On Second Thought, It Is Vietnam

Comparisons of the Iraq war to Vietnam have always rung hollow—except to those who desperately wish them to be true.  Aging activists remember the glory days when, abetted by sensational media coverage, they forced an abandonment of U.S. commitment in that earlier war.  They sense that, with the right combination of events and demagoguery, they can accomplish the same thing now.

But there are no similarities, beyond the fact that both represent use of American military power in service of strategic goals. For the anti—war community, that is the unforgivable sin. The details are—just details.

Imagine that Ho Chi Minh, rather than being a nationalist ideologue backed by two communist superpowers, had been a regional thug with a mad desire for revenge—and sarin gas at his disposal.  Imagine that U.S. forces, instead of plodding aimlessly for 10 years, had marched into Hanoi in the early months of 1965, deposed Ho, united north and south under a provisional government, then overseen democratic elections and the drafting of a constitution.  Then the war in Iraq would indeed resemble Vietnam.

But for the war critics this is about opportunity, not truth.  Once the U.S.
began to encounter unexpected resistance in Iraq, the perennial peaceniks saw their chance and dusted off the old slogans.  It must have felt good. 

Was that rage or glee on the reddened face of Senator Ted Kennedy as he thundered about 'George Bush's Vietnam?'   Apparently, it was so effective he repeated it several times. 

The chant was taken up by others—eventually even maverick Republican Senator Chuck Hagel .  All this hyperbole was accompanied, as usual, by the peaceniks' other favorite word: "quagmire."

A quagmire, in the new definition, is any effort of the United States military that lasts more than a few weeks.  What would these Cassandras have said of America's fortunes during the Battle of the Bulge, or at Guadalcanal?  Indeed, how would they have described the American Revolution in 1777 ?

Quagmires, all—until we won.

By contrast, their model for a successful operation would be air strikes such as those conducted by President Clinton: quick, painless, and without effect—except for the self—congratulation they afford those who order them.

If the facts on the ground are dissimilar, the two wars have cast one reality into bold relief: the unchanging character of the American left.  In fact, the one identical feature of both wars is—the opposition.  There was Martin Sheen in Los Angeles last week, bellowing, 'This war is ill—conceived, ill—advised and illegal,' amidst a festival of protest that brought out every cultural fringe group from gay activists to vegetarians.

It might as well have been 1968.

Much of the nostalgia is self—referential: a sign at the recent Washington D.C. protest read 'Make levees—not war.'  And some activists are keeping score: 'We're way ahead of Vietnam,' said protest organizer James Lafferty, according to the Los Angeles Times.  He sees public opinion swaying after only 2,000 casualties in Iraq.  'Back then, it took 20,000 bodies. . .'

George W. Bush has provided the invaluable service of driving America's extremists out of the woodwork, where they've been relatively quiescent for thirty years.  The cast is eerily familiar: actors and filmmakers, writers and musicians, journalists and academics; all using their credentials—real and imagined—to lend gravity to their anti—American views.  Some of the faces have changed, but the arguments haven't.

Marxist opponents of the Vietnam War heard its lofty rationale, but saw only capitalist greed.  To them, it was the raw materials  in Vietnam that lured us there, not a struggle against tyranny.  The coveted mineral in that case?  Tungsten.  That was enough to cause three American Presidents to squander the national treasure and 59,000 American lives.

These critics saw ultimate danger in American imperialism—not in a murderous ideology that openly threatened to enslave mankind.  Crimes of our adversaries were ignored or rationalized as inevitable, given the injustices they'd endured.

The idea that our enemies might unite as co—belligerents, despite their differences, was dismissed as paranoid nonsense.  Indeed, any attempt to link the specific conflict with larger geopolitical forces was ridiculed. Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist, they argued, and not in the camp of Moscow or Beijing.  

Sound familiar?

Abuses  by our own troops were magnified and exploited to create a kind of moral vertigo.  We could no longer be certain who the good guys were.

Always, the goal was 'peace'—so long as that meant America's withdrawal. 
When that peace was attained and led to unimaginable suffering, the news was simply ignored.

We know now the results of that earlier movement: a human wave of refugees, millions displaced, millions dead, and renewed vigor for the hellish ideology that started it all.  The American public, exhausted by internal strife and relentless images of death on their TV screens, simply wanted out.  'Peace with honor' had devolved into disgrace, as Congress quietly cut off military aid to South Vietnam.

Will the scenario repeat itself? In 2004 Howard Dean assumed the mantle of George McGovern, leading the anti—war insurgency within the Democratic Party.  But he has none of McGovern's dignity, grace or credibility (McGovern was a genuine war hero, piloting a B—24 over Germany in World War Two).  And Dean's now at his party's helm—an awkward place for an insurgent.  Senator Kennedy, bloated and bellicose, descends ever further into self—parody.   Even Jane Fonda has scuttled  her anti—war bus tour.  Hillary Clinton is morphing into Hubert Humphrey: Democratic heir apparent, trying to explain her war stance to an increasingly strident left wing.

As before, the scales could be tipped by unexpected events.  Nixon was distracted by Watergate.  George Bush has been blown off track by two (so
far) hurricanes.  Predictably, critics are using the gulf calamity as a call to bring the troops home.  The progress toward democracy in Iraq has been agonizing, fraught with horrific violence.  Americans have a low tolerance for unresolved conflict, especially in faraway lands.  The pressure to force a resolution will grow with every new report of a roadside bombing.

If the Cassandras have their way, we could see Bush's successor quietly pulling the plug.  And then the real nightmare would begin.

