Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Vietnam, Iraq and America

The Vietnam analogy continues to crop up in discussions about American policy and strategy in Iraq. On the left, Iraq is a “quagmire” that will consume lives and resources well beyond the public’s willingness to support the war. The right says our experience in Vietnam is largely irrelevant to Iraq except that it shows America must take the lead in making the world safer. My own take is that Iraq is similar largely in that manner in which the administration misled the public about the need for the U.S. to act unilaterally and the cost of the war. I think the administration should be held accountable for its deceit; beyond that the Vietnam analogy does little to inform the current situation.

But Vietnam does offer some important lessons. The most important to me, as a combat veteran, is that war is always hell. It’s hell for the soldiers and even more so for the civilians caught in the crossfire. As a soldier, I can expect hostility. That’s what I am trained for. But combat is still ugly and frightening. And as a target, I will grow increasingly hostile toward anyone whom I believe is putting me in their sights and will respond as best I can with the weapons available to me. In Iraq, that frustration and edginess is compounded by the elusiveness of our enemy. The guerilla sniper looks just the same as an Iraqi civilian. If I can’t tell them apart, they all become my enemy. In Vietnam, the running joke was “kill ‘em all and let God sort it out.” Uncertainty breeds fear and suspicion which makes a soldier more likely to fire. It’s damned hard NOT to cut loose with all your firepower when you’re under attack.

Which makes war hell for civilians. Over the past year, Liberators have become Occupiers. Civilians ambivalent about the U.S. invasion a year ago, have been subject to an increasingly aggressive tactics in response to armed resistance to the American presence. Unwilling to support the foreign invader against their countrymen, civilians tolerate the insurgents and by so doing, civilians become the targets of the American guns, rockets and bombs. I remember my response in Vietnam was to trust no Vietnamese and a strong desire to kill anyone whom I believed was a threat to me and my unit. I think that American forces are better trained and led now than in my day but combat paranoia is real in any war. An it leads to over reaction and dependence on force. The inevitable result is civilian casualties. Each one becomes another reason for non-combatants to distrust the Americans and resent our presence.

What we are seeing in Iraq is the consequence of a misguided policy based on ideological distortion. The neocons running the Bush administration convinced themselves that regime change would be easy. They looked at intelligence and saw what they wanted. And they believed that America could unilaterally launch a preventative war. They and the American public are now discovering that they were mostly wrong. About the only prediction that was true was the fact that American forces could easily overcome the Iraqi army. But the rest has been messy and gets messier with each day.

What is certain is what I call the “imperative of combat” which is where the Vietnam analogy holds true. The imperative of combat is an increasing spiral of violence that belies the lofty aims of war. Our invasion generated some opposition. The opposition began to coalesce, inflicting casualties on American and Coalition troops who then respond with greater violence. And so it goes with each side upping the ante and civilians caught in the middle. Just as all Vietnamese became “gooks”, Iraqi civilians become terrorists and terrorist supporters. Even when American troops don’t target civilians, the scale of American actions kills civilians anyway.

War is unpredictable. Even when it goes well, it never goes as expected. And Iraq isn’t going well. The U.S. was never prepared to occupy and control Iraq. Our leaders assumed that we would be welcome and cheered. Now we are faced with a cycle of violence that is all to predictable in a war zone. And we are not prepared for it. American troops and Iraqi civilians are paying the price for our ignorance. That much of the Vietnam analogy remains relevant.


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