|Why all is quiet
on the American home front
By Sreeram Chaulia
It is now a little over three years since President George W
Bush plunged the United States into a desultory war against
the state and people of Iraq. Notwithstanding triumphal
declarations of an "end of major combat operations" in May
2003 by the man who relishes the tag of "war president", the
official body count of American troop losses in Iraq stands
at 2,439 at the time of writing. The Pentagon's tally of
injured soldiers totals 17,869.
These figures fall way short of losses suffered by the US
during the Vietnam War, thanks to the advanced technologies
in warfare acquired by the world's most powerful state and
the differences in the types of anti-American resistance
experienced in Vietnam and Iraq.
The Vietnam War cost 38,179 American soldier deaths over a
period of nine years (1965-1973), averaging 4,242 killed per
annum, and 96,802 armed personnel sustained injuries.
Civilian casualties in Iraq are said to be 39,296. In
Vietnam, they may have exceeded 2 million.
Should the US occupation of Iraq last nine years, and the
current rate of attrition be sustained, the US would incur
7,317 dead soldiers. Statistically, Iraq may not be on the
way to becoming an exact sequel to bloody Vietnam, but it
certainly is an open-ended morass in which demoralized
American soldiers confront an undaunted resistance with no
sign from the White House about when the ordeal will finally
Vietnam has become the most painful metaphor for failed
colonial wars of domination. When the Soviet Union invaded
Afghanistan in 1979 and steadily got entangled in an
unwinnable war, it was dubbed "the Soviet Union's Vietnam".
Fifteen thousand Red Army soldiers were killed in that
10-year war. The US war on Iraq, in view of fewer troop
losses, unanticipated strong resistance and an invisible
exit route, might better be called a "mini-Vietnam", but not
One big difference when comparing Iraq to Vietnam is the
somewhat quiescent home front in the US today. Of course,
there have been numerous anti-war demonstrations across the
United States, and they are growing in size with the
cumulative unpopularity of Bush.
The peace movement has been active in organizing symbolic
protests, poster campaigns, marches and petitions to
denounce the occupation of Iraq and to recall US forces. The
single largest gathering of anti-Iraq war Americans took
place recently in New York City, where on April 29, 350,000
citizens hit the streets chanting slogans and songs of peace
As admirable as these efforts are, they do not match the
culture of dissent and civil disobedience that the
anti-Vietnam War wave epitomized in the early 1970s. It is
worth recalling that the coordinated protests of that era
reached such a high decibel level that president Richard
Nixon was forced to announce a staged military withdrawal
from Vietnam in response to the popular demand.
For all the rallies that we see today against the Iraq war
in US towns and cities, that puissant mandate that magically
ratifies the notion of popular sovereignty in a democracy is
embryonic, if not non-existent.
What explains the difference in anti-war agitation between
now and the rebellious 1970s? Why is Iraq not engendering a
social movement like the one that compelled politicians to
change course in Vietnam? Five primary factors are
interacting in combination to mute the anti-Iraq war clamor
from overturning Bush's foreign policy.
First, the Iraq war - understood as the full-scale US
invasion and occupation - is just three years old. It took
about five years of escalating military intervention on the
part of the administration of president Lyndon Johnson and a
corresponding deterioration of the US economy for the
anti-Vietnam War movement to become institutionalized and
critically massive. Social movements take time for
intensification of grievances and for thoroughness of
If events follow their past course and there is no US
pullout or retrenchment, the anti-Iraq war unrest should
reach its zenith by 2008-09. However, since the US troop
losses do not show signs of matching those in Vietnam, the
relative magnitude of outrage will be lower in the anti-Iraq
war movement even in 2009.
Numbers count for galvanizing public opinion. The unaffected
parts of the US population will only cross the threshold of
tolerance if the casualty rate dramatically shoots up in
Iraq. Sadly for the peace constituency, quality of death
does not impinge on general consciousness as much as
Second, no draft or forced recruitment to the army operates
in the US today as it did during most of the Vietnam War.
Conscription of youth between the ages of 19 and 25
increased dramatically from 1964 to provide manpower for the
war. The arbitrary and controversial authority granted to
draft boards by the Johnson administration increased the
risk of induction of underprivileged and privileged young
men and led to dodging, evasion and, finally, revolt.
Given the increasing reluctance of young Americans to join
the army today, a few are calling for reinstating mandatory
military service to boost the "generational war on
terrorism". As the crisis of military recruitment snowballs
in the US, the predator state might once again poach on
young American human resources.
In a highly individualistic society, only the wearer knows
how the shoe pinches. If the liberty to abstain from war is
snatched away from Americans again, the anti-war movement
will not remain limited to the left wing. If the US Army
remains in Iraq for long and if there is a spillover into
Iran, the necessity for a return to Vietnam-era drafts may
arise, laying the foundation for a wider-ranging peace
Third, the control over the mass media that the US
establishment exercises at present is a big hurdle for peace
to turn into a generalized concern among US citizens. The
average Joe and Jane are still hedging their bets and not
openly defying the "support our troops" jingoism due to the
strict controls on reportage about the excesses being
committed by US forces and the wholesale disintegration of
Iraq in the guise of spreading democracy. That may change
with the recent revelation that US marines may have killed
more than 20 civilians in the town of Haditha.
