Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The "I-Word"


This course is about an American war, conceived with the best of intentions, escalated on false pretenses, fought against a headstrong people, and lost because we failed to transmit our values to another society.

If that sounds familiar, it’s for good reason—it very accurately describes the circumstances of the Iraq War. Just a generation later, we’ve become mired in a conflict that has followed the same trajectory as the Vietnam War. I can’t overstate how many times I’ve sat in class and had a “sound familiar?” moment…

Kennedy considered withdrawing aid to President Ngo Nguyen Diem but feared being labeled “soft on Communism” before the 1964 election.

Democratic senators consider opposing the war in 2003 but prefer to avoid being labeled “soft on Terror” before the 2004 election.

An American destroyer was “attacked” in the Gulf of Tonkin. Investigations later revealed that the incident was little more than a hoax.

Administration officials present damning evidence that Saddam Hussein is secretly developing WMDs. Post-invasion searches failed to turn up any such weapons.

A major American offensive swept the Plain of Reeds to clear out Viet Cong forces. The Communists were forced to flee the area. They returned the next year.

Coalition forces mount a massive strike on the insurgent stronghold of Falluja, suffering dozens of casualties. The city is subdued but the insurgents move to Anbar province and intensify hostility there.

President Johnson raised troop levels on General Westmoreland’s suggestion that increased military presence would put the Communists on the defensive.

President Bush raises troop levels because General Petraeus believes that a surge will allow us to flush out the insurgency.

American diplomats implored President Thieu to liberalize his government and implement wide ranging reforms that were supported by his people.

Secretary Rice presses President Maliki to reach a political settlement with Sunni leaders and form a coalition government with broad support.

In the wake of the My Lai massacre, the American people became disillusioned with their country’s moral character.

In the wake of the Abu Gharib scandal, the world lost faith in American moral standards.

President Nixon announced to the American people that the war is being “Vietnamized”.

Under increasing criticism over his handling of the Iraq War, President Bush declared that “as the Iraqis stand up, we’ll down.”

In an effort to siphon off the Viet Cong supply networks in Laos and Cambodia, Nixon and Kissinger plan secret campaigns in those countries.

Observing that many insurgents arrive via Syria and that a significant amount of arms are channeled through Iran, Bush administration hawks consider bombing both countries.

The parallels are endless. Yet it’s surprising how little the topic of Iraq comes up in class. We come upon a haunting similarity, skip a beat and then move on. There is little direct mention of the topic. Partly, it’s because Desaix, as an acknowledged liberal, is careful not to force conclusions upon his students. And there are some thoughtful students in the class who are uncomfortable with gratuitous criticism of the Iraq war.

I’m in the middle of the spectrum. I protested the war before it even began because I thought it was a disastrous idea. I’m like the small group of Americans who saw through the Tonkin Incident and feared sending American troops to Vietnam. Now that we’re in Iraq, however, I’m even more afraid of what would happen if we pulled out. In that sense I’m like someone who insisted that we hang on in Vietnam because the collapse of South Vietnam would all of Asia to fall to the communists.

The other students may feel that exploring parallels between Vietnam and Iraq is tacky. By comparing our noble efforts in Iraq to the worst fiasco in American history, we sound defeatist and unpatriotic. The Iraq War may be worth ending so that we can bring the troops home, but there is something callous about evoking the hopelessness and trauma of Vietnam.

Still other students, myself included, can’t help feeling that bringing up Vietnam is a cheap shot against Iraq. Certainly, there are ample parallels, but there are even more differences. The actors, motivations, circumstances, ideologies and geopolitics are significantly different, enough so to make blanket comparisons between the two wars sound na├»ve and ignorant. And then there are the moments, which comes every so often as we study Vietnam, where we conclude victory would have been possible, had the Americans and South Vietnamese changed their course. Maybe Iraq is just waiting to turn some corner and things will turn out ok after all. There’s a strong desire to pretend that this conflict is different, that it’s not quite like the Vietnam story. But there are no history books to tell us how Iraq ends.

And so Iraq is rarely brought up, but it lingers over the course as the “I-Word”, mocking us as we go along.