IT is hardly surprising that the primary victims of what the world knows as the Vietnam War employ a different nomenclature for that conflict. The Vietnamese, quite logically, call it the American War. That it’s not generally known as such is partly a measure of the global cultural hegemony of the United States. But there is more to it than that.
The fact is that far too many of the aggressor state’s citizens, including a sizeable proportion of those who viewed it as a travesty, were inclined to see it, first and foremost, as an American tragedy. Granted, the end of the war was presaged when even American military veterans began participating in rallies where the flag of the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front freely fluttered and Ho Chi Minh was lionized in speeches and slogans. Yet there cannot be much doubt that the 50,000 or so American fatalities in the war contributed disproportionately to the angst of antiwar activists. Of course there were – and are – honorable exceptions, but it was not unusual for the 60 times as many Vietnamese deaths to be viewed as little more than an unfortunate statistic.
In the aftermath of the American defeat in Vietnam, a great many US policymakers were preoccupied with the task of overcoming the “Vietnam syndrome” – which could be summed up as the fear that the late 20th century’s premier imperial power would be less hubristic on the international stage in the wake of its humiliation in Indochina. This despite the fact that there was no let-up in covert interventions, from Angola and Afghanistan to Panama, Nicaragua and El Salvador, through the 1980s.
It is possible, of course, that memories of Vietnam had something to do with George Bush’s decision not to conquer Baghdad in 1991. But it’s arguably more important to note that the American war in Iraq effectively dates back to that year, rather than to the renewal of all-out hostilities in 2003 under the son of Bush. (It’s all very well to mock the hereditary leadership of North Korea – a level of Stalinism which may even have shocked Stalin – but who can seriously doubt that Bush the Younger was an incomparably greater abomination for the world at large than Kim the Second?)
The US and its primary ally, Britain, never entirely stopped bombing Iraq during that interregnum, and the sanctions they imposed caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. Infants were among the primary victims of this policy. That the conditions imposed by the so-called “international community” also led Saddam Hussein to abandon his nuclear ambitions mattered little in the end.
That Saddam had previously perpetrated mass murder against Iraqi citizens wasn’t a key issue in 2002-03 – possibly because his capabilities in that department involved American connivance. The excuse was that he must not get a chance to use his weapons of mass destruction against the US or any of its allies. Weapons he didn’t have at the time, and couldn’t have put together without many years of effort.
Small wonder, then, that this line of argument is nowadays rarely deployed even by the neoconservatives who provided the ideological impetus for the aggression. That hasn’t deterred Tony Blair, however, from spouting it during interviews promoting his autobiography. If Saddam hadn’t been toppled, he contends, Iraq may at some point have re-initiated its nuclear program.
This is an absurd line of conjecture: it is, inter alia, equally conceivable that Saddam would have been overthrown by his own people before he had a chance to do any such thing; besides, even if Iraq had succeeded in manufacturing a small number of crude versions of what Britain and Israel and Pakistan and India and France and Russia and the US have in their arsenals, would it really have mattered very much? Would he have dared to lob one of his toys in Israel’s direction, for instance, at the more or less inevitable cost of self-obliteration? Saddam was a tyrant, but he was no suicide bomber.
The odious Mr Blair does not stop at self-justification for volunteering as a servitor to George W. Bush: he seriously believes that if Iran cannot be deterred from going nuclear, it too must be attacked.
Perhaps we ought to be grateful that President Barack Obama, in last week’s lame Oval Office speech announcing the end of American combat operations in Iraq, offered no overt indication of aggressive intent against Iran. Perhaps it was inevitable that the commander-in-chief would hail the “heroism” of his nation’s armed forces. Given the dire straits in which he finds himself domestically, it is hardly surprising that American war crimes went unmentioned.
It’s difficult not to be perturbed, on the other hand, by the reservations being voiced by some of his critics on the left. “What was so grievously missing from Obama’s address,” Frank Rich writes in The New York Times, “was any feeling for what has happened to our country during the seven-and-a-half-year war whose ‘end’ he was marking.” No, Frank: a far more grievous omission was any sense of what the people of Iraq have suffered. It is, no doubt, a tragedy that 4,400 American lives have been wasted in Iraq, to say nothing of the thousands more casualties in terms of permanent disability and mental trauma. But the cost on the Iraqi side, in every department, has been infinitely larger. And it is in that respect that the absence of remorse is all the more painful.
With nearly 50,000 combat-ready troops and nearly 100 active military bases, the American involvement in Iraq is nowhere near an end. It could go on for decades. And then, of course, there is Afghanistan: Obama’s even more clueless about how to get out of that quicksand. And in the extremely unlikely event of America emerging from either of these conflicts with its imperial pretensions intact within the foreseeable future, who is to say its profound follies won’t be repeated all over again in a different battlefield?