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James S. Henry

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Costly Lessons Lost
James S. Henry


News Flash - Leading Conserv. Dem. Wants US Troop Pullout From Iraq Within 6 Mos.
News Flash - New Vietnam-Era Transcripts: Eerie Resemblance to Iraq

Each Veterans Day, my family takes pride in the fact that generations of Henrys and Shelburnes have served proudly in almost every honorable American war, from the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, to the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and Korea. While we have always admired the courage of principled pacifists, whenever there were genuine threats posed to the US, our choice was to answer the country’s call.
Some members of my family also chose to serve in Vietnam. But I did not, because I did not consider Vietnam to be an honorable war. When my draft number turned out to be 365, I seized the chance to become active in anti-war protests, and to write a book about the problems of returning veterans and the Veterans Administration.

As we will review below, Vietnam was a war that no one who had any choice in the matter – and millions of US draftees and unemployed working-class youth did not have much choice – had any business helping to wage.
Iraq is in the same category -- right up there with other ignoble US military adventures, like the Indian Wars, the 1846-48 Mexican War, and the brutal Philippines- American War of 1899 to 1916, when an occupation army of 126,000 US troops required 17 years to put down Filipino rebels fighting for independence, at a cost of 4324 American lives, 20,000 Filipino insurgent lives, and at least 250,000 Filipino civilian lives.

One might have hoped that the US would have learned from these costly adventures, and the Vietnam blunder in particular. Instead, we seem to be repeating many of the very same costly mistakes in Iraq, and adding some new ones -- for example, the creation of a world-class training camp for terrorists, one that makes the Taliban’s Afghanistan look like a 4-H Petting Zoo, and largely offsets all the advantages gained by the success of the multilateral effort in that country.

As conservative national security authorities like former National Security advisor Brent Scowcroft, former Marine Corp General Anthony Zinni, and former Lt. Col. William Odom have come to recognize, Iraq is a strategic blunder of Vietnam proportions. Odom's September 2004 remarks on German TV are especially worth repeating:

“When the President says he is staying the course, that makes me really afraid. For a leader has to know when to change course. Hitler did not change his course: rather he kept sending more and more troops to Stalingrad and they suffered more and more casualties.

“When the president says he is staying the course it reminds me of the man who has just jumped from the Empire State Building. Half-way down he says, ‘I am still on course.’ Well, I would not want to be on course with a man who will lie splattered in the street. I would like to be someone who could change the course.

“Our invasion of Iraq has made it a homeland for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Indeed, I believe that it was the very first time that many Iraqis became terrorists. Before we invaded, they had no idea of terrorism.”


Once again, those who are paying the highest price for misguided US strategy are not the war’s organizers, but thousands of ordinary US servicemen and tens of thousands of ordinary Iraqis.

Just as in Vietnam, the number of civilian casualties in Iraq is highly uncertain -- the Pentagon, learning at least one lesson from Vietnam, “does not do body counts.” But no independent observer doubts (1) this number is at least 10-50 times the number of US fatalities, and (2) the great majority of Iraqi fatalities have been caused by US-led coalition forces.

It also turns out that, just as in the case of Vietnam, the US has become engaged in a series of horrific war crimes in Iraq, many of which are only just now coming to the surface. Each day we are reminded of the barbaric deeds of suicide bombers. But can anyone doubt that the insurgents would gladly exchange their explosive belts and “improvised explosive devices” for the 500-pound bombs, white phosphorus, Gatling guns, and air-to-ground missiles, now routinely employed by the US military?

The results of the insurgents’ violent deeds are also not shielded from our eyes by “no-go” zones and the rigid censorship that applies to embedded journalists.
Finally, once again, a tiny elite has manipulated and lied our country into launching a costly, aggressive foreign war. This is not only of interest to historians --
if lying to Congress to launch the most blatant unilateral act of aggression since Hitler invaded Poland is not an impeachable offense, I don't know what is.

There is a growing body of evidence – from Richard Clark, Paul O’Neil, Scott Ritter, and Joe Wilson on down to the latest revelations by the British Ambassador to Washington – that the Bush Administration had Iraq in its gunsights from January 2001 onwards.

Belated Democratic complaints about “being lied to” notwithstanding, it was also clear to many independent observers in late 2002 and early 2003 that the Administration’s claims about WMDs and the specific risks posed by Saddam’s regime to the US and its allies were puffed up.


To a journalist, the most disturbing question is how the US “Fourth Estate” – mainstream journalism– was persuaded to go along with all of this. In fact the Fourth Estate has almost always supported US wars, at least initially, including those with blatant neo-imperial ambitions like the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the Philipines occupation, and the Vietnam War.

