When the Vietnam War ended in April 1975, its lessons were clear to many Americans. The war had revealed the limits of power and the folly of Empire. Combined with the rot of Watergate and the Church Committee’s exposure of a murderous and corrupt CIA, the war undermined the notion of benevolent American power. It inspired many people that popular resistance – among citizens and soldiers combined – had ended the war.
But those lessons were dangerous, which is why the right, as it attempts to revive the American Empire, has tried to bury the history of Vietnam under myths – from “We fought with one hand tied behind our back” to the urban legends of antiwar protesters spitting on returning vets. As one scholar puts it, “remembered as a war that was lost because of betrayal at home, Vietnam becomes a modern-day Alamo that must be avenged, a pretext for more war and generations of more veterans.”
This right-wing mythologizing provides the rationale for staying fast in the Iraqi quagmire. If Vietnam can be rebranded as a “noble crusade” – Ronald Reagan’s words – lost because of “betrayal,” then we have a chance to get it right this time in Iraq and exorcise our national demons as well. Hence, Donald Rumsfeld’s recent proclamation while visiting Iraq: “We don’t have an exit strategy, we have a victory strategy.”
So we shouldn’t cut and run from Iraq like we did in Vietnam, argues the right, but stay until we “win.” In Vietnam, there was never any chance of winning against the Vietnamese Communist Party. It was a highly popular, nationalist movement with a unified and pragmatic leadership, and aided by the Soviets and Chinese governments. South Vietnam, however, was a malformed state, nourished by U.S. bombs and dollars, that disintegrated in a few months. But that hasn’t kept right-wing ideologues from arguing it was a stable state which we abandoned.
In Iraq, winning isn’t about promoting democracy; that’s shiny packaging for the corporate media to swoon over. Instead, winning means establishing a pliant regime and a network of U.S. military bases to project power throughout the Middle East. Vietnam was never of strategic importance, but the Middle East is the world’s “central reserve” of crude oil. So bringing Iraq to heel now (and Iran later), will give the U.S. a chokehold on the oil needed by almost all of its future rivals – Europe, Japan, China and India.
As in Vietnam, the mounting American deaths in Iraq have shaken confidence in the imperial escapade. To shore up support, and not betray our gallant soldiers like antiwar protesters did during Vietnam, we must “support our troops.” It’s a meaningless slogan, but speaks to a sense of national guilt over Vietnam.
This guilt takes form in the myth of the “spat-upon vet.” It fits into the narrative that betrayal on the home front – by liberals, by antiwar activists, by Hollywood – was the real cause of defeat. This canard was demolished by Jerry Lembcke, author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam. Lembcke notes that there were no press accounts during the war itself of veterans who were spat upon by antiwar protesters. (The one documented spitting incident involved Republicans assaulting wheelchairbound antiwar vet Ron Kovic as he was protesting at the 1972 Republican National Convention.)
These claims obscure the history of widespread antiwar activity by Vietnam vets, which was integral to the antiwar movement. The war was ultimately ended by massive dissent at home and within the military – sitdown strikes, ship-wide sabotage, pilots diverting missions, soldiers “fragging” superior officers. Much of the abuse toward Vietnam vets came instead from other veterans. (Once, a World War II vet told me that Vietnam vets were “crybabies” because they only had one-year tours, instead of serving for the duration of the war like himself.)
The “betrayal” myth is particularly potent. John Kerry campaigned on his “service” in the war and ran away from his role as a leading antiwar Vietnam vet. In 1971 he spoke eloquently of the war crimes perpetrated in Vietnam, but Kerry remained silent last year about the massive civilian casualties in Iraq and the rampant torture by U.S. troops. Naomi Klein offers that Kerry “clearly made a decision that speaking about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo would seem to be critical of the troops.”
Perhaps the fear of being seen as critical of the troops explains why much of the antiwar movement has not focused on the brutality of the occupation. There is compelling evidence that over 100,000 Iraqis have been killed in the war. Yet on the web sites of three major antiwar organizing groups – United for Peace and Justice, Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER’s Bay Area site) and Not in Our Name – there are only a few articles about the war’s effects on Iraqis themselves. None have a section on their front page that compiles readily available material documenting the massive slaughter of Iraqis.
To be fair, the antiwar movement must deal with the fact that American bliss is rarely interrupted by the suffering we inflict on others. The images from Vietnam of napalmed children and street executions did bring home the reality of America’s war, which claimed the lives of 3.5 million Vietnamese. But by 1992, a study conducted by the University of Massachusetts revealed that, on average, Americans thought only 100,000 Vietnamese had died.
This may explain why the myth endures that we fought in Vietnam “with one arm tied behind our back” even though we bombed, mined and poisoned the entire country and then topped it off by bombing into oblivion another 600,000 people in neighboring Cambodia.
For the Pentagon, the main lesson of Vietnam was to exert an iron grip on the media. It has gone to great lengths to prevent images of U.S. casualties from being published, while the corporate media have done their bit by ignoring Iraqi casualties, apart from those killed by insurgents. The media also dismissed the well-documented study published last fall in Lancet putting Iraqi civilian deaths since March 2003 at more than 100,000, with most due to U.S. aerial attacks.
Making Americans care about genocide committed in their name is no easy task. But it may be the only way to prevent a future Vietnam or Iraq.