By Jonathan Neale
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How they lost before

This article is over 18 years, 3 months old
It's like Vietnam-but it is happening so much quicker
Issue 1870

It’s like Vietnam-but it is happening so much quicker

THERE’S AN old nightmare stalking through Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld’s sleep these last few weeks-Vietnam. A generation of the rich and powerful in America had sworn, ‘Never again.’ Now Donald Rumsfeld tells the evening news, with utter confidence, that Iraq is not another Vietnam.

He has to say that, because all over America people of a certain age are beginning to think, and sometimes say, ‘Been there, done that, BAD idea.’ By 1965 the military dictatorship in South Vietnam, backed by the United States, was losing to a peasant rising led by Communists. The US government sent 500,000 more troops.

In the next ten years a million people died in South Vietnam, and another two or three million across the neighbouring countries. Ordinary America, blue collar and white collar, mostly backed the war in 1965. By late 1967 the majority were turning against the war. The biggest reason for the shift was the boys who came back. They didn’t talk much, but you could see on their faces it was a bad war.

It wasn’t the body bags. Americans died faster in Korea and World War Two. It was that the war was wrong. I’m a father. If my child dies in a war worth dying for I’ll be broken for life. But I won’t turn against the war. But for my child to die for something wrong-no.

The American media, and the government, lie all the time to the American people about what’s going on overseas. Most Americans have a basic morality that’s different from Powell and Bush. If they knew what was being done in their name, they’d be outraged. That’s why power has to lie to them.

The early demos against the Vietnam War had been small, 10,000 or 20,000. Two years after the main troop commitment they were 150,000. Five years later they were close to a million.

This time round there were half a million in New York before the war on Iraq started, in an illegal demonstration attacked by the police on the island where 9/11 happened.

Last time it was five years before the TV showed GIs refusing orders to fight. This summer CBS TV interviewed a squad of American soldiers in Iraq who said, straight to camera, that they shouldn’t be there. CBS showed that on the nightly news. The memory of Vietnam hasn’t gone away. Americans remember that your government can lie to you. The central lie that Blair told, and many Brits believed, was about weapons of mass destruction.

For Bush the key lie was that US troops would be welcomed. Anyone can see that’s not true now. What’s less clear from the TV news, but very important, is that the US is losing. The sort of major killing the Pentagon went for in Vietnam is now impossible. Bombing runs that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would produce crowds that burned down most US embassies in the world. Nor will the American people allow more troops to be sent.

Worst of all, for Bush and Co, is the memory of how they eventually lost in Vietnam. The soldiers sent to Vietnam were coming from a country that had turned against the war.

They began to refuse orders to fight, and to kill those officers who insisted. This is the memory that haunts the Pentagon. In April the polls said over three quarters of Americans supported the occupation in Iraq. Last week a majority of Americans polled said they were against Bush’s request for $87 billion for the occupation. None of this means we can just sit back.

The rich and powerful in the US decided they had to get out in 1968. They didn’t leave until 1973. In those five years two million people died. We have to keep the pressure on. The American government can be beaten. The American people have turned on a bad war before. If that happens again the consequences will be far more than military.

The collapse of the WTO talks in Cancun two weeks ago were a major victory for everyone who hates Bush/Blair/IMF economics. That could only happen because of all the anti-capitalist marches, and because all the Third World governments could see how weak Bush was in Iraq. They weren’t so scared of US power any longer.

The US government has identified their military power with US corporate power so closely that a major American defeat would weaken every general, senior manager and privatiser on the globe.

‘THE MORALE, discipline and battle worthiness of the US armed forces are lower and worse that at any time this century. ‘Search and evade’ is now virtually a principle of war.’
Colonel R D Heinl, Vietnam, June 1971

‘I ONCE believed that I was serving for a cause-‘to uphold and defend the constitution of the United States’. Now I no longer believe that. I have lost my conviction, as well as my determination. I can no longer justify my service on the basis of what I believe to be half-truths and bold lies.’
Tim Predmore, 101st Airborne Division, Iraq, September 2003

For more details on the resistance to the Vietnam War in the US military see Jonathan Neale’s book The American War: Vietnam 1960-1975 (Bookmarks, £9.99)


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