Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Iraq, Vietnam, and the New World Order

This is the second in my series comparing the Vietnam War and the Iraqi War. The first explored the situation on the ground in both countries, this essay will deal with the situation in the United States and the reasons for the respective invasions.

Although the situation "on the ground" in Iraq and in Vietnam were significantly different, the reasons and events surrounding the respective invasions share some similarities, but are also dramatically divergent. The US invasion of Vietnam was largely the product of a Cold War ideology that required the United States to fight communism wherever it threatened to spread. The "domino theory," which argued that if Vietnam fell, communism would spread through Asia, the Middle East, and eventually Fidel Castro would be dating your sister, required the United States to stop the first domino. In the case of Iraq, the invasion is symptomatic of a lack of ideological coherence to US foreign policy in the post-Cold War period. At the root of the problem is the US government's desire to assert itself as the only country that can legitimately use force in the world, while at the same time securing resources crucial to the geopolitical/geo-economic landscape--but to do so in terms acceptable to the US public.

Vietnam was the product of the commitment to stop the spread of communism, a commitment so unquestioned that any independent nationalist movement, communist or not, was perceived as a Soviet plot. The operational question was always "How best do we fight communism?" The US adopted a number of strategies--go through the UN (Korea), use the CIA and proxy forces (Guatemala, Iran, Chile), or use the nuclear threat (Cuba). It was the failure of all three of these strategies that eventually led to the US invasion of Vietnam. Vietnam had no resources of particular importance to the United States, it isn't located in a particularly strategic part of the world, but the US commitment came to stand for the greater US commitment to stop the spread of communism. The tunnel vision that US policy planners adopted prevented peaceful solutions to the conflict in 1946, 1954, and 1963. At every juncture, the United States chose to "turn up the heat" on the people of Vietnam while continuing to support undemocratic forces within the country rather than allowing free and internationally monitored elections (which would assuredly produced a victory for the immensely popular Ho Chi Minh.) By 1968, the United States found itself "waist deep in the big muddy"---in a bloody and brutal war it could not win against a weaker enemy that would not give up.

If Vietnam was a product of the tunnel vision of the Cold War, Iraq is a product of the US attempt to reformulate US foreign policy in a different manner, but along similar lines, and with predictable outcomes. As the Cold War came to a close, the US policy makers tried to find a new ideological security blanket to wrap themselves in. It was Ronald Reagan who first announced the "War on Terror" and used it as a justification for the state directed international terrorism against Nicaragua (a crime for which the US stands as the only country in the world convicted for international terrorism by the ICJ). George Bush subsequently announced the "War on Drugs" which became his justification for the invasion of Panama to arrest Manuel Noriega (a former CIA operative who help fund the Pentagon's Latin American terror operations through the sale of drugs, some of this while Bush was head of the CIA). On the heals of Panama, Saddam Hussein invaded its much weaker neighbor to the south, Kuwait, and all of a sudden the United States declared that it believes that powerful nations shouldn't bully weaker ones (a major revelation)--and thus Gulf War I and the United States' 16 year struggle to subdue Iraq.

Of course, Iraq does have resources which are important to the United States and the world economy, therefore, US (rather US and European based multinational corporations) access to this oil is a major factor in the war. The other root cause is less obvious, but possibly more important. The "failing" of the first Gulf War was largely a derivative of the international (UN led) coalition's interests in turning back Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. The northern imperial powers (Russia, France, England and to a lesser extent the US) could not tolerate independent and aggressive nationalists like Hussein, but they also wanted to keep Hussein in power (just weakened) so oil could continue to flow and a relative stability would exist in the region under the auspices of no-fly zones and an international military force. The neo-conservative vision, however, has no tolerance for internationally brokered agreements of this sort. There is only one country that can and should use force in the world, and that is the United States--and the United States does not subordinate itself to the "international community" or the UN. This is the real significance of the US invasion of Iraq--to remind the UN (and our "allies") who is boss. Although Rumsfeld argued that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a "humanitarian war" (Stalin just cringed) in reality it was a lesson in realpolitik--in the New World Order, the New World gives the orders.

Since September 11th, 2001, America's attempt to assert itself militarily and to secure Iraq as a dependable source of oil has been justified as a necessary battle in the new "War on Terror." Much of the logic is similar to the "domino theory." If we don't fight them in Iraq, we will fight them here, and the WMD facade is very similar to the Gulf of Tonkin deception, which provided the initial justification for invasion. The logic is equally dubious now as it was then, but the Bush Administration has gotten enough traction that a significant portion of the electorate accepts the war (Iraq is unusual in that there were protests before the 2003 invasion but obviously popular outcry was not sufficient to stop it) thus he has not been politically compelled to alter the course of the war dramatically. However, just as Vietnam did serious damage to the Cold War ideology, I suspect the Iraq War is undermining the neo-con's long term ideological project--but only the future will tell.

