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    Middle East
     May 24, 2006

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 end.

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 "Vietnam II".

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 with justice.

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 mobilization.

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 quantity.

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 movement.

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 peace.

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 safe.

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. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)


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