and stoked a powerful resistance by its horrifying tactics, the party responsible for the instability claimed the need to stay on and kill on a larger scale in the interest of "stability." Of course, the only stability sought by the aggressor was one in which at least some of the attack objectives were achieved: hopefully transformation of the target into a client state (still a goal in Iraq); in Vietnam, a partial victory without control, but so devastating the country and killing so many of its most energetic and productive citizens that Vietnam was unable to project any threatening development model to compete with the U.S. clients that had actually profited from the Vietnam holocaust.
In both cases, when problems arose as pacification of the attacked country became more costly than anticipated, extrication was difficult. Losing in Vietnam to "Communists"-- and little "yellow dwarves" to boot (Lyndon Johnson)--or in Iraq to a rag-tag, diversified but increasingly mass-based set of insurgents who had not a single helicopter, was intolerable, and would have domestic political costs. Withdrawal is therefore delayed, for many years in the case of Vietnam. Americans don't lose well, and today the powerful rightwing would shriek at the abandonment of our noble, God-ordered killing goals. In both cases, with the huge commitment to the aggression/occupation, there was the problem of the loss of credibility and the fear that the U.S. threat that keeps lesser breeds in line would seem less fearsome.
There was also the problem that an actual loss, or seeming loss, would make the home public less willing to support future aggressions.This problem has been solved in part by choosing only weak targets, by effective demonization of their leadership, and by conquering them and exiting quickly. The failure to achieve a quick accomplishment of the "mission" in Iraq has been painful for the Bush administration, but now that Bush has won his election, and with no moral values obstructing his willingness to kill (those influential to his constituency certainly do not include "Thou shalt not kill"), we may expect escalated violence, starting with Fallujah.
In each case, both Republicans and Democrats played an important role in mass killing: Eisenhower and Nixon, and Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam; Bush-1 with the 1990 Persian Gulf War, and his son carrying the White Man's Burden in 1993-1994; Clinton managing the "sanctions of mass destruction" that killed over a million Iraqi civilians, and with Blair, steadily and illegally bombing Iraq throughout his term of office; and John Kerry voting for the Bush-2 war, and promising to stay the course with more troops and a planned four-year presence.
In short, destroying towns, cities and countries to save them from falling out of the orbit of Godfather control is bipartisan and is built-in to the highly militarized imperial United States. This isn't going to change without a change in the U.S. political economy, now geared to domination, expansion, and war without end.
Published in Z Magazine
Edward S. Herman is Professor Emeritus at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.
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