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Culture Jamming the "Vietnam" Meme

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Posted by John Heslin on 19:50:55 7/03/2003

One frequently acknowledged lesson from Vietnam is the need to resist the call for American surrender by US pundits and politicians before the successful completion of foreign policy objectives pursued by military force. It is a lesson we would do well to remember now. The anti-American agenda is reinvigorated by the difficulties and losses being experienced by US forces in the normally challenging task of nation building in Iraq, and key political leaders are expressing doubts as to the efficacy and justice of US power.

Leftist opposition to the war in Afghanistan faded in November and December of last year, not only because of the success of the war but also because of the enthusiasm with which so many Afghanis greeted that success. The pictures of women showing their smiling faces to the world, of men shaving their beards, of girls in school, of boys playing soccer in shorts: all this was no doubt a slap in the face to leftist theories of American imperialism, but also politically disarming. There was (and is) still a lot to worry about: refugees, hunger, minimal law and order. But it was suddenly clear, even to many opponents of the war, that the Taliban regime had been the biggest obstacle to any serious effort to address the looming humanitarian crisis, and it was the American war that removed the obstacle. It looked almost like a war of liberation, a humanitarian intervention. Fast forward to April 2003, and again a crushing US campaign against Saddam Hussein in Iraq--an effort also maligned by American leftists--was seen to be in fact a war of liberation. The ostensible goal, the location and eradication of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, has not yet been decisively achieved, but America is diligently attempting to rebuild Iraq as a sovereign Arab state in the image of US values.

However, since May, when major combat operations in Iraq were declared over and nation-building began, 31 U.S. and British military personnel have been killed and 178 wounded in attacks, according to Col. Guy Shields, a U.S. military spokesman. More than 150,000 U.S. troops are now deployed throughout a country roughly the size of California, with one-third of them stationed in Baghdad. Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, said conversations with military officials here indicated U.S. troops could be in Iraq "for the long run." "There is a probability that the American people are going to need to adjust, as Congress will also, to the fact that things could get worse before they get better," he told reporters in Baghdad.

Citing chaos, Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean told NBC's Tim Russert, "We need more troops in Afghanistan. We need more troops in Iraq now." This issue is a hot topic as coalition soldiers are ambushed almost daily. Besides Dean, other Democrats have made similar arguments. leaning think tanks, the media, and even a few Republicans are now all harping on a perceived lack of troops in Iraq even as the Bush administration plans for heavy reductions by the end of the year.

In May, 1975, Henry Kissinger wrote on Vietnam: "If one could offer any guidelines for the future about the lessons to be drawn regarding domestic support for foreign policy, it would be that American political groups will not long remain comfortable in positions that go against their traditional attitudes. The liberal Democrats could not long support a war against a revolutionary movement, no matter how reactionary the domestic tactics of that movement. They had accepted the heavy commitment to Vietnam because of President Kennedy, whom the regarded as their leader, but they withdrew from it under President Johnson."

The inevitable outbreaks of violence and dissension in Iraq are obviously worth covering and important news. But there's an under-current of complete gloom in news reports that seems to be more fueled by ideological fervor than sober analysis. Given the magnitude and complexity of the task of rebuilding post-Saddam Iraq, it seems that we're making slow but decent progress. The lack of a complete social implosion or exploding civil war is itself a huge achievement. And no one said the post-war reconstruction was going to be easy. So what's behind this drumbeat of apocalypse? Some think it's a rule among journalists that every story they ever edit or write or film about warfare will at some point be squeezed into a Vietnam prism. The modern military has denied these people the chance to be vindicated during actual combat; so they will try and present the occupation in exactly the same light. Yes, there is probably considerable discontent in Iraq right now; yes, every death is awful; but no, this isn't even close to being combat; let alone Vietnam.

Kissinger commented on the American will: "A frequent temptation of many commentators has been to draw conclusions regarding the tenacity of the American people and the ultimate failure of our will. But I question whether we can accept that conclusion. It was the longest war in American history, the most distant, the least obviously relevant to our nation's immediate concerns, and yet the American people supported our involvement and its general objectives to the very end. The people made enormous sacrifices. I am convinced that, even at the end, they would have been prepared to support a policy that would have saved South Vietnam if such an option had been available to use." Polls continue to show public support for American efforts in Iraq. But active support depends on the public's confidence in the administration's consistency and determination in the effort, as well as to some degree confidence that they share the general American sentiment. As long as their perspective is "heard" and "seen," as long as anti-Americanism is challenged, their confidence is reinforced.

