The Neverending Syndrome: From Vietnam to Iraq

As Iraq plunges into civil war, we should indeed play the blame game.

Joel Bleifuss July 16, 2014

On June 19, President Obama announced that he would send "up to 300" military advisers to Iraq to help curb the violence in the nation. (DVIDS / Flickr / Creative Commons)

The dis­in­te­gra­tion of Iraq into war­ring eth­nic and reli­gious fac­tions has become an occa­sion for the neo­cons to resume their cam­paign for end­less empire.

Today we see the unfolding consequences of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The architects of that war cannot be allowed to start their propaganda campaign afresh.

On June 17, on CNN, Paul Wol­fowitz, Bush’s deputy sec­re­tary of defense and one of the archi­tects of the Iraq War, said that if Pres­i­dent Oba­ma would only admit his mis­takes in Iraq, the blame game would stop immediately.”

But should it? Wars rever­ber­ate through­out his­to­ry. A fail­ure to remem­ber how wars were start­ed leaves the door open for sim­i­lar mis­ad­ven­tures in the future.

Viet­nam, the most dead­ly U.S. war of the past 60 years, last­ed from 1954 to 1975. This 21-year war killed an esti­mat­ed 2 to 3 mil­lion Viet­namese and 58,000 Amer­i­cans. U.S. respon­si­bil­i­ty for this tragedy rests with the Cold War man­darins and with the Com­man­ders-in-Chief Eisen­how­er, Kennedy, John­son and Nixon, all of whom lied to the Amer­i­can pub­lic about their for­eign pol­i­cy deba­cle. But with­in years of its end, Viet­nam mor­phed from a fol­ly into a mal­a­dy — the Viet­nam Syndrome.

In August 1980, can­di­date Ronald Rea­gan said: For too long, we have lived with the Viet­nam Syn­drome. … It is time we rec­og­nized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause. … There is a les­son for all of us in Viet­nam. If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the deter­mi­na­tion to prevail.”

And pre­vail we did. In March 1991, Pres­i­dent George H.W. Bush, speak­ing to the Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil, declared vic­to­ry in the Gulf War: By God, we’ve kicked the Viet­nam Syn­drome once and for all.”

Fast for­ward to August 2007. Pres­i­dent George W. Bush defend­ed his War on Ter­ror by com­par­ing it to Viet­nam: Like our ene­mies in the past, the ter­ror­ists who wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan and oth­er places seek to spread … a harsh plan for life that crush­es all free­dom, tol­er­ance and dis­sent. … Will today’s gen­er­a­tion of Amer­i­cans resist the allure of retreat?”

Today, the archi­tects of the Iraq War scram­ble to rewrite his­to­ry. In a June 17 Wall Street Jour­nal op-ed, Liz and Dick Cheney, shift­ing the blame, con­demned Oba­ma: Rarely has a U.S. pres­i­dent been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”

Yet who owns the Iraq War? Cer­tain­ly not Oba­ma, who opposed its autho­riza­tion from the get-go. Wars tend to nev­er end. World War I began 100 years ago, but rather than con­clude with the 1918 armistice, it lin­gered on in the cur­rents of nation­al chau­vin­ism that led to the rise of fas­cism and World War II — a war that end­ed in the incin­er­a­tion of Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki, and set the stage for the Cold War. The toll from the First and Sec­ond World Wars: an esti­mat­ed 77 mil­lion dead humans.

Sim­i­lar­ly, the Viet­nam War — which by the 1970s had spread to Cam­bo­dia— spawned Pol Pot, a fanat­ic who killed an esti­mat­ed 3 mil­lion of his coun­try­men after com­ing to pow­er in 1975.

Today we see the unfold­ing con­se­quences of the 2003 inva­sion of Iraq. The archi­tects of that war can­not be allowed to start their pro­pa­gan­da cam­paign afresh.

Nor can Amer­i­cans ignore the under­re­port­ed drone war Oba­ma is wag­ing in Yemen, Pak­istan, Afghanistan, Iraq and else­where. What price will future gen­er­a­tions pay for that campaign?

Here’s to the blame game … and to the Viet­nam Syndrome.

Joel Blei­fuss, a for­mer direc­tor of the Peace Stud­ies Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-Colum­bia, is the edi­tor & pub­lish­er of In These Times, where he has worked since Octo­ber 1986.

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