The Vietnam Syndrome

Print edition : November 07, 2003

The disastrous experiences of the Vietnam War have taught Washington an important lesson in warfare and politics - that political upsets due to the alienation of U.S. voters can be circumvented by sacrificing un-American and non-American lives.

NOT far from where this writer lives, in one of the small towns of Western Massachusetts, the war in Iraq finally came home. A substantial number of the 5,000 residents of Deerfield lined the streets in early September 2003 to welcome home the body of 24-year-old U.S. Army sergeant Gregory Belanger. A cook with the 325th Military Intelligence Battalion, Belanger went to Iraq in March and died on August 27 in a mortar attack as he rode a troop transport. Standing along Sugarloaf Street, two residents told the local newspaper, Daily Hampshire Gazette, how they felt about the death. "Something like this really hits home," said Brian Cunningham, whose son is a soldier in Iraq. Ed. Baronas Jr. came to show his support "regardless of our feelings on the war. It's important to show unity. This is a kid doing what he thought was right".

But Gregory Belanger only joined the military by default. To pay his tuition for culinary school at Johnson and Wales College, Belanger enlisted in the Army Reserves. Faced with a manpower crunch after 9/11, the military called up his unit and he eventually found himself in a troop convoy as a cook in the middle of Iraq. Like many children of the lower middle class and the working class, Belanger could only afford the increasingly high college tuition by going into debt (via student loans) or else by enlisting in the U.S. armed forces. The U.S. "volunteer" army preys on these young people who can only achieve social mobility either through the forces of debt or through those of death.

On May 1, President George W. Bush held a blusterous press conference aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare an end to the war in Iraq. Since then, more U.S. troops have died than during the actual invasion. The peace has been more dangerous than the war. As each body bag arrives home, at least another family decides not to vote to re-elect Bush in 2004, and several others feel betrayed by the claims of easy victory offered by the Bush clique shortly before the war began.

The rage of military families has now taken on an organised form. On August 13, an ad hoc group called the Military Families Speak Out (MFSO) joined with the Vietnam-era Veterans for Peace to launch a campaign called "Bring Them Home Now". Nancy Gallego of El Paso, Texas, in a letter to the MFSO, wrote: "I want the son I sent to Iraq to come back to me. He is sick, he is tired, he is dirty and he has lost his spirit and laughter." A group of Latino military families from Florida wrote a stinging letter on September 12 to the U.S. military: "These soldiers have now been away from our homes for eight months, away from their children, wives and parents, away from their universities and jobs, involved in a guerilla war in an unknown country, not knowing the culture or the language of the place, menaced by mines, bombs and guns, risking their lives 24 hours of the day, standing in their uniforms and carrying their equipment in temperatures of up to 130F. The coalition we are being told about does not really exist. It is our troops that carry the load of this war. It is our children who are being sacrificed due to an arrogant and unfair attitude."

Such comments by military families and by young people deployed in Iraq bring us to the threshold of the "Vietnam Syndrome". During the U.S. presence in Vietnam from 1961 to 1975, 58,000 troops died, a miniscule per cent (.03 per cent) of the 200 million Americans. During the Civil War (1861-1865), one million Americans died, a full 3 per cent of the 1865 population. These numbers are very low when compared to the carnage inflicted on the world by the World Wars; in fact, as many people died in the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad alone as in the U.S. Civil War. Nevertheless, with the media in full bloom by the 1960s, with the medical establishment able to save lives and lengthen one's life expectancy, and with the sheer superiority of the U.S. in terms of industrial and military production, the troops and the population did not expect such casualties, particularly for a war they could not fully support. By the end of the Vietnam War, in the mid-1970s, the press began to talk of the "Vietnam Syndrome", the hesitancy of the U.S. government to deploy ground troops in a combat zone for fear of military failure, heavy casualties and thereby loss of political capital. By 1998, a fairly extensive opinion poll in the U.S. showed that 63 per cent of the population felt that the Vietnam War was "fundamentally wrong". If so many people had lost faith in the political establishment and, particularly, the military planners, how could a state ensure morale in its standing army? How could the state plan a war without casualties? The war planners came up with two solutions, aerial bombardment and Vietnamisation.

A U.S. marine leads a wounded colleague as others carry bodies of soldiers towards a helicopter in Con Thien, Vietnam, on May 17, 1967 during the Vietnam War.-AP

The atomic bomb attacks on Japan, the U.S. government insists, took place to prevent the kind of casualties seen during the battle at Okinawa. Even as there is ample evidence, from President Harry S. Truman's notebooks, for instance, that one of the purposes was to send a message of U.S. strength to the Soviets, it is true that the planners saw the aerial bombardment as a way to end the war without the spillage of more American blood. In Korea, U.S. bombardment of civilian structures, such as dams and irrigation systems, foreshadowed what became doctrinal in Vietnam - the form of devastation known as "area bombing". The point was no longer to destroy simply a target, but the area around it. As a result, the U.S. used more napalm and more tonnage in Vietnam than in any of its previous wars (eight million tonnes of bombs in Vietnam and Cambodia, as opposed to two million in the Second World War). Eighty per cent of the aerial raids in Vietnam followed the principle of area bombing: raze the enemy's lands so that its fighters lose morale, retreat and are ready game for helicopter gunships.

