‘Beyond Vietnam’ … and Beyond Iraq

Kevin Morrison, an old softball teammate of mine, just put together a four-minute montage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech at the Riverside Church in New York. He juxtaposes images of Iraq over King’s words to devastating effect. Kevin also did a Q and A on the historical context of King’s speech, available at a blog called Pop + Politics.

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Mr. Flight Suit

Link: Bush Draws Iraq Lesson From Vietnam – New York Times.

Our president is not lacking for audacity. Or for rocks in his head. He’s in Vietnam and, by way of promoting his administration’s most important product, its Iraq disaster, presumes to even mention a war that he made damned sure he was no part of. The lession of Vietnam, Mr. Mission Accomplished says, is that "we’ll succeed unless we quit." Not that it matters–we”re Americans, and we’re exceptional folks who don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks–but you wonder what the Vietnamese think about the president’s analysis (one that leaps over the facts of what happened over there; but then again, Bush and facts and his Iraq strategery have never been seen in the same room, either).

‘Pretty F___ing Ignorant’: Seymour Hersh on Americans and Iraq

A gem in the Montreal Mirror, an alternative weekly in the Great White North. Hersh was making an appearance at McGill University, and the Mirror did a set-up piece. The main subject, unsurprisingly, was Iraq. Hersh sounds taken aback by the interviewer, calling him opinionated, obsessional, and tendentious, and remarking, “This is the strangest interview I’ve ever had.” When the interviewer asks a question about Americans’ “willful ignorance” of the world, Hersh protests that he can’t conclude the lack of knowledge is willful, then adds:

“…Americans are pretty fucking ignorant. What we don’t know is pretty huge. You could never accuse Americans of learning from history or learning from past mistakes. You’re talking about a country that went to war in Vietnam with the theory that we had to bomb North Vietnam in order to keep the hordes of Red China from coming, right? Not knowing that Vietnam and China had fought wars for 2,000 years and would fight one four years after the war was over, in ’79. What we don’t know is just breathtaking in my country. To call this ignorance wilful as opposed to general ignorance, I don’t know. On any issue, Americans can display an incredible lack of information. I doubt if there’s a society which has paid less attention to the facts than any else.”

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Vietnam, Iraq

I joined the Organization of American Historians earlier this year, mostly to get access to its online journal archives; besides, you don’t have to be a real historian to be a member. One of the unanticipated perks is the quarterly Journal of American History. The September issue has a sort of roundtable discussion–it was conducted in email–among a group of scholars who have focused on the history of the Vietnam War. The subject is legacies of the war, and among the questions the journal posed to the historians was this: “Why or why not is Vietnam an appropriate historical analogy for thinking about current U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq?”

[The question is in the news, too. The commander-in-chief was asked the other day whether there was some parallel between the Tet Offensive of 1968 and the current bloodbath in Iraq. He allowed there was, then quickly added that since we’ve succeeded in turning Iraq into what it was not before we invaded–a 365-day-a-year, hands-on, post-graduate level training camp for ambitious terrorists–there is no way–no way!–we’ll leave before “the job” is done.]

Back to the historians. They all have much to say about Vietnam/Iraq parallels. But the one who sums them up best (and most dispassionately) is Christian Appy of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He says:

“There is a danger that any effort to compare current events with historical antecedents will badly distort both past and present. I agree that Iraq and Vietnam are vastly different … but surely there are commonalities, at least in a general sense, in the way U.S. officials justified their policies in the two countries, and these analogies can serve public debate. After all … one important connection is that U.S. policy makers then, as now, believed detailed local knowledge was largely irrelevant except in narrowly tactical terms (that is, where are the “bad guys”?) because Washington clung to the hope (in spite of massive contrary evidence) that U.S. technology and military firepower could hold the line long enough for modernization (or nation building) to draw each country into a stable global system amenable to U.S. economic and political power.

“At the risk of gross oversimplification, I’d like to list a few linkages. Then as now, the president claims:

—We face a global threat (Communism/terrorism).

—The enemy we fight is part of that global threat.

—We fight far away from home so we won’t have to fight in our own streets.

—We want nothing for ourselves, only self-determination for them.

—We are doing everything possible to limit the loss of civilian lives.

—We are making great progress, but the media isn’t reporting it.

—Ultimately, the war must be won by them with less and less U.S. “help.”

—Immediate withdrawal would be an intolerable blow to U.S. credibility and would only embolden our enemy and produce a bloodbath.

—Antiwar activism must be allowed but demoralizes our troops and encourages our enemy.

“Then, as now, the president does not say:

—The enemy in Vietnam/Iraq actually does not pose a threat to U.S. security, but we’re fighting anyway.

—We do indeed have geopolitical and economic interests in the region and will never tolerate a Communist/radical Islamist government.

—We are using weapons and tactics that don’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.

—We will stretch and break the law to spy on and sabotage antiwar critics.

—We won’t ask the nation as a whole to make a major sacrifice but will continue to send the working class to do most of the fighting.

—The progress we report is contradicted by our own sources.

—Troop morale is going downhill.

—Most of the people over there don’t want us in their country.”

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The War We Can’t See

Sydney Schanberg, the former Times reporter (played by Sam Waterston in “The Killing Fields“), borrows on his Vietnam/Cambodia experience to speculate in The Village Voice on the past, present and future dimensions of the U.S. air war in Iraq:

“Little is known or seen of the air part of the American war of today, in Iraq. One of the reasons is that the press, with less mobility because of security risks, has to be focused on what’s happening on the ground, where the damage, human and material, is taking place. A more crucial reason is that the Pentagon and the CIA prefer to tell us as little as possible about air war operations.

“Recently, but only in bits and pieces, military officials in Washington have acknowledged that after the U.S. and Britain withdraw the bulk of their ground troops, the American air component will be kept in the region to support the American-trained Iraqi ground forces who will be taking over the ground war. While the Pentagon doesn’t say anything about increasing air power in Iraq, other military sources—speaking anonymously because the information is classified—confirm that the plans call for the air war to be beefed up and kept that way for years to come. These sources also point to Iran and its nuclear ambitions as a reason for keeping air power at a high-alert level in the region.

“Since air strikes cause a significant percentage of civilian casualties, the air war’s continuance ensures that the U.S. will wear a bull’s-eye on its back indefinitely in the Middle East. It also means that the American press will have to push harder to provide more detailed and regular coverage of the air war.”