Whose Analogy Is This Anyway?

Withdrawal maneuvers:


Throw into this mix the first rumors of the return of the draft (see, e.g., Toronto Star, 11/5/03), add in the controversy over the President’s avoidance of those coffins and funerals (an issue whose origins lie in the Vietnam era) and you have the makings of quite a potent brew — Vietnam’s revenge, you might call it. In addition, I see some other familiar Vietnam words just beginning to rear their heads on the political landscape — “withdrawal” obviously (McCain: “I was heartened to hear the President say that we cannot cut and run in Iraq”), but also expect “bloodbath” to appear soon along with a snarling demand to those of us who never wanted to get into this war from those who still don’t want us out for a detailed “plan” to extricate us.


In the Vietnam years, the “bloodbath” to come — the Vietnamese on taking over were expected to engage in wholesale slaughter — was a specter that kept the actual bloodbath then going on in place year after year. When the war ended, there was indeed a bloodbath, but not in Vietnam. It unexpectedly took place in Cambodia, a land whose neutralist prince we had helped overthrow and which we had thoroughly destabilized, and it was nearly genocidal.


We don’t know what will follow the present destabilization or what exactly would happen after an American withdrawal (or even the circumstances under which that withdrawal would take place). We can’t know the future, but we can know the present, and it’s important not to let bloodcurdling predictions of the future keep us from dealing with the dangers and disasters of this moment.


There are already all sorts of odd withdrawals underway in Iraq. Unfortunately, right now only a few of the right people and all of the wrong people are getting out. The Bulgarians, the Dutch, and the Spaniards, all with troops in the country, this week withdrew most of their diplomats to Amman, Jordan. The UN and various NGOs have been pulling out or scaling way back. The Red Cross has just announced — and this is a tragedy for many Iraqis — that they are, for the time being, closing their offices not just in Baghdad but in “peaceful” Basra in the south of the country. This week the Turks withdrew not their troops but their offer of troops and, after an election that proved far closer than the ruling party expected, the Japanese government is evidently about to withdraw its offer to send troops as well.


Then there are other kinds of withdrawals underway: Despite the show of force around Tikrit, the Washington Post reports (Daniel Williams, 11/8/03):


“American troops patrol less frequently, townspeople openly threaten Iraqi security personnel who cooperate with U.S. forces, and the night belongs to the guerrillas. That is the reality in this little town 60 miles north of Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials say, and it reflects a shifting balance of power in U.S.-occupied central Iraq. Resistance forces move with impunity in Thuluiya and throughout the so-called Sunni Triangle, despite repeated raids on suspected hide-outs and arms caches.”


On the other hand, while announcing a further call up of reserves and the National Guard, and the sending of the Marines, the administration in a Nixonian moment claimed that this represented a “drawdown” of American forces because, by their calculations, in the late spring when the troops now in Iraq have largely been replaced, we will have perhaps 25,000 less troops there. What’s not mentioned is that when these troops flood in early in 2004, we will have additional troops in country. Another Vietnam word that hasn’t quite made it back into the national discussion covers this: “escalation.”


This week democratic candidate General Wesley Clark suggested that “the United States should resist pressure for an early exit in Iraq, laying out steps to build international involvement there and mend relations with Europe.” Here’s my word of advice to the Democrats. While most of them undoubtedly remember antiwar candidate George McGovern’s loss to Nixon in 1972, they seem to forget that three American presidents — Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — got elected in part on promises to end, or in Johnson’s case at least not escalate wars then ongoing. All three were exceedingly vague in their promises. (Nixon had a “secret plan” — or so he said.) Johnson and Nixon were lying. Still, they won. Democrats — other than Dean and Kucinich — afraid of expressing a will to end this war and fast are, I suspect, making an electoral mistake.


In the meantime, while the Iraq war seems to have become an all-Vietnam-all-the time event here, it’s Vietnam only as reconceived in history’s funhouse, a kind of mad jigsaw puzzle into which familiar pieces — and only some of them — are being jammed in whatever order. Vietnamization (now, Iraqification), for instance, was a Nixon withdrawal maneuver late in the war, when antiwar pressures were rising to remarkable heights. It was meant to keep the war going by transferring most of the ground war responsibilities to South Vietnamese allies, while ratcheting up the American air war. We’ve now arrived at its supposed equivalent in a panic after only six months.


A recent message from a friend — meant comically, of course — nonetheless indicates something of the mad “Vietnam” path we’ve chosen. He suggests that we’re about to engage in a three-step program:


“First, recall units of the old Iraqi army. Second, recall Saddam Hussein. Third, ‘take 3,’ or as the administration might say, ‘Re-shoot.’”


Vietnam is undoubtedly our “default switch,” as I heard someone suggest on the radio the other day. And yet, the story of this ongoing war is being commandeered to a surprising extent by the side which has remained obdurately silent.


