October 5, 2001
The Vietnam War wasn’t really about Vietnam, and it wasn’t really a war. It was a violent exercise in hubris and self-delusion done in the name of American honour.
The U.S. did not fight an army; it fought a people. The Vietcong, did not wear uniforms, march in formation or fight on a battlefield. They waged a popular insurgency, supported by the North Vietnamese Army, to rid South Vietnam of American colonial overlordship and corrupt U.S. puppet governments like that of Ngo Dinh Diem.
At no time did the U.S. follow a coherent political or military strategy to deal with the Vietcong. It didn’t need to, because South Vietnam, per se, did not matter. The U.S. treated a threat to South Vietnam as an attack on its own reputation as guarantor of South Vietnam’s security. Thus, the Vietnam conflict was an exercise in public relations damage control.
On Nov. 6, 1961, Asst. Secretary of Defense John T. McNaughton summarized U.S. aims for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in this sobering report:
“(a) 70 percent--To avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat (to our reputation as a counter-subversion guarantor).
(b) 20 percent--To keep SVN (and then adjacent territory) from Chinese hands.
(c) 10 percent--To permit the people of SVN to enjoy a better, freer way of life. Also--to emerge from crisis without unacceptable taint from methods used. NOT to 'help a friend’ although it would be hard to stay out if asked.” (The Pentagon Papers, pp. 255, 365.)
Without a defensible strategy, the conflict generated its own perverse self-defeating dynamic. The longer the conflict went on, the greater the insult to America’s ego; the greater the insult, the deeper the military commitment; the deeper the commitment, the greater the insult; and so on.
This brings me to President George W. Bush and his insane lust to commit the U.S. to another Vietnam-style fiasco. The prosecutors of that conflict were said to be “the best and the brightest”--brilliant technocrats and crisis managers who nevertheless persisted in a policy contrary to the national interest.
In contrast, the irresponsibly belligerent pronouncements by Bush and other administration officials regarding “the war on terrorism” are so devoid of reason and intelligence that one could rightly dub this government “the worst and the dimmest.”
In fact, the much-vaunted “war on terrorism” qualifies as a folly according to the three criteria set out by Barbara Tuchman in her great work The March of Folly from Troy to Vietnam:
• “[a policy] must be perceived to be counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight”;
• “a feasible alternative course of action must have been available”; and
• “it should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime.” (P. 5)
Bush is in serious danger of repeating the ego-maniacal folly of Vietnam. The evidence is all around, for those who care to look.
The rhetorical bogeyman
In Vietnam, the U.S. declared that the “enemy” was communism and its potential spread throughout Indochina and beyond--at least, that was the official version for public consumption. Of course, it conveniently hid the fact that the “war on communism” served the higher purpose of propping up America's reputation. However, so long as the American public bought into the Grand Crusade of “good versus evil” the government could justify the deaths of tens of thousands of servicemen in a wasteful public relations exercise.
Now, “terrorism” has become the rhetorical bogeyman to justify yet another ego-driven military misadventure. For it to be effective, the public must believe that terrorism presents a general danger, not just a one-time threat. Once this is achieved, the public will willingly accept infringements on civil liberties and personal freedoms. Already, Congress has given the CIA wider latitude to conduct covert operations, and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a major recipient of Pro-Israeli PAC money, wants a six-month moratorium imposed on student visas for those coming from “terrorist” [read: Muslim] countries.
In a act of gratuitous scaremongering, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld raised the spectre that America’s enemies might now help terrorist groups obtain chemical, biological and possibly even nuclear weapons.
The official mythology of the NYC/DC attacks deems them to be vicious, evil assaults on the American way of life. This claim, propagated by the Bush administration and its media sycophants, is so baseless and transparently manipulative, that no reasonable person could take it seriously. How many of us guffawed, or cringed, when Marshall “Tex” Bush uttered his ridiculous exhortation for Saudi dissident-in-exile Osama bin Laden to be captured “dead or alive”?
The conscious attempt to foment unease among the American public is designed to keep the country in a state of agitated ignorance to ensure support for the crusade. In other words, the Bush administration merely expects the public to hate, not understand.
Any dispassionate observer knows that the attack was not directed against the U.S., but rather against its foreign policy, but that point of view is officially anathematized and anyone who champions it is slandered and shouted down.
