Vietnam is a constant undercurrent to the Iraq War. No one wants to repeat the THAT mistake. Vietnam is not the model anyone wants to follow. BushCheney says Iraq is different. It’s much the same say many critics. Both sides can claim some verity but, even with the differences, Iraq is enough like Vietnam to cause worry. The American Occupation and Sunni resistance is a classic insurgency against a foreign occupier. America and the world have seen this drama before with the same results: the foreign occupier departs. Sometimes they leave in a somewhat orderly manner, like the French in Algeria or Britain (usually after a certain amount of unpleasantness and bloodshed). Other times departure is hasty and a bit more dramatic. Either way, the locals win.
Iraq is a varient on a familiar theme, leavened with the political machinations of the newly emergent Shi’a majority and Kurdish nationalists. The Iraq War will not end for a while, during which a motivated opposition will attack Americans and their allies and the US military, a highly lethal force on hair-trigger alert (US troops just shot up some Canadian diplomats
who, like many Iraqis were near an American convoy) will respond with massive violence. We can expect much more bloodshed and destruction as these forces play themselves out. Assuming that Americans don’t soon recognize the futility of our presence Iraq and how it works against our national interests. That is much the same as Vietnam
Unlike Vietnam where both sides drafted soldiers into service, Iraq is not a conscript war. The Iraqi insurgents are volunteers as f I ar ascan tell. Many are Iraqi nationalists, others are seeking revenge for American assaults on their homes, family and honor. Some are Jihadists, fighting a holy war in Iraq just as they did in Afghanistan with US support. American forces in Iraq are not conscripts; they started out as volunteers who willingly joined the military, although many were not aware how much of their lives they were putting at the military’s disposal. These volunteers signed up for fixed enlistments. Reserve or National Guard volunteers expected to serve their enlistments in their communities. For these soldiers, war was, at best, a vague possibility. So imagine their surprise when called to war duty. Imagine, too, their surprise, along with Regulars, when they learned that their enlistment was indefinite.
Most soldiers who served in Vietnam served a single year-long tour. Career soldiers could expect to return one or more times. (A first sergeant in my company was serving his fourth tour; he was not at all happy about it). But for most, once you left Vietnam, you were done. Not so in Iraq, where the US military not only rotates units back to combat multiple times, but it also extends enlistments so that “volunteers” cannot leave the service
. The consequence is that this war’s burden of war falls heavily on a certain group of people. Even the most enthusiastic soldier may be frustrated to once again be at risk in an environment that is little different and perhaps worse from the one he left a year ago. It’s wearing. And deadly.
America has a “backdoor draft”. During Vietnam, the burden was (theoretically) spread among all draft age males, the Iraq war is the burden of a relatively few, although this time around women get to participate. I now see reports of soldiers on their second and third tours (while most Americans hardly even notice the war). As long as Americans are stationed in Iraq–right now the term is indefinite–they will be at risk. This burden falls on the few who had the misfortune to be in the military when BushCheney decided to launch a war rather than think.
I think the burden is particularly difficult for the Reserves and Guard. Regular forces–Army and Marine–know that combat is always a possibility. That’s why they exist. They train for it. But hte Guard and Reserves have traditionally been community based rather than combat. Now they are serving in a deadly combat environment with minimal training and out dated equipment. In Iraq; like Vietnam, the enemy is everywhere and everyone. This is a far cry from reinforcing levees or rebuilding after a disaster. It breeds fear, paranoia callousness and brutality in a person.
Like combat veterans before them these Regular, National Guard and Reserve soldiers will bring the war home with them when they return. They will be very different from the men and women who left to serve. Most will get on with their lives even as their experience and memories stay with them. Some will never be at peace, either on constant alert for the fatal attack or wrestling with the moral dilemmas of killing. Those few veterans will bear these heavy costs. The rest of us can ignore them, much as we have ignored the war, explaining its death and destruction in national security generalities and rationalizations.
Vietnam’s burden wasn’t widespread but it was more so than now. About 2.5 million Americans served in Vietnam. That’s less than three percent of a population that was around 200 million. Although more were at risk of military service then due to the draft, many eligible males (Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, my brother) avoided conscription, so relatively few saw service and even fewer, maybe 250,000 actually saw combat. The burden of this war is even less. At best Iraq war veterans are only 1.5 percent of our population. Knowing that soldiers do, in fact, serve multiple tours, the burden is even more concentrated on a small number of Americans.
In the end, America must be able to say that we asked for this sacrifice honestly in the best interest of our nation and, as far as I am concerned, the world. Three years on it is obvious to me, as it was when BushCheney rushed to war, that Iraq is not in anyone’s best interest–except, perhaps, Shi’a fundamentalists, oil companies and large contractors.
Iraq is not Vietnam. But it is close enough to know that whatever result the United States achieves in Iraq will be forever tainted by the unnecessary sacrifice of so few.
Title with homage to Rene’ Magritte