by guest blogger Tom Engelhardt
On August 22nd, breaking into his Crawford vacation, the President addressed the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, giving what is already known as his “Vietnam speech.” That day, George W. Bush, who, as early as 2003, had sworn that his war on Iraq would “decidedly not be Vietnam,” took the full-frontal plunge into the still-flowing current of the Big Muddy, fervently embracing Vietnam analogy-land. You could almost feel his relief (and that of his neocon speechwriters).
In that mud-wrestle of a speech, he invoked “one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam…. that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields.’” The man who had so carefully sat out the Vietnam War now proclaimed that Americans never should have left that land. As he’s done with so much else, he also linked the Vietnam War by an act of verbal ju-jitsu to al-Qaeda and the attacks of September 11th. 9/11, too, turned out to be part of the “price” we’d paid for succumbing to “the allure of retreat” and withdrawing way back when. (“In an interview with a Pakistani newspaper after the 9/11 attacks,” intoned the President, “Osama bin Laden declared that ‘the American people had risen against their government’s war in Vietnam. And they must do the same today.’”)
Whatever brief respite his August embrace of Vietnam may have given him in the polls, it involved a larger concession on the administration’s part. Like its predecessors, the Bush administration and its neocon supporters simply couldn’t kick the “Vietnam Syndrome” — much as they struggled to do so — any more than a moth could avoid the flame. Now, they found themselves locked in a desperate, hopeless attempt to use Vietnam to recapture the hearts and minds of the American people.
Entering the Dead Zone
It’s possible to track this losing struggle with the Vietnam analogy over these last years. Take one issue — the body count — on which we know something about administration Vietnam thinking. For Americans of the Vietnam era, a centuries-old “victory culture” — in which triumph on some distant frontier against evil enemies was considered an American birthright — still held sway. In Vietnam, when it nonetheless became clear that the promised frontier victory was, for the second time in little more than a decade, nowhere in sight, American military and civilian officials tried to compensate.
One problem they faced was that the very definition of victory in war — the taking of terrain, the advance into hostile territory that signaled the crushing of enemy resistance — had ceased to mean anything in Vietnam. In a guerrilla war in which, as American grunts regularly complained, you couldn’t tell friends from enemies, no less hold a hostile countryside, something else had to substitute for the landing at D-Day, the advance on Berlin, the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. And so the “whiz kids” of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Pentagon and the military high command developed a substitute numerology of victory.
Everything was to be counted and the copious statistics of success were to flow endlessly up the chain of command and back to Washington, proof positive that “progress” was being made. The numbers looked convincing indeed. In fact, to believe loss possible in Vietnam, when by any measure of success — from dead enemy and captured weapons to cleared roads and pacified villages — Americans had such a decisive advantage, seemed nothing short of madness. Yet, to accept the figures pouring in daily from soldiers, advisors, and bureaucrats was to defy the logic of one’s senses. To make the endlessly unraveling situation in Vietnam madder still, the impending defeat did not seem to be a military one. Those who directed the war (as well as the right-wing in the post-war years) regularly claimed, for instance, that not a single significant battle had been lost to the Vietnamese enemy.
Sometimes it seemed that Americans in Vietnam did nothing but invent new ways of measuring success…
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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.
[Note: Two recent essays which explore allied topics to those considered in this post are well worth checking out: "Destruction: American Foreign Policy at Point Zero" by Gabriel Kolko in which the historian wonders "why the U.S. makes the identical mistakes over and over again and never learns from its errors"; and "The Waning Power of the War Myth" by Salon.com's fine essayist Gary Kamiya on Bush's absolute "addiction" to American triumphalism. "[Bush] will go down,” concludes Kamiya, “certain that he was right, living the Myth to the end. And because of his addiction to unreality, many more real people will die.”]
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt
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