"Vietnam" is not, unfortunately, the only parallel liberal pundits draw with Iraq. Appallingly, commentators are comparing Ba'athist resistance to the US nation-builders in Iraq to the US founders struggle against Britain and the circumstances that begot the Declaration of Independence.

A little history here. Following the 1991 ceasefire that brought the Gulf War to an end, demonstrations began immediately in the southern cities of Basra, Najaf and Karbala (all currently in the news), which quickly flared into open rebellion against Saddam Hussein. The methods employed by the Iraqi government to put down the rebellion were ruthless. Helicopter gunships were used to dreadful effect against civilians. The slaughter of Shi'a Muslims during the uprising was the culmination of a bloody drive waged by the Ba'athist Party over the preceding 20 years. During this gory 1991 suppression of Kurdish and Shi'a insurgencies in Northern and Southern Iraq, somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000 people were killed. Out of an estimated total of 10,000, the Muslim clergy of Najaf were reduced to a few hundred by 1991 through execution, imprisonment and exile.

Under Saddam Hussein, freedom of speech, of religious practice, of political association, of privacy, and of due process under law have been nonexistent. With respect to freedom of the press, the Iraqi government, the Ba'ath Party, or persons close to Saddam himself own Baghdad's newspapers and broadcast media. As we have seen in the past two weeks, these outlets operate as regime propaganda megaphones. Two details illustrate the degree of control of the press in Iraq: criticism of Saddam is punishable by death; and Saddam's son, Uday Hussein, as head of the Iraqi Union of Journalists, dismissed hundreds of members in 1999 for not praising his father sufficiently or frequently enough.

Despite these obscenities against humanity by Saddam and the Ba'ath party, during the International A.N.S.W.E.R. Strategy Conference in New York City, May 17-18, 2003, members referred to themselves as "the people who will build a permanent, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, movement here in the heart of the empirebuilding a true solidarity movement with the people who are struggling for self-determination and civil liberties." A keynote speaker, Richard Becker, co-director of the San Francisco office for the International Action Center, compared US actions in Iraq to terrorism. Commenting on the lessons of US action in Iraq, he quotes John Bolton, the Under Secretary of State for Disarmament, referred to as a "fascist maniac," as saying "North Korea, Syria and Iran should learn the lessons of Iraq." Becker calls this an explicit terrorist threat by the US, saying, "If you don't do what we want you to do, then we'll do to you what we did to Iraq. We'll destroy your country, we'll bomb your people, we'll impose sanctions, blockades, starvation." Becker may be dismissed as over-the-top, but his sentiments are echoed in mainstream media outlets and on the Democratic party's campaign trail. Ironically, the frantic speeches and appeals (made in the name of peace, of course) by anti-American socialists such as A.N.S.W.E.R. as well as the current raft of Democratic presidential hopefuls completely ignore the pleas and opinions of the Iraqis themselves.

The liberation of Iraq provides a window of opportunity for rebuttal of the liberal call to surrender US authority. The images of liberated Iraqis, of torture chambers, and stories of cruelty can be superimposed with the words of anti-Americans; show that there is no relationship between those who claim to be humanitarian and the people and causes they support. Americans must not shrink from this confrontation or be lulled into a false sense of ideological victory because they believe recent history vindicates current US foreign policy.

The ideological mistake Americans made at the end of the Cold War is identical to the military mistake we made at the end of the first Gulf War. In the latter altercation we failed to push to Baghdad because we felt certain that the weakened Saddam would fall on his own accord. We were wrong, instead he became stronger and threatened us until we re-invaded Iraq. Similarly, at the end of the Cold War we failed to push the ideological battle to show the true evil of socialism. The tired West decided that it was better to let bygones be bygones and that socialism would disappear because its biggest backer had imploded. In this we were also wrong--the middle class frustration that gave rise to socialist leaning has found expression in anti-Americanism.

Americans should use the occasion of Saddam's ouster to press the ideological battle. The first questions as to the morality of the opposition came in the aftermath of September 11th. But we are still fighting a defensive battle on the opposition's terms. Americans are too passive to socialist perspectives. Provide dissent. From now on, don't miss the opportunity to speak. Write letters to your newspaper with counterpoints to anti-American editorials. Argue with socialists. Demonstrate and counter-demonstrate. Assert your confidence in American power. Let's use the occasion of the liberation of Iraq to press the ideological confrontation and to de-Marxify this nation once and for all.

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