Is Iraq like Vietnam?

A wartime lexicon.
Feb. 16 2004 5:23 PM

The Vietnam Syndrome, Again

The mistake Democrats make when they compare Iraq to Vietnam.

Fighting the good fight in Iraq
Fighting the good fight in Iraq

One of the stupidest of the many pseudointellectual observations made by Henry Kissinger was his attempted coinage of "the Vietnam syndrome." This supposedly lamentable condition did not do what it was supposed to do: create flashbacks and panic attacks at the very thought of a land war in Asia as the successor power to French colonialism (Kissinger's great cause and the launch of his ugly, unelected career). Instead, it was allegedly responsible for critical "failures of will" when it came to destabilizing Angola or Chile. Speaking prematurely and off the cuff in 1991, President George Bush Sr. declared the Vietnam syndrome to have been cured by the apparent success of the "first" Gulf War, which was actually only the beginning of a long war of maneuver with Saddam Hussein that took more than a decade to conclude.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

And now the syndrome is back, having mutated almost beyond recognition. More than a quarter of a century after the collapse of the doomed American intervention in Indochina, we can't get over it. This is, in my opinion, as it should be. There ought to be no forgetting or forgiving of what happened there, nor will there be while any of us are around who remember it. Only this year, Robert McNamara has been groping self-pityingly toward an explanation of what he did and even toward some atonement for it. That's more than can be said for Kissinger, who continues to profit from "memoirs" that are replete with falsification and omission.

A war fought with weapons of indiscriminate slaughter, and accompanied by racist rhetoric, with a conscript Army deployed against a highly evolved revolutionary movement is as different as could possibly be from a campaign of precision-guided munitions, with an all-volunteer Army, directed at the overthrow of a hideous and dangerous tyranny, and then taking the form of a drive for free elections and a constitution. If people say that it's "reminiscent" of Vietnam, it means they don't remember Vietnam.

A huge chance was missed in the election of 1992, when Bill Clinton's record as a draft-dodger (not a draft-resister) became an issue. He lied about the matter from every angle and helped perpetuate the lie that those young Americans opposed to the war had been principally interested in the wholeness of their own skins. Having done this, he was in a weak position to say that, unlike Ronald Reagan, he did not think the Vietnam War had been "a noble cause." The noble cause, rather, had been the movement of resistance to it: almost the only case in history when an unjust war had been stopped largely by civilian dissent. Had he said this, there's every chance that people who disagreed strongly would still have respected him.

But now, those like Terence McAuliffe who defended every piece of Clintonian mendacity have decided to pin the label of "deserter" on George Bush Jr. This is sordid from at least three points of view. First, in respect of the facts it was self-evidently untrue even before the release of the president's records (and before some of his original accusers began to change their minds, or, in one case, to admit that he was losing same because of early onset Alzheimer's disease). Bush evidently did the gentlemanly minimum, which was itself a good deal more than the average for his college generation. The term "AWOL" is a studied insult and a conscious lie. Second, it's been admitted by the president well before now that the pattern of his youth was not entirely creditable. We've already covered all that, from the boozing to the driving. We don't have to take his word for it that he was "saved," but it's plain enough that he has reformed, thanks largely to his wife, and so it's mean and despicable to revisit that period in such a Pharisaic manner. Third, some Democrats really seem to want to act hawkier than thou. Are they so sure that this is a bright idea?

Sooner or later, Sen. John Kerry is going to have to say which he thought was the noble cause: the war or the antiwar movement. In the later movement, he clearly was not numbered among the "moderates." I remember those "Winter Soldier" hearings very well, and as far as I'm aware the charges made against the U.S. Army in Vietnam were substantially true, even if some of them were laid by shady and suspect characters. However, if the average in the field was tolerance for rape, torture, mass killing, and a depraved indifference to human life, what becomes of the "band of brothers"?

It would be easier for Kerry to find his voice on this, perhaps, if he could remove the cluster of frogs that lurk in his throat whenever he is questioned about his position on Iraq. On Sunday night in Milwaukee, asked whether his vote on the war resolution made him feel responsible for American casualties, he didn't even rise to the level of waffle. Sen. John Edwards, I thought, distinguished himself again by saying that Kerry's was "the longest answer I have ever heard to a yes-or-no question." Edwards went on to volunteer that he did accept responsibility. That's a bit more like it. Did Kerry think that he wasn't ever going to be asked? Does he think he isn't going to be challenged about Vietnam as well? He's had plenty of time to think about it, so the evasiveness and butt-covering is double-trouble, and multiplying.

There's something creepy about the Democratic decision to hail the heroes of Vietnam, from Kerry to Clark, and to denigrate the extraordinary effort being made to salvage Iraq and to pursue and kill people who really are, unlike the Viet Cong, the common enemies of humanity. It's trying too hard, and it's inauthentic and hypocritical as well as point-missing. It would be as if the Republicans suddenly started talking, as that great veteran Robert Dole once did, about all the conflicts in American history as "Democrat wars." That didn't fly, if you recall, though it would have been a fair description of Vietnam.

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