Politics & Policy

Vietnam, After All?

Formulaic warfare.

As with the formulaic type scenes of Homeric epic, there now arises a sense of familiarity with the current outcries over Haditha.

#ad#We do not really know yet what happened in that terrorist-infected hellhole, but it seems not to matter. Those who customarily decry the supposed loss of civil liberties are now the first to rush to judgment–reminding us that it is not always principle per se that they embrace, but a partisanship to be advanced at all costs.

Like Abu Ghraib, the killings will be used to vilify the military, and, ultimately, to curtail the American effort in Iraq–despite the good news of the recent appointment of the remaining three Iraqi cabinet officials and the demise of the mass-murdering Zarqawi. Just as the public was bombarded with scenes of a few dozen naked Iraqis and dog leashes in 2004, or cries of mythical flushed Korans in 2005–never the mass graves of Saddam–so too we now hear only of a new My Lai.

Vietnam, My Lai, pullout, deadline, cutoff–all the old remembrances are returning, as the graying antiwar generation of the 1960s will not go quietly into the night. Abu Ghraib and Haditha are the new Tiger Cages and napalm; George Bush is the Johnson or Nixon of our age; and “no blood for oil” is similar to the old mythical conspiracies of why we were in Vietnam.

Yes, we know the wished-for script. As the drumbeat of hysterical criticism continues, domestic support erodes to almost nothing. The enemy becomes emboldened, taking much of its triumphant rhetoric right from the antiwar Western left. Funds will be cut-off and deadlines for withdrawal imposed.

But wait, stop! Do we really wish to continue the tired formula, since we know what follows and where it ends?

Once we leave, the killing starts in earnest, not 20 or 30 per day, but wholesale slaughter of any Iraqis who taught school, or were clean shaven and wore Western dress, or fought to save Iraq. Millions of refugees flee to the West. Those who stay are killed or “reeducated.” Islamism, like Communism, is empowered with the American defeat. We can expect, as in the past, new aggression in peripheral theaters like Afghanistan or Israel. Twenty years from now expect revisionist books reminding us that the battles for Iraq, like Tet, were American victories and the enemy was almost beaten when we quit. Envision one of the late al-Zarqawi’s henchmen, like General Giap, in his dotage thanking the antiwar movement.

Americans abroad will be ripe targets, since, like the Iranian hostage taking of 1979, there will be an unspoken assurance that the United States would not dare risk another Iraq/Vietnam. Here at home, we will enter an endless cycle of mutual recrimination, lose confidence in the U.S. military, and return to a neo-isolationism–punctuated by the occasional liberal call “to do something” as we watch the usual associated horrors unfold around the world.

The Left will see defeat in Iraq, as it did in Vietnam, as welcomed confirmation of its own moral superiority. And in response perhaps we will soon get another Jimmy Carter, who each year assures us that not one American soldier has died under his watch as the entire nation is imperiled. Forget that despite such smugness an embassy was stormed; Khomeinism was birthed; Afghanistan was invaded; a holocaust continued full-bore in Cambodia; Central America was in the midst of a Communist insurrection; and we were reduced to boycotting the Olympics.

So the odd thing is that the more the reality on the ground in Iraq does not resemble Vietnam, the more the opposition to it does. Note how almost all the facts concerning Iraq at one time or another have been twisted to resemble Vietnam. The trumped up Gulf of Tonkin resolution as a casus belli is supposedly similar to the faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction–except that the U.S. Senate this time around voted for 22 additional counts of action as well, and almost every foreign intelligence service confirmed the CIA’s assessment. George Bush is supposedly like Lyndon Johnson, destroyed by a counter-insurgency war–except he got reelected rather than forgoing a nomination for a second term.

The enemy has no uniformed army, as was true of the North Vietnamese. The terrorist insurgents are reactionary, not a Communist movement that so appeals to the naïve on the Left. Iraq is not, as was Vietnam, a proxy war between two nuclear superpowers. There are not tens of thousands of hardcore Chinese and Russian advisors manning missile sites and training Iraqis. And the present government in Iraq, after three democratic elections, is far more legitimate than was any South Vietnamese regime.

