Friday, November 6, 2009



Before the "conflict" in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s, America had a hearty appetite for war. In the decades before Vietnam, Americans had waged several very successful wars against traditional opponents in Europe and Asia. They used their overwhelming industrial might to grind their enemies into submission. And because they always waged war far from home, these wars never directly impacted the civilian population. American cities never burned, nor did rampaging armies rape American women. In short, America had an appetite for war because it won them with comparatively little sacrifice.

But Vietnam tempered America's appetite for war because it was "unwinnable." Unlike the world wars, Vietnam was a civil war between ideological enemies in the same country. The "enemy" did not fight along traditional lines; they fought a dispersed war. They made it difficult for America to leverage its massive industrial might against them. Despite America's massive technological and material advantages, the North Vietnamese continued to resist. They never fought pitched battles with the Americans. They used hit-and-run tactics, preserved their forces and vanished into the jungle. No matter how many B-52 bombers or helicopters the Americans threw at them, they always managed to reappear. For a country accustomed to obliterating its enemies in open combat, this was a rude awakening.

America called Vietnam a "quagmire" because it could not crush its enemies in a single campaign. America does not like "quagmires" for the same reason it does not like unprofitable businesses: If you can't deliver success quick, people lose interest and close you down. America likes quick wins, not protracted struggles. Vietnam was a protracted struggle. When it appeared that no measure of carpet bombing or napalm would bring the North Vietnamese to heel, the American people simply lost interest and gave up.

This was a sobering moment in American history. Ragtag communist rebels turned away the world's most advanced army. The North Vietnamese never defeated the Americans in the field, but they successfully protracted the war long enough to deprive America's will for further combat. In this sense, they did not inflict a "military defeat" on the United States. But they prevented the United States from "achieving victory." That was a first in American history. And it disheartened many Americans.

Disbelief and frustration over the "unsatisfactory result" in Vietnam colored American public opinion about war for decades. During the buildup to the First Gulf War in 1990, President George H.W. Bush reassured the public that the coming conflict in Kuwait would result in "decisive victory." He invoked the "quagmire" in Southeast Asia when he said: "This will not be another Vietnam." He knew that Americans would not tolerate a protracted struggle. So he set his goal modestly: Destroy the Iraqi army, liberate Kuwait and go home. It was an achievable goal. He accomplished it. Unlike Vietnam, the First Gulf War was not a "quagmire" because it had a limited scope. Americans were happy with the outcome.

But the Second Gulf War did not have a limited scope. Unlike his father, President George W. Bush did not set achievable goals when he planned to invade Iraq in 2003. He said he wanted to "find weapons of mass destruction" and "remove Saddam Hussein from power." Yet any novice policy adviser knew that occupying a Middle Eastern country would entail a much broader involvement than merely liberating one Nation from another. Sure enough, this is exactly what happened. After ousting Saddam, American forces assumed a "police role" in Iraq. By removing Saddam, they unleashed a power vacuum that triggered a civil war. American troops found themselves in the crossfire between two warring factions. Casualties mounted. There was no end in sight.

We are still there: Another quagmire.

Both the Second Gulf War and Vietnam represent low points in American history. They both represent moments in which America questions its ability to wage successful wars. They both caused immense dissent at home. But I venture that the "Iraqi adventure" is a lower point in American history than the Vietnam war. I say this because there is a key distinction in motivation between them. I judge history by the intentions of those who animate it. And by that standard, Iraq appears a more unethical struggle than Vietnam.

Although both Vietnam and Iraq resulted in military "quagmires," America had a much purer purpose in Vietnam than it did in Iraq. For better or worse, America involved itself in Vietnam for an almost naive ideological reason: To halt the spread of its philosophical nemesis: Communism. America did not have any particular loyalty to the South Vietnamese government, nor did it have vested commercial interests in Southeast Asia. Instead, it embroiled itself in a bloody civil war 10,000 miles away solely to show that it did not like communism. No matter what you think about communism, you cannot fault the United States for believing in its "principles" in Vietnam. It had a clear philosophical "purpose" in fighting that war. It may have been the wrong purpose, but at least America believed in something to justify its sacrifice.

In short, America's motivations were apparent in Vietnam. And they were based in philosophical disagreement. Vietnam, then, represented America's belief in its own economic system over another. It was a "battle of principles."

But America's motivations for war in Iraq were far less naive. Despite Bush's rhetoric about "delivering democracy to Iraq" and "freeing Iraqis from tyranny," no one really believed those explanations. No, any reasonable person could see that America had massive commercial interests in an oil-producing country like Iraq. Even the Vice President owned shares in a company that stood to greatly benefit from any military involvement in the Middle East.

Worse, America took a dishonest course in shuffling toward war in 2003. President Bush used public hysteria about Islamic terrorism to forge a fanciful link between Osama bin Laden and Iraq. He even exaggerated stories about Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" to deceive Americans into thinking that invading Iraq was necessary for "self-defense." He presented false testimony to the United Nations and the American public to garner support for military action. All the while, he failed to mention the crude commercial reasons why war in Iraq would benefit industrial interests.

America's "quagmire" in Iraq is not just a military fiasco. It is also the culmination of unethical behavior and dishonesty on an international scale. That is why I think it warrants greater condemnation than American involvement in Vietnam. As bad as Vietnam was, at least the President did not deceive both the international community and his own people to launch an unjust war. In Vietnam, America fought honestly to combat a philosophy it rejected. Everyone was relatively clear about that. But in Iraq, America fought--and still fights--an unnecessary war born in ignorance and deception. Worst, even a mild cynic can see that America has a direct interest in seizing territory in the oil-rich Middle East. And the commercial explanation renders all other explanations disingenuous. There was no such commercial explanation for war in Vietnam.

In sum, both Vietnam and Iraq stand out as bleak moments in American history. Both drove America into social turmoil because they did not result in "quick wins." But because America resorted to dishonesty to garner support for war in Iraq, I conclude that our experience in Iraq is a more embarrassing national humiliation than Vietnam. Unlike our naive--and foolishly misguided--motivations for war in Vietnam, our motivations for war in Iraq were simply crass, greedy and dishonorable. And we even had to lie and cheat to gain popular approval for action.

That is just unethical and shocking.

1 comment:

SteveW said...

I'm with you until the last couple of paragraphs. America has no commercial interest in Iraq. The Cheney reference is just pathetic - he didn't own or benefit from Halliburton success. It's not even a serious point for debate when someone suggests that Cheney pushed for war on the basis of some old buddies of his getting the military logistics contracts that didn't benefit him.

The Iraq war may well have been fought for a bad purpose or no purpose, but we didn't do any business with them before, we do little business with them now, we didn't take their oil or seize their land, and the decision makers didn't benefit financially from the decision.

The British and Russian intelligence agencies thought Iraq had WMDs, our intelligence agency thought Iraq had WMDs. Kerry and Bill Clinton were on record right before the war that Iraq had WMDs. The notion that lowly Bush managed to trick the world into thinking those things is at least as silly as the notion that the USA should be enforcing the resolutions for the poor UN Security Council that cannot be bothered to enforce their own resolutions.

This really matters, because if we think Iraq is just one guy who managed to trick the world into war to line the pockets of a few oil buddies, then we become complacent in the knowledge that it's unlikely to happen again. Instead, if it's an example of overreliance on intelligence assessments, the shirking of Congressional war powers duties to the office of one man (the President), and a deaf ear to political opposition before making monumental decisions - well those things are a bit more complicated to fix and they are more likely to happen again.