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    Middle East
     Sep 6, 2007
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Seven years in hell
By Tom Engelhardt

On August 22, breaking into his Crawford vacation, President George W Bush addressed the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, giving what is already known as his "Vietnam speech". That day, Bush, who, as early as 2003 had sworn that his war on Iraq would "decidedly not be Vietnam", took the full-frontal plunge into the still-flowing current of the Big Muddy, fervently embracing Vietnam analogy-land. You could

almost feel his relief (and that of his neo-conservative speechwriters).

In that mud-wrestle of a speech, he invoked "one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam ... that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people', 're-education camps' and 'killing fields'." The man who had so carefully sat out the Vietnam War now proclaimed that Americans never should have left that land.

As he's done with so much else, he also linked the Vietnam War by an act of verbal ju-jitsu to al-Qaeda and the attacks of September 11, 2001. September 11, too, turned out to be part of the "price" we'd paid for succumbing to "the allure of retreat" and withdrawing way back when. ("In an interview with a Pakistani newspaper after the 9/11 attacks," intoned the president, "Osama bin Laden declared that 'the American people had risen against their government's war in Vietnam. And they must do the same today'.")

Whatever brief respite his August embrace of Vietnam may have given him in the polls, it involved a larger concession on the administration's part. Like its predecessors, the Bush administration and its neo-con supporters simply couldn't kick the "Vietnam syndrome" - much as they struggled to do so - any more than a moth could avoid the flame. Now, they found themselves locked in a desperate, hopeless attempt to use Vietnam to recapture the hearts and minds of the American people.

Entering the dead zone
It's possible to track this losing struggle with the Vietnam analogy over these past years. Take one issue - the body count - on which we know something about administration Vietnam thinking. For Americans of the Vietnam era, a centuries-old "victory culture" - in which triumph on some distant frontier against evil enemies was considered an American birthright - still held sway. In Vietnam, when it nonetheless became clear that the promised frontier victory was, for the second time in little more than a decade, nowhere in sight, American military and civilian officials tried to compensate.

One problem they faced was that the very definition of victory in war - the taking of terrain, the advance into hostile territory that signaled the crushing of enemy resistance - had ceased to mean anything in Vietnam. In a guerrilla war in which, as American grunts regularly complained, you couldn't tell friends from enemies, no less hold a hostile countryside, something else had to substitute for the landing at D-Day, the advance on Berlin, the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. And so the "whiz kids" of defense secretary Robert McNamara's Pentagon and the military high command developed a substitute numerology of victory.

Everything was to be counted and the copious statistics of success were to flow endlessly up the chain of command and back to Washington, proof positive that "progress" was being made. The numbers looked convincing indeed. In fact, to believe loss possible in Vietnam, when by any measure of success - from dead enemy and captured weapons to cleared roads and pacified villages - Americans had such a decisive advantage, seemed nothing short of madness.

Yet, to accept the figures pouring in daily from soldiers, advisors and bureaucrats was to defy the logic of one's senses. To make the endlessly unraveling situation in Vietnam madder still, the impending defeat did not seem to be a military one. Those who directed the war (as well as the right-wing in the post-war years) regularly claimed, for instance, that not a single significant battle had been lost to the Vietnamese enemy.

Sometimes it seemed that Americans in Vietnam did nothing but invent new ways of measuring success. There were, for instance, the 18 indices of the Hamlet Evaluation System, each meant to calibrate the "progress" of "pacification" in South Vietnam's 2,300 villages and almost 13,000 hamlets, focusing largely on "rural security" and "development".

Then there were the many indices of the Measurement of Progress system, its monthly reports, produced in slide form, including "strength trends of the opposing forces, efforts of friendly forces in sorties ... enemy base areas neutralized", and so on. And don't forget that there were figures by the bushel-load on every form of destruction rained down on the Vietnamese enemy - sorties flown, tonnage dropped, "truck kills", you name it. The efforts that went into creating numerical equivalents for death were endless.

For visiting congressional delegations, the commander of US forces, General William Westmoreland, had his "attrition charts", multicolored bar graphs illustrating various "trends" in death and destruction. Commanders in the field had their own sophisticated ways to codify "kill ratios"; while, on the ground, where, in dangerous circumstances, the actual counting had to be done, all of this translated, far more crudely, into the MGR, or, as the grunts sometimes said, the "Mere Gook Rule" - "If it's dead and it's Vietnamese, it's VC [Vietcong]." In other words, when pressure came down for the "body count", any body would do.

Back in the US, much of the frustration that had gathered in the face of mounting years of claimed progress and evident failure would focus on the "body count" of enemy dead, announced in late afternoon US military press briefings in the South Vietnamese capital, Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. For the element of the fantastic in those briefings (and the figures proffered), they came to be known among reporters as "the five o'clock follies".

In a war in which D-Day-like landings were uncontested publicity events and "conquered" territory might be abandoned within days, the killing of the enemy initially seemed nothing to be ashamed of and an obvious indicator of "progress" - a classic word then and now. (Witness the upcoming General David Petraeus "progress report" to Congress.) As time went on, however, as success refused to make an appearance, despite the claims that it was just around some corner, and as "defeat", a word no one cared to use, crept into consciousness (while American officials like national security adviser Henry Kissinger privately fulminated about the impossibility of losing a war to "a little fourth-rate power"), those dead bodies decoupled from the idea of victory. They began to seem like a grim count of something else entirely - of, depending on your position at that moment, frustration, futility, brutality, tragedy, defeat.

The body count took on a grim life of its own. Detached from reality, yet producing the most horrific of realities - and, among increasing numbers of Americans, a sense of shame - it morphed into something like a never-ending Catch-22 of carnage. In this way, as the bodies piling up looked ever more like so many slaughtered peasants in a "fourth-rate" land, successive American administrations entered the dead zone.

Of course, if the statistics of slaughter had been accepted by all sides (then or now) as the ruling logic of the struggle, the United States would have won the war any day from the mid-1960s on (or, in the present case, from March 2003 on). Instead, by the sacrifice of untold numbers of lives, the enemy somehow succeeded in capturing the only set of numbers worth having - the numbers of weeks, months, years that the fighting went on.

Return of the body count
Little wonder then that, in the beginning, the Bush administration was eager to avoid the body count, along with body bags and those disintegrative images of the Vietnam war dead coming home in full daylight in sight of television cameras; that it was eager, in fact, to avoid every aspect of a thoroughly discredited war. But here's the irony: from the moment the Afghan war began in 2001, no one had the Vietnam analogy more programmatically on the brain than the Bush team.

In this, they were no exception to the rule. Ever since the 1970s, the Pentagon and various administrations had been playing a conscious opposites game with what they imagined as Vietnam's

Continued 1 2 3 4 

Iraqi benchmarks come and go (Sep 1, '07)

Bush: In the footsteps of Napoleon (Aug 25, '07)

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2. Israel urged US to attack Iran - not Iraq   

3. Afghan bridge exposes huge divide

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5. Russia rains on Bretton Woods parade   

6. The casino that ate Macau  

7. US digs in deeper in the Philippines

8. Hard road to Korea reunification

9. Iran: An oil industry that lost its head  

(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Sep 4, 2007)


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