For our own part, we field a professional army of volunteers, not reluctant draftees. The campuses are quiet. And despite the screaming pundits and politicians, there are not mass protests in the streets demanding an end to the war. While 2,400 dead constitute a grievous loss, as of now that is just a fraction of those killed in Vietnam, about 2 a day compared to almost 20.

So why are we determined to make Haditha emblematic of a failed Vietnam-like effort to save Iraq?

Ignorance in part. We have forgotten the horrific nature of war that leaves no good choices. Current sanctimonious critics who have already tried and convicted the Marines at Haditha should go back and read, say, E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed, his humane but terrifying memoir of Okinawa, or recall American actions at the Bulge or on Sicily.

When tens of thousands of young men are asked to win the dirty fighting against savage enemies or terrorists, and threatened with daily extinction, in Iraq or any American war, a few can break or transgress the American code of military conduct. The only difference between Haditha–if it proves that some Marines violated standards of military behavior–and the shooting of Japanese prisoners and occasional Okinawan civilians is that today’s military, to its everlasting credit, considers an assault on non-combatants an abject crime, not, as in past wars of survival, an occasional occurrence to be seen in light of the inevitable stresses and horrors of war, and excused by the fact it was far less commonplace than was true of the daily conduct of the Nazi, Soviet, or Japanese soldiers.

For those who now associate the crimes of a few with an entire war effort, do any think that women and children were not maimed and worse when Bill Clinton–with no Senate approval and no effort to go to the U.N.–bombed downtown Belgrade on the righteous logic that the risk of collateral damage (500-1000 charred Serbian civilians?) was worth taking to stop a genocide? Do we remember that NATO planes mistakenly hit passenger trains, buses, an embassy, a rest home, a hospital, and apartment buildings?

When we see pictures of horrific starvation in Somalia and hear the liberal mantra “do something,” do we recall the hundreds of Somalis we killed to extract our soldiers from that Black-Hawk Down nightmare? Does anyone really believe that Gen. Zinni’s “Operation Desert Fox”–we were told that we killed several hundred–chewed up only Republican Guard troops busy in WMD labs?

And if we were to go to Darfur, as so many liberals now envision, to stop another holocaust, could that evil be excised without some death of innocents? After all, to fight in Darfur is not to prance in and declare victory, but to send these same now-demonized Marines into a disease-infested sinkhole, where “civilians” kill and there is no real way to distinguish friend from foe.

In truth, the good that the United States has achieved in successful wars usually has far overshadowed the horrific means used to achieve it. That is why formerly fascist German and Italian newspapers on the cheap can roast the United States today. And why upscale South Koreans are not, like their northern counterparts, eating grass; why there are not now Banzai marches in Tokyo; why there are Kosovars and Bosnians still left on the planet; why the odious Daniel Ortega is freely running for office; why Gen. Noriega is not clubbing his opponents on the streets of Panama City; and yes, why the Eastern Europeans wish to join the EU instead of being forced into the Warsaw Pact, and why the Russians use oil profits, not missiles, to get their way. In contrast, does anyone believe that Vietnam, or Haiti, or present-day Somalia is better off for our past failures?

So by all means investigate Haditha. Try and convict any who broke the rules of war, and sullied the honor of the U.S. Marine Corps.

But please spare us the scripted outrage that is simply cheap cover for wanting Iraq to end as Vietnam, as there appear ten stories on Haditha for every one about either an American victory over terrorists or help for Iraqi civilians. Any true moralist who cares for the Iraqi people should pray that this war doesn’t devolve into helicopters on the embassy roof–followed by the old predictable liberal silence when the real killing begins.

Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author, most recently, of A War Like No Other. How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.

Victor Davis Hanson — NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.

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