Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the "Number 3 Political Book of 2004" by the American Book Association. See www.paulloeb.org
What does it mean , this Memorial Day, to die in a war so founded on lies?
While George W. Bush assures our soldiers they fight for Iraqi freedom and to “make America safer for generations to come,” 82 percent of Iraqis, according to a British Ministry of Defense poll, say they’re "strongly opposed" to the presence of American and British troops and 45 percent justify attacks against them. This gives rise to what psychologist Robert Jay Lifton calls “an atrocity-creating situation.”
Lifton first coined the phrase during Vietnam. He now uses it to describe a “counterinsurgency war in which U.S. soldiers, despite their extraordinary firepower, feel extremely vulnerable in a hostile environment,” amplified by “the great difficulty of tracking down or even recognizing the enemy.” This sense of an environment out of control has seeded the ground for Abu Ghraib and for massacres at the villages of Haditha and Mukaradeeb, already being compared to My Lai. Former Army sniper Jody Casey recently described his unit keeping extra spades on their vehicles so that if they killed innocent Iraqis in response to an attack, they could throw one next to the corpses to make it appear as if those killed were preparing a roadside bomb.
The Iraq-Vietnam comparisons may seem cheap or easy to make, but it’s increasingly becoming difficult to ignore the parallels, except that—unlike Bush—Nixon didn’t start the conflict in Vietnam. The Vietnam War began with Eisenhower's first deployment of soldiers and CIA agents in support of the French, expanded with Kennedy, and escalated dramatically under Johnson. But it became Nixon’s war when he extended its carnage to Laos and Cambodia, massively increased the bombing campaigns, and lied and lied again in justifying his actions.
Bush may lack Nixon’s scowl, but he’s equally insulated from the consequences of his actions in Iraq and elsewhere. He came to power riding on the success of Nixon’s racially divisive “Southern Strategy,” which enshrined the Republicans as the party of backlash. He won reelection by similarly manipulating polarization and fear. Like Nixon, he’s flouted America’s laws while demonizing political opponents. His insistence that withdrawing from Iraq would create a world where terrorists reign echoes Nixon’s claim that defeat in Vietnam would leave the U.S. ''a pitiful, helpless giant.''
Last December Bush called the Iraqi election “a watershed moment in the story of freedom.” But if our invasion and occupation has created a watershed moment, it’s one where rivers of resentment and bitterness may poison the global landscape for decades to come. And when Bush talks much of promoting freedom, the world sees mostly the freedom of America to do whatever we please—no matter how many nations oppose us. America’s Vietnam-era leaders also proclaimed their embrace of freedom, while helping overthrow elected governments from Brazil to Chile to Greece. The war they waged in Southeast Asia killed 2 to 5 million Vietnamese, plus more deaths in Laos and Cambodia. As with Iraq, those making the key decisions were profoundly insulated; no Congressman, Senator or Cabinet member lost a son in Vietnam and only 28 had sons who served. In Iraq, those who are the most detached from the costs of war led the rush to invade and the sole Congressman or Senator with a son who initially served was Democrat Tim Johnson, who the Republicans still attacked as insufficiently patriotic. While the sons of Republican Senator Kit Bond and three Republican congressmen have since also been deployed, most who initiated this war have never been intimately touched by it.
Iraq holds another unsettling parallel with Vietnam in the lives of many who will come back from the war with shattered or missing limbs or lasting psychological trauma from witnessing the unwitnessable. Given the number of vets who’ve survived injuries that would have killed them 35 years ago, and Bush’s cuts in VA programs and allied social services, the impact in damaged lives may be even greater. According to a study by former World Bank chief economist and Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, the Iraq war is already likely to cost as much as 1 trillion dollars when we consider consequences like lifetime disability and healthcare for troops injured in the conflict as well as the impact on the American economy, like the war’s role in higher oil prices. Because these costs are delayed and even more invisible than the combat deaths in a time when even photos of the military coffins have been banned, they barely register except for those most intimately involved.
“I didn’t want to die for Nixon,” said a man I met recently in a Seattle park. He’d served on military bases in a half dozen states, then had a car accident just before being shipped to Vietnam. “The accident was lucky,” he said. “It was a worthless war and I didn’t want to go.”
I agreed. I said I admired those who fought in World War II—we owe them the debt of our freedom. But to die for Nixon’s love of power, fear of losing face, deceptive vindictiveness—to die for those values was obscene. Nixon’s war, the man said, had nothing noble about it. And neither did Iraq.
Counting back to Eisenhower, the United States fought in Vietnam for over 20 years. We’ve now been in and out of Iraq for nearly 40, ever since the 1963 coup when the CIA first helped the Baath Party overthrow the founder of OPEC—and intervening in Iran since our 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh, who we replaced with the dictatorial Shah. With Bush’s administration promising no immediate end in sight, we’re now told it will be up to “future presidents” even to consider withdrawing our troops. Who wants to be the last person to die for George Bush?