Comparisons of the Iraq war to Vietnam have always rung hollow—except to those who desperately wish them to be true.  Aging activists remember the glory days when, abetted by sensational media coverage, they forced an abandonment of U.S. commitment in that earlier war.  They sense that, with the right combination of events and demagoguery, they can accomplish the same thing now.

But there are no similarities, beyond the fact that both represent use of American military power in service of strategic goals. For the anti—war community, that is the unforgivable sin. The details are—just details.

Imagine that Ho Chi Minh, rather than being a nationalist ideologue backed by two communist superpowers, had been a regional thug with a mad desire for revenge—and sarin gas at his disposal.  Imagine that U.S. forces, instead of plodding aimlessly for 10 years, had marched into Hanoi in the early months of 1965, deposed Ho, united north and south under a provisional government, then overseen democratic elections and the drafting of a constitution.  Then the war in Iraq would indeed resemble Vietnam.

But for the war critics this is about opportunity, not truth.  Once the U.S.
began to encounter unexpected resistance in Iraq, the perennial peaceniks saw their chance and dusted off the old slogans.  It must have felt good. 

Was that rage or glee on the reddened face of Senator Ted Kennedy as he thundered about 'George Bush's Vietnam?'   Apparently, it was so effective he repeated it several times. 

The chant was taken up by others—eventually even maverick Republican Senator Chuck Hagel .  All this hyperbole was accompanied, as usual, by the peaceniks' other favorite word: "quagmire."

A quagmire, in the new definition, is any effort of the United States military that lasts more than a few weeks.  What would these Cassandras have said of America's fortunes during the Battle of the Bulge, or at Guadalcanal?  Indeed, how would they have described the American Revolution in 1777 ?

Quagmires, all—until we won.

By contrast, their model for a successful operation would be air strikes such as those conducted by President Clinton: quick, painless, and without effect—except for the self—congratulation they afford those who order them.

If the facts on the ground are dissimilar, the two wars have cast one reality into bold relief: the unchanging character of the American left.  In fact, the one identical feature of both wars is—the opposition.  There was Martin Sheen in Los Angeles last week, bellowing, 'This war is ill—conceived, ill—advised and illegal,' amidst a festival of protest that brought out every cultural fringe group from gay activists to vegetarians.

It might as well have been 1968.

Much of the nostalgia is self—referential: a sign at the recent Washington D.C. protest read 'Make levees—not war.'  And some activists are keeping score: 'We're way ahead of Vietnam,' said protest organizer James Lafferty, according to the Los Angeles Times.  He sees public opinion swaying after only 2,000 casualties in Iraq.  'Back then, it took 20,000 bodies. . .'

George W. Bush has provided the invaluable service of driving America's extremists out of the woodwork, where they've been relatively quiescent for thirty years.  The cast is eerily familiar: actors and filmmakers, writers and musicians, journalists and academics; all using their credentials—real and imagined—to lend gravity to their anti—American views.  Some of the faces have changed, but the arguments haven't.

Marxist opponents of the Vietnam War heard its lofty rationale, but saw only capitalist greed.  To them, it was the raw materials  in Vietnam that lured us there, not a struggle against tyranny.  The coveted mineral in that case?  Tungsten.  That was enough to cause three American Presidents to squander the national treasure and 59,000 American lives.

These critics saw ultimate danger in American imperialism—not in a murderous ideology that openly threatened to enslave mankind.  Crimes of our adversaries were ignored or rationalized as inevitable, given the injustices they'd endured.

The idea that our enemies might unite as co—belligerents, despite their differences, was dismissed as paranoid nonsense.  Indeed, any attempt to link the specific conflict with larger geopolitical forces was ridiculed. Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist, they argued, and not in the camp of Moscow or Beijing.  

Sound familiar?

Abuses  by our own troops were magnified and exploited to create a kind of moral vertigo.  We could no longer be certain who the good guys were.

Always, the goal was 'peace'—so long as that meant America's withdrawal. 
When that peace was attained and led to unimaginable suffering, the news was simply ignored.

We know now the results of that earlier movement: a human wave of refugees, millions displaced, millions dead, and renewed vigor for the hellish ideology that started it all.  The American public, exhausted by internal strife and relentless images of death on their TV screens, simply wanted out.  'Peace with honor' had devolved into disgrace, as Congress quietly cut off military aid to South Vietnam.

Will the scenario repeat itself? In 2004 Howard Dean assumed the mantle of George McGovern, leading the anti—war insurgency within the Democratic Party.  But he has none of McGovern's dignity, grace or credibility (McGovern was a genuine war hero, piloting a B—24 over Germany in World War Two).  And Dean's now at his party's helm—an awkward place for an insurgent.  Senator Kennedy, bloated and bellicose, descends ever further into self—parody.   Even Jane Fonda has scuttled  her anti—war bus tour.  Hillary Clinton is morphing into Hubert Humphrey: Democratic heir apparent, trying to explain her war stance to an increasingly strident left wing.

As before, the scales could be tipped by unexpected events.  Nixon was distracted by Watergate.  George Bush has been blown off track by two (so
far) hurricanes.  Predictably, critics are using the gulf calamity as a call to bring the troops home.  The progress toward democracy in Iraq has been agonizing, fraught with horrific violence.  Americans have a low tolerance for unresolved conflict, especially in faraway lands.  The pressure to force a resolution will grow with every new report of a roadside bombing.

If the Cassandras have their way, we could see Bush's successor quietly pulling the plug.  And then the real nightmare would begin.