What qualifies as international criminal conduct is not up for debate. “War crimes” are associated with events in places peripheral to U.S. interests, such as Rwanda, Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Perversely, “war crime” is not generally associated with the Vietnam War, U.S./Israeli terrorism of the Palestinians, or the U.S.-led destruction of Iraq. That’s because applying a common standard of conduct upsets comfortable delusions of own superior morality: “The U.S. is the lynch-pin of the democratic world. It could never commit a war crime! Only the 'enemies of democracy' commit war crimes.”
Yet, in 1984, the World Court declared the U.S. government to be a war criminal for mining Nicaragua's harbours and causing the deaths of 30,000 civilians. The same could be said of U.S. responsibility for the deaths of 1,000,000 Iraqis, including more than 500,000 children; 120,000 Guatemalan peasants since 1954; and the 1975 slaughter of more than 250,000 East Timorese by Indonesia.
In the grand ledger of atrocities, the NYC/DC attack amounts to little more than a bloody nose, yet we are made to feel that an attack on America is automatically an attack on civilization itself--UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said as much. How valuable one American life must be if the deaths of a few thousand from this one terror attack merit so much concern, while the deaths of hundreds of thousands of non-Americans from chronic terror merit so little.
The great bogeyman of “terrorism against America” is a lie, but so long as it is propagated loudly and constantly, few will challenge jingoistic claptrap like “The U.S. is a beacon of freedom” and its attackers are “evil doers.”
The “war on terrorism” seems like an ideal strategy for Bush because bin Laden, the Taliban and radical Islam are already demonized in the minds of revenge-minded Americans. With one stroke, Bush not only addresses Americans’ need for bloodlust, but co-opts the credulous and unchallenging media, and targets Israel’s enemies. (The demographically doomed Zionist entity would love to watch the U.S. lead a prolonged, futile war against the Arab world. After all, the U.S. is Israel’s protector just as it was South Vietnam's.)
From all appearances, the Bush administration is only too willing to comply, and in so doing it will validate the famous paraphrase of Karl Marx: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
During the Vietnam War, and throughout the cold War generally, the official bogeyman threatening to destroy “the American way of life” was communism. The containment of communism was integral to U.S. foreign policy, even if those condemned as communists were more often than not nationalists who wanted a better deal for their own people--at the expense of U.S. corporate self-interest, of course.
Though these bogeymen were fictions, they played a real role in the pursuit of folly. In election year 1964, Johnson faced a dilemma: he had to ensure financial and political support for his Great Society social reforms, yet not appear to be “soft on communism” in Vietnam. Even though he knew the war was going badly, he could risk pulling out, so instead he went in deeper.
American involvement reached the point of no return on Aug. 4 when Congress passed a dirty bit of chicanery called the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving Johnson a fraudulent casus belli to expand the war to North Vietnam.
The official government line was that the destroyer USS Maddox was “deliberately attacked” in the Gulf of Tonkin on Aug. 2, 1964, thus creating an act of war that needed to be avenged. Of course, no such attacked happened. Ironically, the government's deceit was well known, even among journalists; nevertheless, the press dutifully parroted the party line:
The Los Angeles Times urged Americans to “face the fact that the Communists, by their attack on American vessels in international waters, have themselves escalated the hostilities.” The Gulf of Tonkin Deception.
With the conspicuous exceptions of the likes of Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak, Jude Wanniski, Joe Sobran, Robert Fisk in Britain, and Rick Salutin and Neil MacDonald in Canada, the media have shamelessly hopped aboard the “Texecutioner's Middle East Tour” like so many besotted rock groupies. Some “journalists,” like Ann Coulter, have even sunk to the level of passing off unadulterated anti-Arab bigotry as informed commentary.
In contrast to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the NYC/DC casus belli did happen, but Congress has behaved just as stupidly. On Sept. 15, it passed a joint resolution giving Bush unprecedented executive authority: “The president is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001.”
At no time has Bush articulated a risk/benefit analysis, or definable military objectives, or shown any respect for international law. Warmongers, including former administration officials William Bennett and Jeane Kirkpatrick, are openly calling for attacks on Hezbollah, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Algeria, and perhaps even parts of Egypt.
