Vietnam then, Iraq today

We can learn a lot from what happened in Vietnam.

Protest was very slow in developing.  By the time it reached a significant scale in 1967, the highly respected (and rather hawkish) military historian and Vietnam specialist Bernard Fall was wondering whether Vietnam would become “extinct” as a cultural-historic entity under the blows of the most powerful attack ever launched against a region this size.  But by then, protest was becoming substantial, sufficiently so that Johnson could not call a national emergency, as during World War II, but had to fight a “guns-and-butter war” to keep the population quiet.  A national emergency should have been very “good” for the economy, as it was during WWII, the greatest period of economic growth in American history.  But a guns-and-butter war is bad for the economy, as others had found out too.  The Nazis, for example, had to wage war that way, not trusting their population, and were never able to mobilize as efficiently as the Western democracies.  Their economic czar, Alfred Speer, believed that their inability to match the voluntary totalitarian character of the democracies set back their war effort considerably, perhaps enough to lose the war.

LBJ faced the same dilemma, as a result of massive popular protest. After the Tet offensive, the Joint Chiefs were unwilling to send more troops because they felt they would need them for civil disorder control in the US if the war escalated any further.  The Tet offensive convinced the business world that the war was simply becoming too costly, and it was pointless to move on from destruction of Vietnam — already achieved, satisfying the major war aims — to conquest of Vietnam, a higher goal that wasn’t worth that much.  So yes, the business world turned against the war — as a direct result of the popular activism that made the war impossible to fight except in ways that would be harmful to domestic power interests.  Of course, the propaganda system likes to claim that it was a business decision, and that the population came to oppose the war because too many soldiers were dying — the so-called “Vietnam syndrome” concocted by doctrinal systems to prevent recognition that it was popular activism that brought the war to an end, indirectly but effectively.  That’s a lesson that people are not allowed to learn: too dangerous.

I don’t think the situation is comparable now.  First, controlling Iraq is vastly more significant than controlling Vietnam, a marginal issue once the threat of successful independent development had been crushed.  Second, the national resistance movement in Indochina was far beyond anything that exists in Iraq.  There was also a deterrent to unlimited US violence.  The northern part of North Vietnam was partially spared because of fear of retaliation by powerful enemies:
recall, for example, that when the US was bombing North Vietnam it was attacking an internal Chinese railway, that happened to cross Vietnam. And when the US was bombing Haiphong harbor, it was hitting Russian ships.  In the case of Iraq, there is virtually no deterrent or outside support.  Also, although such crimes as Fallujah rank high in the history of modern war crimes, and would call for the death penalty for enemies, the attack on Iraq has not come close to the destruction of South Vietnam in the early 60s, along with the rest of Indochina in later years.  And resistance at home is far greater than at a comparable moment of the Vietnam war.  There are many other differences.  I don’t see a lot of point in pursuing analogies — though it does make good sense to be clear about what actually happened in Vietnam, which is quite different from the doctrinal versions.

I don’t see any reason to doubt, for a moment, that popular activism could end the Iraq war.  Already, a large majority of the population thinks that the US should leave if Iraqis want it to, that the UN should take the lead, not the US, in all aspects of the occupation, and that the use of force is legitimate except in self-defense.  It’s up to organizers and activists to do something to bring popular opinion into the arena of influencing policy, not just on these but on a host of other issues.

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