Certainly, it is this new "tunnel vision" which has placed the United States in the current mess it is in. Again, the US has had numerous opportunities to bring about peaceful resolutions to the conflict, to scale down its troop presence and to support indigenous democratic movements in Iraq--we have foregone those and instead have slowly bled Iraq through an invasion, sanctions, bombings, more sanctions, a second invasion, and an occupation. Most recently, the US has even taken to arming former Ba'athist militias (if only they had strong man who could take the reigns!). And just as in Vietnam, it is the people of Iraq who are paying the true price. Now, we being told that the "credibility" of the United States is at stake. Our credibility to do what? To invade a country and slowly bleed its population for over a decade for the sake of oil and our position vis-a-vis other lesser powers?

There is no doubt that Vietnam and Iraq have hurt US credibility in the world, but not in the way our political leadership would have us believe.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

How similar are Iraq and Vietnam?

In a very interesting rhetorical move, President Bush recently invoked Vietnam and its legacy as a reason for the United States to stay in Iraq. Of course, comparing Iraq and Vietnam isn’t all that original; critics of the war have been using the “V” word to attack Bush’s open ended military commitment to an apparent quagmire from the very beginning. The following is the first installment of a series of blog entries comparing the two conflicts and how the comparison affects the popular debate about the war in the United States.

The national crisis in Iraq and Vietnam were both the product western/imperial attempts to do what was “best” (best for the maintenance of imperial influence) for the respective people of those nations. On the ground, however, these arrangements manifested themselves in very different ways, differences which are crucial to understanding the nature of the conflicts. Although both situations are the products of their imperial legacy, the differences on the ground far outweigh the similarities.

In Vietnam, the country was artificially partitioned, first by the French, and then again after WWII by the United Nations with the support of the United States and the Soviet Union. Predictably, the struggle to unify what had been artificially divided manifested itself in the form of Vietnamese nationalism through Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh, and its inheritor organizations, the North Vietnamese Army and the National Liberation Front. Although there were ethnic and political differences within these organizations, the Vietnamese largely viewed the struggle as an expression of their nationalistic desire to expel the French and the Americans by overthrowing their puppet, the South Vietnamese government.

In the case of Iraq, the situation is almost exactly opposite. The country was artificially unified under one government with the support of the winners of WWI. Iraq’s government historically has been either subordinate to or heavily dependent on a foreign imperial power, whether it was the Ottomans or the English. Internally, the country has been subject to ethnic and religious tensions between Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis and has often been a pawn in geopolitical chess matches between England, France, Persia (Iran), Turkey, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The result is that the Iraq has never been a “nation” in the true sense of the word and Iraqi governments have either been grafted onto the landscape by foreign powers or have been the product of coups (often with foreign support) and ruled in spite of the population not because of it. Therefore, Iraqi nationalism barely exists and is not a significant factor in the conflict.

The absence of Iraqi nationalism makes the respective wars very different. In Vietnam, the lines between those who supported the South Vietnamese government and those who didn’t were very clear—there were two sides to the conflict, either you supported a unified Vietnam, or you didn’t. The situation in Iraq is infinitely more complicated. There is no equivalent to the NLF in Iraq. Instead there are dozens of localized militias and political groupings with conflicting agendas, many with foreign patrons, who spend as much time fighting each other as they do fighting the American occupiers. Although some of these groups support a unified Iraq, they have different visions of what “Iraq” should look like ethnically, religiously, and politically—a secular plural society, a Sunni dominated caliphate, a Shia dominated Islamic Republic, or some permutation in between. And of course, many do not support a unified Iraq, preferring ethno-religious based partitions.

In both Iraq and Vietnam, the United States has put itself in the very awkward and unenviable situation of defending a government which lacks popular support, and in both situations the United States has continued to commit troops until this government is stabilized, which could mean indefinitely. The nature of the insurgency, however, is so dramatically different that to argue Iraq is “another Vietnam” is deceptive and detrimental to understanding the situation.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

On the turntable--Iron Horse, Whole Lotta Bluegrass

I just picked up this interesting little piece the other day--Iron Horse's 2004 release Whole Lotta Bluegrass: A Bluegrass Tribute to Led Zeppelin. Iron Horse, a veteran bluegrass outfit based out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is known for its cross-genre recording and has also produced Fade to Bluegrass: A Bluegrass Tribute to Metallica, among other similar releases.

I was pleasantly pleased with the the ten song effort. I am appreciative of bluegrass, but hardly an expert on the music, and I love Led Zeppelin, so it seemed like a could fit, particularly considering Jimmy Page's assertion that rock and roll is little more than folk music with distortion and amplifiers.

All I can say is that until you've heard "gonna give you love, every inch of my love" in four-part harmony, you've never really heard it. Ironically, the best song on the CD is "Rock 'n' Roll" which makes me want to start clogging to the fiery banjo and mandolin work. Less surprising is the smooth sounding "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp," already a folksy song, which could just as easily been written in the Tennessee hills as a Welsh farmhouse. Additionally, "Ramble On" translates remarkably as a bluegrass ballad.