Even neutron bomb inventor Sam Cohen advocates the use of thermonuclear devices on Afghanistan to kill bin Laden and wipe out the Taliban. What was a war crime in Vietnam is now being actively promoted as official U.S. policy. Bush is clearly committing the same delusional arrogance that led Johnson to disgrace in Vietnam.
The Vietnam conflict spilled over into neighbouring Cambodia, a direct result of which was the rise of the sadistic Pol Pot and the Killing Fields. Christopher Hitchens makes a persuasive case in his book Regarding Henry (excerpted in Harper’s) that former Nixon Secretary of State Henry Kissinger should be tried as a war criminal for the way he sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace negotiations and later consciously expanded the war into Cambodia.
Hitchens said the war could have ended in 1968 instead of 1975, had Kissinger, then a functionary in the Johnson government, not leaked the government’s negotiating position to Nixon's election team.
Now Bush is prepared to risk another regional conflagration to defend America’s image. In Afghanistan, 1 million refugees are already heading to Pakistan. On Sept. 27, the United Nations launched an emergency appeal for $875 million worth of aid. For this upheaval Bush is 100 percent to blame. Instead of threatening Afghanistan with massive reprisals, he should have offered food, shelter and medical aid as incentives to turn over bin Laden, who is no more than a suspect. But then, who wants to be seen to be kind to the Taliban?
Pakistan, Afghanistan’s neighbour, is a nuclear power, and the effect of a prolonged conflict and having to tend to millions of refugees is unknown. If Pakistan undergoes upheaval, what would its arch-enemy India do? In the 1980s, the U.S.-supported Saddam Hussein began the long, bloody and inconclusive Iran/Iraq war by attacking Iran, which he thought to be exhausted and distracted by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution. Could a peripheral war between two nuclear-capable states break out?
Egypt, with 60 million people, has a restive militant Islamic community that would assuredly launch uprisings if the pro-Western government of Hosni Mubarak sided with the U.S. Does Bush really want to destabilize Egypt and give rise to yet another anti-Western Arab government?
The assault on Afghanistan is as arrogant, self-defeating and counter-productive as was the carpet-bombing of North Vietnam. Like Johnson, Bush is committing his folly in full knowledge of the possibly disastrous consequences.
However, Bush may have an ulterior motive for wanting to destroy the Afghan government. Until Dec. 4, 1998, Unocal of El Segundo, Calif., was involved in the multinational Central Asia Gas Consortium to build a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and possibly India. On that date it announced that it was officially pulling out, citing deteriorating political conditions and the conduct of the Taliban government, especially toward women. However, Unocal is not entirely out of the picture:
“[We] consistently emphasized that the project could not and would not proceed until there was an internationally recognized government in place in Afghanistan that fairly represented all its people. Our hope was that the project could help bring peace, stability and economic development to the Afghans, as well as develop important energy resources for the region.”
Bush might well want to destabilize Afghanistan chiefly to put in place a government more amenable to Unocal. Maybe yes, maybe no, but all the world hears is the endless mantra of “return bin Laden,” as if it were consciously designed to distract the world from Bush’s real motive.
Columnist Robert Fisk eloquently captured the absurdity of Bush's “war on terrorism”: “We are witnessing...one of the most epic events since the Second World War, certainly since Vietnam. I am not talking about the ruins of the World Trade Centre in New York and the grotesque physical scenes which we watched on 11 September... No, I am referring to the extraordinary, almost unbelievable preparations now under way for the most powerful nation ever to have existed on God’s Earth to bomb the most devastated, ravaged, starvation-haunted and tragic country in the world. Afghanistan, raped and eviscerated by the Russian army for 10 years, abandoned by its friends--us, of course--once the Russians had fled, is about to be attacked by the surviving superpower.” (“How can the U.S. bomb this tragic people?” The Independent, Sept. 23, 1001).
The slide into genocide
However satisfying it may be, “terrorism” cannot be the enemy, at least not in a military sense. To wage war against an “ism,” any “ism,” means waging war against a whole population. Millions of people throughout history have been slaughtered because they believed in the wrong “ism” at the wrong time. That’s why war against believers of an “ism”--Judaism, Christism, Mohammedism, etc. --is known as persecution. Such a war is unwinnable unless you’re prepared to commit wholesale murder, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Look at the “war on drugism"--a never-ending waste of time, money and lives in pursuit of the impossible.
