It's Not Vietnam, but It Sure Feels Like It

Mr. Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture and co-editor of History Wars, The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past.

Let's start with a touch of irony. For thirty years, the men (and lone woman) now running our country have also been running away from Vietnam. In this war, it only took six days for Vietnam to catch up to them. Last night, for instance, here's what I noticed on the CBS and ABC national news, followed by the Lehrer News Hour. CBS led off with word that the U.S. military in Iraq, where all was going according to plan and on schedule, had nonetheless called for reinforcements from the States to guard exposed supply lines and 700 soldiers from an armored unit were being shipped out immediately. As the Vietnam War went on, of course, the military was always offering public reassurances about how splendidly things were going and then asking the President for more men.

President Bush spoke at Centcom Florida, the sort of protected military base from which Presidents Johnson and Nixon both found themselves most comfortable giving talks as opposition to the Vietnam War increased. The ABC and CBS reports on the President's speech both noted quite explicitly that, at the last minute, he had"edited" his speech, changing"our progress is ahead of schedule" to"good progress." Again a strangely familiar note from another era.

On ABC, a reporter in a sandstorm outside Nasiriya, backed by American soldiers slipping through a landscape of palm trees, pointed out that this wasn't"desert" fighting; that military vehicles were now stuck in the mud ("quagmire" anyone?); that, given the un-uniformed Fedayeen fighters, it was"hard to tell friend from foe" (Where have we heard that before -- or for that matter seen shots of"peasants" clambering over a downed American chopper?). We then saw a shot of someone, not in uniform, being led off with hands tied or cuffed behind his back and what might have been a hood over his head. The report ended with the journalist quoting a Marine as saying,"The other forces [in Iraq] are fighting Gulf War II. We're here in Nasiriya fighting Vietnam."

On PBS, two of their three military analysts agreed that we had"lost momentum." Of reports that under the cover of the sandstorm Republican Guard units were advancing on American units, one said,"[Our forces are] sitting in the desert with a lot of broken down vehicles awaiting the attack."

PBS also aired clips of the daily Centcom briefing in Qatar. The uniformed briefer seemed distinctly on the defensive. A Canadian reporter was shown complaining that the military never displayed videos of missiles that missed their targets or hit wrong targets and demanded to know when some would be available. Then, to my surprise, a CBS correspondent rose to complain fairly vehemently that, while"embedded" reporters were offering many tiny pictures, the"big picture" was supposed to come from Centcom; instead, he commented, all that was being offered were videos of micro-air strikes. In fact, all the Pentagon news conferences of the day managed to look both ridiculous and untrustworthy as spokesmen and women tried to pin the blame for civilian casualties from the missile-in-the-Baghdad-market on the Iraqis.

In fact, it's taken less than a week for American reporters to begin to doubt Pentagon briefers (foreign reporters began in that mode) – a passage that took years in Vietnam – and for the briefers to begin to look like participants in the long ago Saigon press briefings that included the infamous"body counts," mockingly nicknamed by reporters"the Five O'clock Follies." In other words, a week into the war the first cracks in what may become a media" credibility gap" are already showing. As it turns out, Pentagon policies for controlling the media were quite brilliant, but also dependent on the delivery of the promised war – a brief" cakewalk" of liberation.

And then there's the issue of casualties. For a long time the only remnant of Vietnam left to scare American planners was the matter of American casualties – or rather, the fear that if American forces took them in any significant numbers those body bags coming home would cost any administration the support of the American people. This fear went under the name"The Vietnam Syndrome" and was seen as a kind of public pathology to be overcome. As a result, in the last Gulf War, there were no more shots of body bags, and in an increasingly long-distance war, no more American bodies. The irony of this moment is that the Pentagon finds itself in the awkward position of running from the other side's casualties as well, which are doing for the world what American casualties did for the United States in Vietnam.