In the case of Iraq, there's little doubt that the press got swept up in the country's revanchist mood after 9/11.
But the press was not simply swept along. As the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman – one of the earliest drum-beaters, like his colleague Judith Miller -- admitted in a brief moment of candor in Ha’aretz in April 2003,

"(This) is the war the neoconservatives wanted…(and) marketed. Those people had an idea to sell when September 11th came, and they sold it. Oh boy, how they sold it. This is not a war that the masses demanded. This is a war of an elite. I could give you the names of 25 people (all of whom sit within a 5-block radius of (my Washington DC) office, who , if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened."

In the aftermath of Vietnam, virtually all its higher-level organizers and media proponents "failed up" -- they transitioned smoothly to respectable post-war careers. McGeorge Bundy went to the Ford Foundation, Robert McNamara to the World Bank, Henry Kissinger to a lucrative consulting career. Pro-war journalists and publishers like Joe Alsop and Henry Luce also continued to prosper.
The American Left has an unfortunate habit of
turning the other cheek,
partly because it has often suffered from “witchhunts” itself. This time around, for the sake of future generations, we need to be much less forgiving. But we will let the punishment fit the crime.
Those academics, pundits, reporters, professional experts and anchor-people
-- like Bernard Lewis, Thomas Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, Wiliam Kristol, Judith Miller, Robert Novak, Richard Perle, and Bill O'Reilly --
who went out of their way to hype this war must simply
be compelled to answer questions about it for the rest of their professional careers.


The good news now is that we are fast approaching a watershed in US foreign policy, when our country finally acknowledges that the only question worth debating is precisely how high the scaffold should be for the politicians, national security “experts,” and war-mongering pundits who dragged us into the Iraq War mess in the first place.

Just a year after his reelection, a beleaguered US President is wandering the planet from Buenos Aires to Brasilia to Panama to Taiwan, accusing his critics back home – with no apparent sense of the irony -- of being “irresponsible.” Images_5

Meanwhile, leading members of the US Senate just now, at long last, beginning to tilt toward the anti-war movement, declaring what many of us have been saying since well before April 2003 – that this war was premeditated, and based on rather transparent distortions and outright fabrications.

Given next year's mid-term elections, a few of these cautious souls in the Congress may even be thinking the unthinkable -- that the only way to really “win" this War, compel the Iraqis to take charge of their own destiny, get back to the job of fighting global terrorism, diminish the domestic demand in Iraq for "foreign fighters," regain support among the Iraqi people, and truly support our troops is by withdrawing them as quickly as possible, and in any case no later than the end of 2006.


At the risk of digging up some painful memories, it may be useful to recall that Vietnam was an undeclared, illegal, completely one-sided war, fought against popular forces and a Third World army in a tiny, distant, impoverished country.

The war was fought for reasons that kept shifting over time, and eventually proved to be false, based on a combination of negligent misjudgments, willful distortions, and outright lies. As a result, after more than a decade, and hundreds of billions of dollars, more than 58,200 Americans, 1 million Vietnamese combatants, 3-4 million Vietamese civilians, and 50,000 - to 300,000 Cambodian civilians killed by US bombs essentially died for nothing.
As Henry Kissinger himself admitted in a 2003 documentary, if Vietnam had been permitted to “fall” to the Communists immediately after World War II, it would have made virtually no difference to the outcome of the Cold War or US national security interests.

Indeed, today, "Communist" Vietnam today has one of the highest economic growth rates in Asia, and is one of the largest per capita recipients of US foreign investment and World Bank finance -- indeed, apart from the emerging bird flu epidemic and its one-party state, the country is a World Bank poster boy.

All this did not prevent leading US politicians and high-minded national security experts from “selling” the war hard, essentially for their own political and bureaucratic self-interests:

The first bogus justification for the war was the notion that Ho Chi Minh’s national liberation movement was nothing but the creation of a global Communist conspiracy, and that Vietnam was just another "domino" in this grand design.

This myth, largely concocted by US policymakers like Walt Rostow, John Foster Dulles, and McGeorge Bundy, was belied by thousands of years of Vietnamese history, the intense Sino-Soviet rivalry (exploited so adroitly by Henry Kissinger), and the many wars and skirmishes waged among China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Russia. It was also belied by the fact that the US carried almost the entire burden of the war alone, evidently because (except perhaps for Australia and South Korea) its allies in Europe and Japan perceived no such global threat.