Other songs like "Kashmir," "Dazed and Confused," and the "Immigrant Song" don't quite come off as well and I question their presence on the album compared to some more logical acoustic Zep classics. Basically, they come off sounding pretentious--of course, they were pretentious to begin with, so I can't fault them too much.

Nevertheless, if you dig bluegrass, dig Zeppelin, or want to hear songs about characters from the Lord of the Rings in four part-harmony, this CD is for you.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

On the turntable--Assembly of Dust, Recollection

Assembly of Dust's third release, Recollection, weaves together clever songwriting, haunting melodies, poppy hooks, and smooth musicianship into a cohesive and infinitely listenable alt-country masterpiece. It secures Reid Genauer's reputation as a fantastic story-telling lyricist that is also able to capture the ear with sweet melodies.

Stand-out songs on the album are the gently rocking "Telling Sue" which fuses a rockabilly sound with a bluegrassy four part harmony hook; the softer, and slightly funky "Whistle Clock," Genauer's lyrical zenith on the album; and the "Bootlegger's Advice" which sound like it could have come straight off any release by Little Feat or The Band. Collectively, each song flows into one another so naturally, I have found myself listening to the album three times in a row without even realizing it.

Although the album doesn't contain much of their trademark jamming, the more polished sound does them more than justice.

For anyone who likes the alt. country or classic country rock influenced by the Grateful Dead, the Eagles, The Band, Little Feat, or CSN&Y, you should do yourself a favor and check these guys out.

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Thursday, August 9, 2007

Hypocrisy and Homers--Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds has finally broken Hank Aaron's home run record. Without a doubt it is one of the more impressive records in baseball. But, it goes without saying that a long shadow has been cast over Barry Bonds record. As Bonds moved towards the record, he was constantly hounded by death threats, accusations of being a "cheater," and assurances that his record should not be taken seriously. All of this due to his alleged steroid use as documented by Sports Illustrated and a couple of scathing biographies (Love Me, Hate Me by Jeff Perlman and Game of Shadows by Williams and Fainaru-Wada).

Although I can't consider myself a Barry Bonds fan, I found myself repulsed by the public's and Major League Baseball's reaction to his record chase. It is one thing to heckle opponents, and it is certainly part of the game. Even to scream "Bonds you, suck," when he is arguably the best player to suit up in the past 10 years, I can tolerate. But to single out Bonds for such vituperative ire and to assert that Bonds' record shouldn't count because he used steroids is silly and hypocritical. The same fans that are booing Bonds didn't seem to have a problem rooting for Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and any number of lesser players who, with as much certainty, (meaning that none of them, including Bonds, ever failed a drug test) used steroids. These fans didn't have any problem watching balls zing out of the park throughout the 1990s and cheering accordingly. And to argue that Barry's record isn't "fair"--what about all the records that were made before the game was racially integrated? Are they fair? What about all the World Series that were won with players on steroids? Do we take them away as well?

The reality is that steroids was an institutional problem in baseball throughout the 1990s and early 2000s and everyone who was paying attention knew it. But no one did anything. Now, all of a sudden, baseball is claiming purity and offering Barry Bonds as a sacrificial lamb to the public. It is Barry's fault, not ours. But again, such is hypocrisy.

Bonds has never been a media darling, but he has done a remarkable job of handling this bad situation with some class. So enjoy it while you can Barry.

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Monday, August 6, 2007

Review: MIA: Mythmaking in America by H. Bruce Franklin

I stumbled across this book while doing some research on Vietnam and found it to be fascinating. Franklin argues that the POW/MIA myth is a concoction of politicians, right-wing political activists, and hucksters who have kept the POW issue alive as an open wound and thus reframed the Vietnam War with Americans as the true victims. This myth has been kept alive by Hollywood films such as Missing in Action and Rambo and has done a disservice to Americans' attempt to understand the Vietnam War.

Having grown up in the post-Vietnam era, I was also fascinated by tales of POWs and the possibility that some may still be alive. As I got older, however, I came to suspect that this was largely a myth designed to deceive the American public once again about Vietnam. This book has confirmed by suspicion.

Franklin examines the "numbers game" of POW/MIAs and explodes the possibility that any are still alive or that the Vietnamese government has not fully accounted for POWs or had any reason to keep some secretly, while releasing others. Franklin also debunks many of the alleged "live sightings" and the conspiracy theories associated with alleged POWs.

The reframing of the Vietnam War with the United States as the true victim has had major implications for the development of US Foreign policy in the post-Vietnam era. Tragically, it has blinded many Americans to the true cost of US intervention overseas--for the people living in those countries, for US soldiers, and America's credibility in world affairs.

Well worth the read.

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