Friday, September 7, 2007

The Vietnam Syndrome and the Re-"Righting" of History

On Wednesday Aug. 22, in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, President Bush specifically drew parallels between Vietnam and Iraq, arguing that this was a good thing and America should firm its resolve in Iraq. This was a fascinating and flabbergasting statement. After years of deflecting Iraq and Vietnam comparisons because of the negative connotation, the Bush administration has embraced the comparison. This essay will offer some thoughts on why the Bush administration would do this and conclude my series of articles on the comparison between the wars.

At the heart of the issue is this thing called the "Vietnam Syndrome." In the wake of America's smashing victory over Iraq in 1991, George "Papa" Bush stated that the US had finally "kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all." So what is this "Vietnam Syndrome" that was so important to kick? To put it
succinctly, it is the reluctance of the American public to accept facile and dubious justifications for invading another country, particularly when the goals of the war are unclear and open ended. This perfectly logical reluctance, which has a long history in the US that predates Vietnam, has been reduced to a "syndrome"--an irrational psychological condition caused by America's inability to subdue Vietnam. The US government has gone to great extents to break the American public of this syndrome. Namely, by eagerly searching for "madmen" who are militarily vulnerable and that the US can easily overthrow and thus reassure the American public that every time we invade another country, it won't turn into a quagmire, and that there are an endless amount of dictators which deserve the business end of a stinger missile. In practice what this has meant is the US has taken to picking on virtually defenseless countries, hoping to compile a series of "quick and easy wins" so Vietnam seems like a distant memory. The invasion of Grenada and Panama are case in point.

Bush Sr.'s Iraq gambit was the first major military operation that entailed some risk since Vietnam. Hussein did have a sizable conventional army, nothing that the international coalition created to stop him should not have easily handled, but it looked good on paper. Did the first Gulf War then prove that the Vietnam Syndrome was dead? Hardly. Although support for the war was high for the brief period of combat, anti-war protests emerged
pre-invasion--something almost unheard of in the annals of anti-war protests. Moreover, the limited nature of the war and that Bush could not capitalize politically upon the conflict suggest that support for a prolonged war was thin, and the Bush administration knew it.

Fast forward to 2003. In the wake of Sept. 11, the predictable rage militaire allowed the Bush Administration redux to "finish the job" that public and international opinion prevented Papa Bush from completing. Similarly, protests emerged pre-invasion, not just in the US but around the globe. The thin public support for the war has definitely affected war strategy and the rhetoric surrounding the war. The Bush Administration has tried to keep troop levels low, resisted any talk of a draft, and has tried to create the impression that this war is a genuine international effort (any examination of troop levels and casualty levels should dissuade anyone of this notion). Additionally, the Bush Administration has been in the uncomfortable position of reminding us that we are making progress ("mission accomplished" and "the surge is working") while also making sure that the public knows that the mission isn't really accomplished or that the surge isn't working sufficiently to withdraw. Again, the Vietnam Syndrome is with us.

Thus, Bush's attempt to
reframe the Vietnam War and to rewrite history to serve current political ends. Although much has been written on Bush's historical myopia, there are points that are worth highlighting. Central to Bush's argument is that the US withdraw from Vietnam produced a humanitarian disaster in South East Asia (the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese boat people); and the subsequent decline of US credibility allowing for later humiliations including the Iran hostage crisis. It is a classic example of the "correlation/causation fallacy," common among people who either don't know history, or among propagandists trying to use history to their own ends. The correlation/causation fallacy is basically that if the rooster crows at 5:30 and the sun comes up at 5:40, the rooster caused the sun to come up. Bush's fallacy goes much deeper, however, as the humanitarian disaster in SE Asia predates the US withdraw and was directly a result of US intervention. US carpet bombing of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos produced directly and indirectly millions of deaths, facilitated the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and prevented a non-military solution to the conflict in Vietnam. That the killing didn't stop after the US withdraw somehow proves that the US should not have withdrawn, belies basic logic, much less an understanding of cause and effect. In Vietnam, there was no "communist blood bath" that had been predicted (this is not to say that the Vietnamese communists did not engage in human rights violations, but there was no mass slaughter)--the blood bath that did occur was in Cambodia, a blood bath that the Vietnamese tried to stop by invading Cambodia to overthrow the Khmer Rouge, while America's new friend, China, invaded Vietnam and the US offered clandestine and indirect support to China's new ally, the Khmer Rouge, as a way to put Vietnam "in its place." Genocide sure makes strange bedfellows--but such facts are reserved to the memory hole.

Thus we return again to America's credibility in the world. That the respect the US earned following the liberation of Europe from Nazism and SE Asia from Japanese militarism has run out in a series of foreign policy blunders and imperial power grabs, this is the fault of the "Vietnam Syndrome?" Of left-wingers and peacenicks? Hardly. All I can say is I hope the American public remains insane enough to question every war and every leader that would drag us into one.

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