In 1970, news of the My Lai massacre was widely reported in
the US media and instantly triggered mass outrage. It
punctured the myth that Vietnam was a just war waged against
communist expansion. In 1971, the New York Times published
the first installment of the Pentagon Papers - a dossier of
criminal acts of indiscriminate bombings, assassinations and
drug trafficking being carried out by US forces and
intelligence agencies in Vietnam. Such media exposes -
braving governmental threats - were crucial to winning over
the fence-sitters among the American people in favor of
Aware of the media's capability and propensity to expose the
ugliness of the Iraq war, the Bush administration left no
stone unturned to co-opt and muzzle it. US citizens are
being kept in an uninformed Orwellian condition through such
mechanisms as "embedded journalists", the "code of conduct"
on reportage imposed by the former US administrator in Iraq,
L Paul Bremer, and the Department of Defense's censorship of
print and audiovisual media.
As the Cable News Network's Christiane Amanpour confessed,
media powerhouses went along with draconian state
encroachments on their freedom and even practiced shameful
"self-censorship" to please political masters.
Unless the true face of the US occupation of Iraq is
unveiled to the larger American public (Abu Ghraib being the
tip of the iceberg), the passion and relentlessness of the
anti-Vietnam War era cannot be realized. To say that new-age
technologies such as the Internet are enough to overcome
weaknesses in the traditional media misses the point that
common Americans do not search for critical stories on the
war on Iraq without being initially prodded and startled by
newspapers, radio stations and television. In a
media-saturated environment, the Internet is merely a
secondary tool when it comes to politics and news.
Fourth, the anti-Iraq war movement is historically
handicapped with regard to the anti-Vietnam War
struggle because of the absence of a strong complementary
domestic social-justice issue like civil rights. The late
civil-rights leader Martin Luther King's support for the
anti-Vietnam war cause on moral grounds from 1967 coupled
minority rights and the anti-racist tide to the anti-war
sentiment, adding layers of black-American discontent to the
general disenchantment with militaristic foreign policy. The
maturity and depth that the civil-rights leaders lent to the
anti-war movement in the late 1960s and 1970s was priceless.
While there is no shortage of progressive black and Hispanic
organizations lending their voices to the anti-Iraq war
commotion today, it is a pale reflection of the mass merger
of civil rights and peace of the Vietnam era. The Bush
administration's inept handling of Hurricane Katrina and the
newly proposed anti-immigrant legislation that is stirring
minorities in the US contain the potential of adding ballast
to the anti-war movement, provided the right
interconnections are made by organizers and citizens.
Fifth, the enduring memory of the September 11,
2001, terrorist attacks seemingly justifies the war on Iraq
for very large proportions of the US population. Despite the
fact that Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein never colluded,
the insinuations made by Bush and company in the run-up to
war in Iraq have stuck in the minds of uncritical Americans.
Iraq as a terrorist haven has ironically come true after the
fall of Saddam, offering the US establishment an ex post
facto propaganda advantage that occupying this Middle
Eastern country is essential for the "war on terrorism".
While the "communist scare" was quite prevalent when
presidents John F Kennedy and Johnson embroiled the US in
Vietnam, there was no discernible mortal fear US citizens
had of directly losing life and limb from the Soviets, as
they have today after the September 11 attacks.
The security dilemma that al-Qaeda has posed on the US is
unmatched since World War II. Devastating terrorist attacks
on US soil have generated an atmosphere where aerial bombing
and harsh counter-insurgency in Iraq are viewed by most
Americans as legitimate self-defense tactics, not offensive
imperialism. Should there be future terrorist attacks on US
territory, this mentality could get hardwired into the
American psyche, making the task of the peace movement that
much more Herculean.
The only way for the Iraq war protesters to gain ground is
to entrench new thinking that retaliation (especially
directed at the wrong targets) does not guarantee security,
but worsens it. In other words, they will need to use the
same empirical facts of rising terrorist threats to the
American people to prove that war on Iraq makes the US less
The US crusade on Iraq has resurrected the ghosts of
Vietnam. Though Iraq is not as militarily disastrous as
Vietnam, it still qualifies as an imperial misadventure
camouflaged as democratization. Just as bombing neighboring
Laos became a logical military requirement to sustain the
assault on North Vietnam, today's neo-cons are training
their guns on Iraq's neighbor, Iran.
The carnivorous logic of war is self-reproductive. What
remains to be seen is whether the mini-Vietnamization of
Iraq can usher in a peace movement within the US that can
reverse the trend of unilateral militarism by the hegemonic
state. A careful consideration of the five constraining
factors on the anti-Iraq war movement outlined in this
essay may lead to theoretical and strategic reflection among
Americans who desire a peaceful world.
(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.
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