Especially under the Imperial Presidencies of Kennedy and Johnson, there was also the myth that the US was bringing "democracy" to the Vietnamese people. This was belied by the long string of corrupt, incompetent, and unpopular "South Vietnam" regimes that the US collaborated with, paid for, and helped to install.

For a time there was also the claim – in retrospect, almost preposterous – that North Vietnam’s pipsqueak Navy had launched an unprovoked attack on the US Navy in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964.

We now know that this attack never occurred – that the intelligence pertaining to it was either manipulated from on high to begin with, or, at a minimum, badly mishandled at lower levels. Whatever the truth, the incident was exploited by the Johnson Administration to ram a war resolution through a complacent US Congress.

Finally, there was the Nixon Administration's bloody-minded rationale that despite the dubious nature of all the other justifications, and the complete absence of any winning strategy, our national "honor" and “credibility” – and of course, Nixon’s reelection in 1972 -- required us to extend this murderous endeavor another five-seven years, at a cost of 1 million more Vietnamese and 25,000 more US lives, plus untold collateral damage in Cambodia and Laos.

Since it is now known that the Nixon Administration understood from its very first days in office in 1969, that a victory over the insurgency was impossible, and that a US withdrawal was inevitable, all this extra suffering was simply due to cynical face-saving – and a desire to avoid the (silly, but politically loaded) question, “Who Lost Vietnam?”


Now the US is embarked on yet another dishonorable Imperial adventure. The Iraq War is also based on a remarkably similar series of shifting rationales, distortions, and outright lies.

At first the Bush Administration and some Democrats, claimed that Saddam was part of al Qaeda’s global terrorist conspiracy. That claim appears to have been slayed by the facts.

However, more recently, there has also been an effort to portray Iraq’s insurgents as nothing more than “terrorists,” “foreign fighters,” and “Saddam loyalists.” Undoubtedly all these groups have seized on the opportunity presented by the US invasion. But the majority of the insurgents appear to be ordinary Iraqis – including some Shiites as well as Sunnis – who are opposed to the US occupation, and to the prospect that the “new Iraq” will be turn out to be nothing more than a Shiite-dominated theocracy or a Balkanized

We’ve also seen the Bush Administration’s shrill attempts to claim that Saddam’s regime was somehow linked to 9/11, or that his beleaguered regime – crippled by two long wars and more than a decade of international boycotts -- was somehow on the verge of deploying nuclear weapons and other WMDs for use against the US and its allies.

Unfortunately, despite more than two years of searching, no evidence whatsoever has turned up to support either of these pre-war claims. This is important, because these are the only justifications for the US-led invasion that come anywhere close to justifying it, from the standpoint of international law, or the enforcement of UN resolutions – no matter how reprehensible Saddam’s government was to his own people.

Absent WMDs and any al-Qaeda links, the justification for the war has shifted to the notion that we are fighting for Iraqi “democracy.” As noted, this noble aim alone could not justify a US invasion, from the standpoint of international law -- Venezuela, for example, may not like the way elections are conducted in Florida, but that doesn't permit it to invade Miami.

In any case, the "democratization" war aim is also belied by Iraq’s new constitution, which has succeeded mainly in crippling the central government, stimulating deep religious and ethnic tensions, and driving the country to the brink of anarchy and civil war.

Indeed, we’ve seen this war become the realization of Iran’s foreign policy dream – the elimination of Saddam, one of Iran's most bitter enemies, the installation of a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, and the diversion of US military resources to a country without any WMDs whatsoever. All this buys valuable time for whatever Iran may be up to with nuclear weapons -- which seems to be no good.

Most recently – as in Bush’s reproach to his critics this week – we’ve also seen the war’s defenders fall back to the last line of defense for a failed foreign policy – that abandoning it will lead both our friends and our enemies to doubt our “credibility.”

As if we could possibly do any more damage to our “credibility” than we’ve already done, by hyping the case for the war and then thoroughly mismanaging its conduct.

Just like Nixon and Kissinger in 1969, Bush & Co., and, for that matter, leading Pro-War Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Senator Joe Lieberman, haven’t given us any reasons to expect that, five years down the line, after another 5000 dead US troops, another 40,000 US wounded, and another 200,000 dead or wounded Iraqis, the US Occupation and the Shiite-dominated theocracy that it has brought to Iraq, wouldl be any more stable.

Just as in Vietnam, operationally, we never lost the war -- we could have continued that bloody stalemate forever. In a strategic sense, however, we lost the very first time we confused a political problem with a military one.

(c) SubmergingMarkets, 2005

November 12, 2005 at 01:50 AM | Permalink


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Costly Lessons Lost
James S. Henry


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