The key to this horrendous use of aerial force was the fact that those against whom they are targeted could not touch the delivery systems. A bomber that can be reasonably accurate from 30,000 feet above the ground would not be within the range of most of the weaponry available to the rag-tag armies that are foe of the U.S. When a cruise missile lets off its payload, not only can the targets not know this has happened, but they only realise its presence when the fireball is upon them. If warfare can be reduced to such one-sided terror, then there will be no American body bags and the "Vietnam Syndrome" can be banished. Gulf War I (1991) and the Kosovo war (1999) established the principle of the aerial war. In 1991, President George H. Bush announced: "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all."

Such an antidote for the "Vietnam Syndrome" produces its own callousness. When asked about casualty figures for the Afghanistan war, Major Bob Herbert, one of the public relations officers for the Army, told a reporter: "You mean for the bad guys? We don't have them. Because a lot of times you can't match the parts. We just know we've got a lot of legs and hands."

But, Gulf War I only reduced the Saddam Hussein regime, it did not knock it out, and the Kosovo peace had to be managed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), not U.S. forces. With Afghanistan and Gulf War II, the U.S. has had to enter the ground and manage the aftermath. This has meant that its troops have had to face the barrage of resistance that comes with being a colonial power. In Vietnam, from 1970 to 1975, the U.S. tried to forestall its own losses by the principle of Vietnamisation, having the South Vietnamese Army conduct frontline operations and bear the human cost of the war. Since Vietnam, the U.S. military has trained with armed forces around the world, including India, in order to maintain what it calls "interoperability", or the ability for the U.S. Special Forces to interlink rapidly with the armed forces of a regional power who are, in essence, turned over for U.S. war plans. The joint trainings with the armies of the Central Asian republics came into use during the Afghanistan campaign, as did the cannon fodder of the Northern Alliance.

The Pentagon had hoped to use the Kurdish peshmerga in northern Iraq in a similar manner as the Northern Alliance, but Turkey's refusal of passage scuttled that plan. The U.S. troops are, of course, not alone in Iraq: the armies of such states as Britain, Poland and Mongolia bolster their strength. However, the bulk of the forces on the ground are American. As more and more of these soldiers are killed, and as more and more body bags return home, the "Vietnam Syndrome" reappears.

Since the U.S. does not operate a draft and relies upon volunteers to staff its military force, the bulk of those who are in combat come from among the lower middle class and the working class. Rick Jahnkow of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft calls the recruitment of the U.S. military the "poverty draft". Furthermore, the military is one of the few institutions where blacks and Latinos are not in a minority: they are being killed in Iraq in numbers far greater than their proportion in the population. Indeed, the first U.S. casualty was not even a citizen but a Guatemalan man, Jose Gutierrez. A white woman, Private Jessica Lynch, is the symbol for this war, while few care to remember Gutierrez' name. Fernando Suarez del Solar, the father of Jess, an early casualty in the war, told the Associated Press: "Instead of grabbing a rifle, young people should be allowed to have books."

There are now more black men in jail than in college, and they comprise a large part of the two million Americans who form the largest incarcerated population on the planet. These people are known by their skin colour, but when blacks and Latinos join the military, their skin turns green, the colour of the U.S. fatigues. When they die in combat, they are American, and it is this American blood that disturbs the U.S. public, even as they are generally immune to the police excesses against blacks and Latinos within the country.

The Washington Post reported, stunningly, that until mid-2003, almost 70 per cent of the U.S. population believed that Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq had something to do with the attacks of 9/11. If the British government "sexed up" the reports of weapons of mass destruction on the Iraq-9/11 link, there is no basic evidence to embellish. Being the sacred day, 9/11 has been invoked by the Bush administration to sell its entire bag of tricks, most of which had been resoundingly rebuked for a year and a half before the terrorist attacks. To summon 9/11 is to appeal to an American distaste for the loss of American life. Those several thousand dead have a greater claim to the global imagination than a comparable number of dead in, say, Bhopal. Shortly after Union Carbide's reckless terrorism that killed about 4,000 people in 1984, a representative of American Cyanamid quite casually noted that the number should not be taken too seriously because Indians do not share "the North American philosophy of the importance of human life". The innocent lives of un-Americans and non-Americans can be sacrificed to preserve every last drop of American blood.

When the U.S. asks India to send troops, it is not for the multilateral reconstruction of Iraq. The motivation behind the request is to circumvent the "Vietnam Syndrome", to turn the jawans into the South Vietnamese conscripts, to make them sacrifice their lives for the dollar, and to ensure the re-election of G.W. Bush.

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