The war in Iraq is different in so many ways from the war waged by the United States in Vietnam that we wonder why, like the telltale heart beating behind the murderer’s wall in Edgar Allan Poe’s story, the drumbeat of Vietnam can still be heard.
The Vietnam war lasted eight years, the Iraq war three weeks. In Vietnam there were 58,000 U.S. combat casualties, in Iraq a few hundred. Our enemy in Vietnam was a popular national figure — Ho Chin Minh. Our enemy in Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was hated by most of his people. One war was fought in jungles and mountains with a largely draftee army, the other in a sandy desert with volunteer soldiers. The United States was defeated in Vietnam. It was victorious in Iraq.
The elder President Bush in 1991, after the first war against Iraq, announced proudly: “The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula.”
But is the “Vietnam syndrome” really gone from the national consciousness? Is there not a fundamental similarity — that in both instances we see the most powerful country in the world sending its armies, ships and planes halfway around the world to invade and bomb a small country for reasons which become harder and harder to justify?
The justifications were created, in both situations, by lying to the American public. Congress gave Lyndon Johnson the power to make war in Vietnam after his administration announced that U.S. ships, on “routine patrol” had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. Every element of this claim was later shown to be false.
Similarly, the reason initially given for going to war in Iraq — that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction,” turns out to be a fabrication. None have been found, either by a small army of U.N. inspectors, or a large American army searching the entire country.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had told the nation: “We know for a fact that there are weapons there.” Astonishingly, after the war Bush said on Polish TV, “We’ve found the weapons of mass destruction.”
The “documents” Bush cited in his State of the Union address to “prove” that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction turned out to be forged. The so-called “drones of death” turned out to be model airplanes. What Colin Powell called “decontamination trucks” were found to be fire trucks. What U.S. leaders called “mobile germ labs” were found by an official British inspection team to be used for inflating artillery balloons.
Furthermore, the Bush administration deceived the American public into believing, as a majority still do, that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and the Al Qaeda terrorists who planned the attack on 9/11. Not an iota of evidence has been produced to support that.
Both a Communist Vietnam and an Iraq ruled by Saddam Hussein were presented as imminent threats to American national security. There was no solid basis for this fear in either case; indeed Iraq was a country devastated by two wars and 10 years of sanctions, but the claim was useful for an administration bringing its people into a deadly war.
What was not talked about publicly at the time of the Vietnam War was something said secretly in intra-governmental memoranda — that the interest of the United States in Southeast Asia was not the establishment of democracy, but the protection of access to the oil, tin and rubber of that region. In the Iraqi case, the obvious crucial role of oil in U.S. policy has been whisked out of sight, lest it reveal less than noble motives in the drive to war.
In the Vietnam case, the truth gradually came through to the American public, and the government was forced to bring the war to a halt. Today, the question remains whether the American people will at some point see behind the deceptions, and join in a great citizens movement to stop what seems to be a relentless drive to war and empire, at the expense of human rights here and abroad.
On the answer to this question hangs the future of the nation.
*Howard Zinn is an historian and author of A People’s History of the United States.