BYO analogies:


The other side, whomever they may be, are not about to leave our leaders to tell our story unopposed. There is, in fact, a struggle going on over who will define the narrative of this occupation/war. Michael Vlahos in a most interesting essay (recommended by the War in Context website) suggests that the Bush administration has already lost the ability to offer a coherent story about the war and occupation, that “through its occupation of Iraq the US is actually making the radical Islamist case — that we are invading Islam — encouraging the Muslim World to unite against us.” (“The Story of This War“)


Turkey‘s ambassador to the United States, O. Faruk Logoglu, recently rejected the somewhat incoherent Vietnam analogy. He was quoted in a New York Times piece thusly (11/5/03):


“The ambassador said he remains optimistic about efforts to build a stable Iraq. Looking to history, he rejected comparisons to America‘s experience in Vietnam. Instead, he said, the risk is greater that Iraq could become a new Lebanon, a nation that was splintered by civil war among rival groups aided by neighboring states exerting influence through proxy armies.”


The fact is the Iraqis are obviously not living in Vietnam, nor are they living with the Vietnam analogy. Their minds are undoubtedly elsewhere. Lebanon and its sad fate is certainly one analogy known to many there. Others come to mind and have infrequently been mentioned here. Ed Weathers, columnist for the Memphis Flyer, for instance, suggests:


“The more appropriate historical analogy for what the U.S. faces in Iraq is a different war: the one the Soviet Union tried to fight in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. …


“A superpower, in defiance of most world opinion, invades an Islamic Middle Eastern nation. The superpower is hoping to effect regime change and, citing an ‘imminent threat,’ declares the invasion ‘an international duty.’ Initially, the invasion goes well. Within weeks, all organized military opposition in the invaded nation appears to evaporate, and the invading superpower basks in its success, praised by its domestic media for its military prowess. The superpower imposes its own government on the invaded nation and settles in to oversee a comfortable, presumably temporary occupation.


“But almost immediately, resistance forces begin to coalesce, and the guerrilla war begins. The superpower’s convoys are attacked. It’s soldiers are killed one, two, ten at a time. Galvanized by religious zeal and nationalist pride, the guerrillas begin to attract other fighters sympathetic to their cause, from other lands. (One of these is named Osama bin Laden…)”


Weathers points out that American military analysts have carefully examined and copiously written about what went wrong for the Soviets in Afghanistan, including the vulnerability of their helicopters.


William S. Lind, Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism, suggests in a recent piece that the guerrillas in Iraq have embedded their analogies in their acts (Indicators – Iraqi guerrillas are attacking tanks):


“Three events last week may actually provide more in the way of indicators as to where the Iraq war is headed. The first two were successful attacks on American M-1 Abrams tanks by Iraqi resistance forces… The technique is the same as that used by the Palestinians to destroy several Israeli Merkava tanks, so it should not have come as a surprise to us. More significant than the destruction of two American tanks is the fact that Iraqi guerrillas are attacking tanks. This is an indicator that the guerilla war is developing significantly more rapidly than reports in Washington suggest….


“One other indicator: a friend recently noted to me that the rapidly improving techniques we see from the Iraqi guerrillas bear a striking resemblance to those used by the Chechen guerrillas against the Russians. Might it be that we are not the only ones to have a coalition in Iraq?”


So we are either fighting, or struggling not to fight in Vietnam, while the guerrillas may be in some combination of Afghanistan/the occupied territories/Lebanon/Chechnya — not only two different styles, but two different analog worlds.


In the Guardian recently (11/3/03), Tariq Ali suggested that we should not drop the colonial experience as a model for understanding what’s going on in Iraq:


“Some weeks ago, Pentagon inmates were invited to a special in-house showing of an old movie. It was the Battle of Algiers… At least the Pentagon understands that the resistance in Iraq is following a familiar anti-colonial pattern… The US doesn’t even trust the Iraqis to clean their barracks, and so south Asian and Filipino migrants are being used. This is colonialism in the epoch of neo-liberal capitalism, and so US and ‘friendly’ companies are given precedence. Even under the best circumstances, an occupied Iraq would become an oligarchy of crony capitalism, the new cosmopolitanism of Bechtel and Halliburton… Where there is resistance, as in Iraq, the only model on offer is a mixture of Gaza and Guantanamo.


“…[The] old colonial notion that the Arabs are lost without a headman is being contested in Gaza and Baghdad. And were Saddam to drop dead tomorrow, the resistance would increase rather than die down. Sooner or later, all foreign troops will have to leave Iraq. If they do not do so voluntarily, they will be driven out.”


Or put it another way, in his most recent speech explaining his vote against the $87 billion Iraq and Afghanistan appropriation bill (filled with White House and Pentagon slush funds), Senator Robert Byrd concluded, “It is the American people who will ultimately decide how long we will stay in Iraq.”


This is a fact, though most pundits and politicians — see John McCain above — treat it as something horrific, a kind of looming defilement. What if, as it’s said, the American people don’t have “the stomach” to stay the course — as if we were watching some gory horror flick and part way through had to leave the theater? But the real horror in this film is that “we the people” and our elected representatives now play such a modest role in determining the nature of our world and the shape of our lives. Let’s only hope that we turn out to have the sort of “stomach” that will lead us one day to return our country to the path that might have been taken in the post-9/11 world, one that would remove global domination from the map, replacing it with understanding and the kind of international police work that might actually put the Osama bin Ladens and Saddam Husseins of the world in jail where they belong.


[This article first appeared on 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 and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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