Both CBS and ABC last night showed the first lingering shots I've seen of wounded Iraqi children from that Baghdad market, already commonplace shots on global TV sets but not here. Another mainstream first, one week in: shots of"the other side" as fighters, of a Fedayeen jeep with a machine gun mounted on it and of Fedayeen in a trench, guns aimed as if in preparation for an ambush, all taken from Iraqi TV.

Perhaps even more fascinating, one week into the war, most of the late arguments and charges of the Vietnam era have reemerged and the official recriminations are already beginning. Here are some of the arguments from the right, for instance, that would be recognizable to anyone who lived through the end of the Vietnam War and its postscript:

We're fighting with one hand tied behind our back: on the Los Angeles Times op-ed page, for instance, strategist Ed Luttwack was already calling on the military to stop worrying about Iraqi casualties and do a little retargeting in Baghdad in order to get the war over with more quickly.

Civilians in the White House and the Pentagon haven't let the military run the war it wanted: A week in, the sniping among retired generals and admirals (speaking for their still active comrades) and various unnamed figures in the military, the intelligence services, and the administration is already fierce. As Joseph Galloway just wrote ( Rumsfeld's strategy under fire as war risks become increasingly apparent) for Knight Ritter,"'This is the ground war that was not going to happen in [Rumsfeld's] plan,' said a Pentagon official. Because the Pentagon didn't commit overwhelming force, 'now we have three divisions strung out over 300-plus miles and the follow-on division, our reserve, is probably three weeks away from landing.'" Or less politely,"'One senior administration official put it this way: 'Shock and Awe' is Air Force bull---!'"

It's the media's fault: Fred Barnes, executive editor of the right-wing Weekly Standard has already been quoted in the New York Times as saying,"The American public knows the importance of this war. They are not as casualty sensitive as the weenies in the American press are." And how far can we be from the we-won-every-battle, how-can-you-claim-this-is-a-no-win-strategy argument?

Believe me, this is Vietnam on fast-forward. We've leapt years in a week. Who knows, if things don't break just right for this administration, where we'll be a week from now? When you think about it, it's taken a lot of ridiculous dreaming and planning by men inside not just the Beltway, but the Bubbleway, over many years, to turn Sadaam Hussein into Ho Chi Minh for even a few weeks or months.

What's already obvious is that our government lacked nothing when it came to confidence. Despite the pro forma cautionary word or two in the prewar weeks, our leaders were evidently all too in love with their own"plan," and too enamored of American power and its allure to prepare for a real war, the sort that, since the Spanish guerrillas defeated Napoleon, has been fought by ill-armed forces, often not in the name of kindly, democratic gents, against far greater powers and odds that defied explanation (at least any that the invading power could think of.)

Somehow, the men in Washington didn't imagine that, in all those endless months of build-up to war, their enemy could or would do a thing. They had too high an opinion of themselves to favor their future enemy with a serious thought. They were simply incapable of imagining the other side of the war they were planning to fight, no less the world they were planning to step into. (Doesn't that ring a little ting-a-linging bell from an era I won't bother to name again?)

The"living room war" was New Yorker journalist Michael Arlen's famous phrase for the Vietnam War at home, but back then they didn't know what a living-room war really was. A 24/7 war that isn't a cakewalk by the globe's last imperial power on a gazillion TV sets worldwide evidently puts the kinds of pressures on a government in a few days that took years to build in the Vietnam era. Despite that quarter-million dollar set the Pentagon constructed in Qatar to wow the press, perhaps the Pentagon was no less incapable of imagining their"enemies" in the media (for that's how they've conceived of them ever since the Vietnam era). Now, if things take a turn for the worse, they have a pool of hundreds of reporters from whom potential critics and doubters, already"embedded" in military units, are likely to emerge. I give it a week or two at best unless this war quickly turns Washington's way.

Don't make a mistake here, the war in Iraq for endless reasons isn't the Vietnam War redux -- unless, of course, it's that tragedy for all sides returned as the most deadly of farces. But whatever it is, it could be a formula for catastrophe no matter when we"win." And our leaders are not the sorts of men who have had much experience with losing control. The prospect, I assure you, is a frightening one.

