Good Evening, Vietnam
Although Vietnam flooded instantly back into American consciousness as the invasion of Iraq was launched in March 2003 – along with its ancient vocabulary from "hearts and minds" to "quagmire" (or the deeply referential "Q-word") – for the Bush administration the rhetorical reference point was World War II and its aftermath. From Churchillian phraseology to that famed "axis of evil," modeled on the Axis powers of that global war, to endless invocations of the successful occupations of Germany and Japan, World War II was its analogous war of choice.That's right they spent more time and effort fighting the was at home than they did fighting it in Iraq. Make sure the majority of Americans don't have to sacrifice - make sure a majority of Americans don't see the war. And to make all of this possible make sure the media cooperate and in fact become cheerleaders rather than critics. But they learned the wrong lessons from Vietnam and eventually reality overtook the spin. And who should appear on the scene but the ghost of failed invasions past, none other than Henry Kissinger.
Yet from the beginning, no American critic had the Vietnam War era more firmly lodged in the brain than the top officials of the Bush administration. It was as if their invasion was always aimed, as in a suicide mission, directly at America's well-guarded Green Zone of Vietnam memories. After all, much war planning was based on what they considered the "lessons" of defeat in Vietnam.
From the dead-of-night way they brought the dead and wounded back from Iraq to the Pentagon's decision to embed the dreaded media, long blamed for defeat in Vietnam, in military units, Iraq was to be the anti-Vietnam battlefield. If we had, as the right believed, never lost an actual battle in Vietnam, but lost every one on the home front, then the major campaigns of the Iraq War would first be launched and managed on that home front (and only secondarily in Iraq).
But even as the White House and Pentagon were attempting to erase all Vietnam-like thoughts from the reality they hoped to mold both in the Middle East and in the US, even as they were avoiding the "Q-word" or the infamous phrase "light at the end of the tunnel" (for which, in the years to come, they would substitute an endless string of Iraqi "milestones," "landmarks," "tipping points," and "corners" turned), they were themselves hopelessly haunted by Vietnam.
And that's the least of the matter. As 2006 ends, Iraq has become Washington's Vietnam in every sense of the word. On the one hand, the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, representing the world of the elder George Bush, has opted for a policy which combines the Vietnamization program ("Iraqification") of the Nixon years (reduce American ground troops, bulk up American advisors to local forces, increase American air power, and at the very least create a "decent interval" between the withdrawal of American combat forces and the moment when defeat becomes evident). In the meantime, the President's upcoming revamped approach looks to be a combination of a John F. Kennedy-era massive advisor build-up and a classic Lyndon-Johnson years "surge" of troops. In the Vietnam era, another word was used for "surge" – "escalation." And, as it happens, the newly proposed surge into Baghdad and al-Anbar Province of perhaps 20,000 extra American soldiers (along with a tripling of American advisors/trainers) is exactly the kind of "incremental" escalation that American military men, looking back on the Vietnam disaster, swore would never happen againYes, the war in Iraq has moved beyond the Kennedy/Johnson stage and is now officially in the Nixon stage. Those of us who are old enough remember that most of the casualties occurred during the Nixon stage of the Vietnam war.
Just to ensure that this is indeed Vietnam we're now enmeshed in, both sides in the present recommendation debate have been consulting a key architect of the final losing years of the Vietnam era – Henry Kissinger.
Even more to the Vietnam point is the evidence of collective establishment cowardice in present Iraq planning – the willingness simply to put off the loss of a war (and of a dream of global domination) into someone else's future. In the Vietnam years, President Nixon (advised by Kissinger) could undoubtedly have gotten us out of Vietnam, but squandered his "capital" instead on his historic China opening, trying in the process – shades of Iran today – to get a neighboring regional power to do for his war what he was incapable of doing for himself.
This kind of ongoing madness – part of which, these days, passes for "realism" just as Kissinger's particular brand of Vietnam-era madness passed for "realpolitik" – should be material for The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Unfortunately, it will also be the basis for the deaths of tens or even hundreds of thousands more Iraqis as well as hundreds or thousands more Americans in the years to come. And undoubtedly, when we're done, the Iraqis will be forgotten and – as in the Vietnam era – this will be called an "American tragedy," to be followed by an "Iraq Syndrome," and so on into the Möbius strip of history, farce, and catastrophe.