In Vietnam, the U.S. was prepared to commit wholesale murder. The most infamous massacre took place on March 16, 1968, at My Lai. Approximately 80 men of First Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Light Infantry Brigade entered the village on a “search and destroy” mission to kill Vietcong. By the time the Americans were finished, 300 apparently unarmed Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, had been massacred. No Vietcong were found.
(Incidentally, as Hitchens reports, Gen. Colin Powell, when he was a staff army major in Vietnam, helped suppress the inquiry into the My Lai massacre and other America-committed civilian atrocities. Powell is now Bush's Secretary of State, and one of the saner influences.)
The My Lai massacre, and others like it, is partly why Americans are justifiably ashamed of the Vietnam era, and why soldiers who served honourably were shunned when they came home.
Yet, despite the profusion of books, articles, movies and documentaries on the Vietnam era, Americans and their leaders still cannot, or will not, face up to what their country did. The temptation to compartmentalize and rationalize one’s own immoral conduct is psychologically irresistible. Unfortunately, the greater the misdeed, the greater the need to dissemble, and hence the greater the propensity to commit the same immorality.
So it is that Bush could utter this inanity with a straight face:
“This will be a different kind of conflict against a different kind of enemy. This is a conflict without battlefields or beachheads. A conflict with opponents who believe they are invisible. Yet, they are mistaken. They will be exposed and they will discover what others in the past have learned: those who make war against the United States have chosen their own destruction.” (We’ll Win War Against Terrorism, Sept. 17, 2001, AP.)
The Road to Ruin
On Nov. 1, 1961, Gen. Maxwell Taylor sent two cablegrams to President John Kennedy outlining the dangers of military overeagerness in a war that was already lost. The first cablegram reads in part:
“a. ...we can ill afford any detachment of forces to a peripheral area of the Communist bloc where they will be pinned down for an uncertain duration.
b. Although U.S. prestige is already engaged in SVN, it will become more so by the sending of troops.
c. If the first contingent is not enough to accomplish the necessary results, it will be difficult to resist the pressure to reinforce. If the ultimate aim of the insurgents within SVN there is no limit to our possible commitment (unless we attack the source in Hanoi);
d. The introduction of U.S. forces may increase tensions and risk escalation into a major war in Asia.
On the other side of the argument, there can be no action so convincing of U.S. seriousness of purpose and hence so reassuring to the people and Government of SVN and to our other friends and allies in SEA as the introduction of U.S. ground troops into SVN.” (The Pentagon Papers, p. 141)
The second cablegram reads in part:
“2. It is concluded that:
a. Communist strategy aims to gain control of Southeast Asia by methods of subversion and guerrilla war which by-pass conventional U.S. and indigenous strength on the ground. The interim Communist goal-- en route to total takeover--appears to be a neutral Southeast [sic] Asia, detached from U.S. protection. This strategy is well on its way to success in Vietnam.” (The Pentagon Papers, p. 144)
With a few substitutions--“Afghanistan” for “South Vietnam,” “terrorism” for “subversion and guerrilla war” etc.--the memo could be rewritten for Bush. It should be rewritten for Bush, because the scenarios are almost identical, especially the bit about the benefits to America’s image as a protector.
What the architects of Vietnam sought to avoid, anti-Arab zealots inside and outside the Bush government actively advocate. So far, Bush has resisted these voices of unreason because he knows he needs the support of Arab nations, but for how long can he resist? Bush's dangerously irresponsible pronouncements could force him to overplay his hand, because once the U.S.'s reputation is at stake, all reason goes out the window.
Bush is pursuing a policy contrary to self-interest for reasons of ego. It will almost assuredly engender more attacks on the U.S. and feed Arab hatred for America for years, even decades, to come. What’s worse, the whole world knows what Bush could do to end the threat, but he hasn't the guts. for obvious domestic reasons he doesn’t want to appear “soft on Israel.”
America couldn’t murder its way to victory over the Vietcong in Vietnam. Bush will find that the U.S. cannot murder its way to victory over terrorists in the Middle East. The only question is how many will have to die for the sake of Bush’s folly.