This article first appeared on, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.

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More Comments:

Kenny G - 4/3/2003

Here he goes again. The same knee-jerk, hysterical non-arguement as always. Rather than using blanket statements, take issue with a point or many points in the article. I think that comparing the current war in Iraq to Vietnam is simplistic at best. The main premise, that the war is not going to plan, that the media and public are realizing in more quickly than in previous circumstances and that there is a possiblity of political fallout, is at least thought provoking. I have no doubts that the US will win the war. (Not that I am for it, but that is neither here nor there. The time to argue about wheter the US should go to war is past. The best use of energy is to debate the best way to work towards a cease-fire, establish stability, return our troops home as soon as possible, and minimize negative perceptions around the world.) But it will be a hallow victory over an impoverished nation with no allies and few remaining resources. The part that I find particularly interesting is how a month prior to the invasion, the administration assured the public that the Iraqi people would welcome us with open arms and our troops would be home by now. SecDef's original plan called for "Shock & Awe" bombing followed by 40,000 troops to secure the ground. Sun Tzu advised to underestimate your enemy was folly. It seems that the Pentagon and the administration have done just that. Who would have thought that the Iraqis would have defended their country. To read a forgein news publication is to read about a completely different war. They report the good with the bad, whereas the US media presents the good with the bad as a small footnote. Though they are starting to come around as the war moves into its third week. (ah, there is the premise of the pesky article again) One final question. Why is the first president with an MBA not more concerned about the sluggish US economy?

Stephen - 4/1/2003

The Nation is an old-line Stalinist rag. In the 1930s it openly embraced and glorified Stalinism.

Nothing has changed in the intervening seven decades. The Nation is still a Stalinist rag, living in memory of the great People's Revolution.

Why would anybody in their right mind pay any attention to anything that emanates from that Stalinist enclave?

There is an argument to be made against the war. Those who buy into The Nation are clearly and without question traitors who are wishing for the defeat of the U.S. Those who are opposed to the war would do well to distance themselves as far as possible from Stalinist traitors. In other words, denounce The Nation for what it is, was and always will be -- a Stalinist stooge publication.

Brett Starr - 3/30/2003

I think you hit on each detail with amazing accuracy to the dangerousness of the Bush administration not getting their way.

Wesley Smart - 3/29/2003

Not being young enough to remember Vietnam, but being old enough to remember Panama, the first Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, I have to say that it seems just like what it is:

a war.

That is, nothing goes according to plan, and anyone who believed that it would be quick and painless was deluding themselves. That goes for the journalists or commentators who are now quick to pounce on the military, which trains constantly in order to be able to adapt and react to changes in the environment on the ground. Let's check back in about three weeks and see if anyone even cares what Tom Engelhardt has to say about things anymore.

The day of the uninformed, a priori anti-military, isolationist liberal rantings is swiftly passing.

Brad Smith - 3/29/2003

Other applicable history lessons are the Filipino-American War of 1898-1902(what we used to call the Philippine Insurection), the Israeli occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan since 1967, and the 2nd Anglo-Boer War in South Africa in 1899-1901.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but we are seriously fucked.

Jesse Lemisch - 3/29/2003

The most frequently mentioned historical analogy for Iraq these days is Vietnam. No historical analogy is precise, but as the war goes worse for the US, clear parallels emerge. Another analogy that occurs to me is the US-sponsored 1961 fiasco attempting to overthrow Castro: the Bay of Pigs. My understanding of the strategy behind this invasion was that the US did not feel that it (or its CIA-trained invaders) had to actually win militarily. The assumption was that merely establishing a beachhead in Cuba would lead to a popular uprising and the downfall of the Castro regime. It didn't happen then, and, so far as I can tell, it isn't happening now. The planners are blinded by their ideology.

Jesse Lemisch
Professor of History Emeritus
John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York

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