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Will Iraq Be Vietnam or WWII?

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LA Times Op Ed
February 9, 2003

Will Iraq Be Vietnam or WWII?

By Marilyn Young

Marilyn B. Young, a history professor at New York University, is the director of the International Center for Advanced Studies and author of "The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990."

NEW YORK -- The last time the United States fought a war against Iraq, the Vietnam War dogged its every step.

The first President Bush declared that, with the war in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. would "kick the Vietnam syndrome." To ensure a cure, the administration drew up a list of the things it would not do: Conscript citizens, allow the press free access to the troops or the battlefield, count bodies out loud. And the things it would do: Introduce massive force immediately and at once, accuse the enemy of atrocities before such an accusation could be made against the U.S., keep American casualties to an absolute minimum, give the victorious troops a victory parade. But even after they instituted all these changes, the syndrome lingered.

If the first test of the political success of a war is the reelection of those who engineered it, then despite all these preparations the first Bush administration failed. If the second test is how the war is represented in popular culture, the failure proved greater yet. The only notable movie to come out of the war, "Three Kings," presented the conflict as Vietnam on speed: a war of multiple betrayals and massacres; a war without honor or sense.

There are, it seems, only two kinds of war the United States can fight: World War II or Vietnam. Anything that can be made to look like World War II is OK. But since the conditions for World War II cannot be replicated, most wars run the danger of being or becoming Vietnam. During Operation Desert Shield, the heroically named lull before Operation Desert Storm, Bush, with the help of the media, tried for a World War II gloss. Saddam Hussein was likened to Hitler, and the New Republic obliged the president by giving Hussein a Hitler-style mustache on a cover photograph. The Grand Coalition stood in for the Grand Alliance, the Kurds played the Jews, the Kuwaitis the Poles, and this time the French fought.

For all the president's efforts to re-create World War II, Gulf War I never achieved the necessary majesty. It remained a punitive war against an oil ally who had gotten out of hand and had to be slapped down. But discipline did not prove to be the tonic that total victory once had been. The administration chose to allow a presumably chastened Hussein to remain in power. American troops did not march triumphantly through the streets of Baghdad, as they had in Berlin and Tokyo. The Gulf War planners, many of whom, like Colin Powell, had fought in Vietnam, put great thought and energy into avoiding the pitfalls of Vietnam, but they could not make war good again.

President Clinton's military expeditions, too, were undertaken with a clear memory of what the Vietnam War had been about and why he had opposed it. They fared no better. In Somalia, the Clinton administration worked toward the World War II formula by naming one of that sorry country's many warlords as its Hitler and proceeding to hunt him and his lieutenants down. In the course of those unsuccessful efforts, a famine-stricken population, which had initially welcomed U.S. intervention, turned ugly. Eighteen dead Americans and as many as 1,000 dead Somalis later, Clinton withdrew U.S. forces. For most of the public, the lesson drawn was that if you couldn't have World War II and didn't want Vietnam, it was better to stay home or participate, if at all, from 30,000 feet up. Thus, in Kosovo, safe in the skies with not an antiaircraft gun in sight, the Air Force played its part.

The current President Bush has worked hard to offer the country a 21st century World War II. The war against terrorism, a war in which the victims of Sept. 11 gave the U.S. a moral authority it hasn't had since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's time, seemed an easy war to sell as a "great cause."

But closely edited footage of the massive bombing of Afghanistan and the cautious ground activity of a small number of specialist troops did not prove a satisfactory stand-in for the Normandy landing, the Battle of the Bulge or the taking of Okinawa. At home, rather than being called upon to bravely bear the burden of rationing, Americans were exhorted to consume as much as possible -- hardly the kind of sacrifice that instilled a sense of personal participation in the war effort.

Still, the quick defeat of the Taliban was helpful. And Hollywood has pitched in with a string of movies like "Saving Private Ryan" and "We Were Soldiers" that make the general notion of war more palatable. Joseph Galloway, co-author of the book on which "We Were Soldiers" was based explained to the New York Times what he saw as the importance of his account of the 1965 victory of outnumbered U.S. troops against uniformed North Vietnamese soldiers in the Ia Drang Valley: "The book is not about recriminations and politics. The book is about what it's like in battle when your life depends on the guy next to you." Through such tales of heroism and bravery, the sting of shame and defeat could yet be removed; the syndrome cured.

How curious, then, that Vietnam returns where one might least expect it: not through a quagmire war, with TV images of body bags and bloodied children, but in the form of a mass antiwar movement, global in scope, broadly inclusive, spontaneously organized, very clearly and repeatedly saying no to war. The specter of domestic division has returned, and worse, it has been internationalized. The kind of worldwide backlash it took presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon years to achieve, Bush has brought about in record time.

The widespread outrage has revived another Vietnam-era phenomenon: a belief on the part of those who support the war that the opposition would embrace it if they only understood the reasoning behind it. Almost daily someone in the upper reaches of government attributes the public reluctance to go to war against Iraq to a lack of understanding. They can't accept the thought that the country -- and the world -- might understand the administration very well and still reject this war.

Perhaps it is time to redefine the Vietnam syndrome. It no longer refers to the reluctance of the public to engage in war, but rather to the insistence of the present administration that the only cure for that long ago defeat is more war. As President Bush said in a December 2002 U.S. News & World Report interview: " ... it's very important for the American people to know my sentiments about military engagement, that I will use our military as a last resort and our first resort.... "