Dreaming of World War II, living with Vietnam

The last time the U.S. fought a war against Iraq, the Vietnam War shadowed its every step.  President Bush the First declared that, with the war in the Gulf, the U.S. would “kick the Vietnam syndrome.” To ensure a cure, the administration drew up a list of the things it would not do: conscript citizens, allow the press free access to the troops or the battlefield, count bodies out loud.  And the things it would do: introduce massive force immediately and at once, accuse the enemy of atrocities before such an accusation could be made against the U.S., keep American casualties to an absolute minimum, give the victorious troops a victory parade.  So it came to pass — and still the syndrome lingered.

If the first test of the political success of a war is the re-election of those who made it, then despite all these preparations the administration of Bush the Father failed.  If the second test is how the war is represented in popular culture, the failure proved greater yet.  The only notable movie to come out of the war, Three Kings, presented the conflict as Vietnam on speed:  a war of multiple betrayals and massacres; a war without honor or sense.

There are, it seems, only two kinds of war the United States can fight:  World War II or Vietnam.  Anything that can be made to look like World War II is OK.  But since the conditions for World War II cannot be replicated, most wars run the danger of being or becoming Vietnam.  During Desert Shield, the heroically named lull before Desert Storm, Bush the First, with the help of the media, tried for a World War II gloss.  Saddam Hussein was compared to Hitler, and The New Republic obliged the president by trimming Saddam’s moustache appropriately for a cover photograph.   The Grand Coalition stood in for the Grand Alliance, the Kurds played the Jews, the Kuwaitis the Poles, and this time the French fought.

Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo explained the longing: “The biggest event in my lifetime was the Second World War and we have never been able to recreate it.” World War II was the “last time that this country believed anything profoundly, any single great cause.” Everything then was clear: “We are good, they are bad. Let’s all get together we said, and we creamed them. We started from way behind. We found strength in this common commitment, this commonality, community, family. The idea of coming together was best served in my lifetime in the Second World War. You never had a war quite like it.” 

For all Bush the First’s efforts to recreate World War II, Gulf War I could never be expanded to the necessary majesty.  It remained a punitive war against an oil ally who had gotten out of hand and had to be slapped down.  But discipline did not prove to be the tonic total victory once had been. Bush the First chose to retain a presumably chastened Saddam Hussein in power.  American troops did not march triumphantly through the streets of Baghdad, as they had in Berlin and Tokyo. The Gulf War planners, many of whom, like Colin Powell, had fought in Vietnam, put great thought and energy into avoiding the dangers of the Vietnam War, but they could not make war good again.

Clinton’s military expeditions, undertaken with a clear memory of what the
Vietnam War had been about and why he had opposed it, fared no better.   In
Somalia, the Clinton administration worked towards the World War II formula
by naming one of that sorry country’s many warlords as its Hitler and
proceeding to hunt him and his lieutenants down.  In the course of those unsuccessful efforts, a famine-stricken population, which had initially welcomed U.S. intervention, turned famously ugly.  Eighteen dead Americans and one thousand dead Somalis later, Clinton withdrew U.S. forces.  For most of the public, the lesson drawn was that if you couldn’t have World War II and didn’t want Vietnam, it was best to stay home or participate, if at all, from thirty thousand feet up.  Thus, in Kosovo, safe in the skies with not an anti-aircraft gun in sight, the U.S. Air Force played its part.

President Bush the Second has worked hard to offer the country its very own 21st century World War II. The war against terrorism, a war in which the victims of September 11 gave the U.S. a moral authority it hasn’t had since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time, is that “single great cause” Cuomo remembered.  It hasn’t been easy.  Rather than being called upon bravely to bear the burden of rationing, the home front was exhorted to consume as much as possible; nor was the closely edited footage of the massive bombing of Afghanistan and the cautious ground activity of a small number of specialist troops a satisfactory stand-in for the Normandy landing, the Battle of the Bulge, or the taking of Okinawa.  Still, the quick defeat of the Taliban was helpful.  And Hollywood has pitched in with a string of movies making war more palatable, from Saving Private Ryan through a return to Vietnam that, thankfully, reversed the verdict — We Were Soldiers, an account of the 1965 victory of outnumbered US troops against uniformed North Vietnamese soldiers in the Ia Drang Valley. No My Lai here, no troop-laden helicopters fleeing Saigon.  As Joseph Galloway, co-author of the book on which the film was based, explained: “Audiences would be drawn to the story because it is not defeatist about what eventually became the misadventure of Vietnam.” The sting of shame and defeat could yet be drawn; the syndrome cured.

How curious, then, that Vietnam returns where one might least expect it:
not as a quagmire war, bad TV images, and body bags, but in the form of a mass antiwar movement, global in scope, broadly inclusive, spontaneously organized, very clearly and repeatedly saying no to war.  The specter of domestic division has returned and worse, it has been internationalized. What it took Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon years to achieve, Bush the Second has wrought in record time.

One legacy of Vietnam lingers in the press, Congress, and the administration: the received wisdom that people opposed the Vietnam War in part because they didn’t understand it, because no one had explained it well enough.  Almost daily someone claims that public reluctance to go to war against Iraq is due to a similar lack of understanding.   What is unacceptable is the thought that the country might understand the administration very well and still reject this war.
Perhaps it is time to redefine the Vietnam syndrome.  It no longer refers to the reluctance of the public to engage in war, but rather to the insistence of the present administration that the only cure for that long ago defeat is more war.  As President Bush said in a December 2002 U.S. News and World Report interview: “…it’s very important for the American people to know my sentiments about military engagement, that I will use our military as a last resort and our first resort….”

[This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture.]

Marilyn B. Young, a history professor at New York University, is the director of the International Center for Advanced Studies and author of The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990.

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