While there are many differences between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War, there are many parallels and lessons to be learned - above all that public opinion at home is more decisive in the long run than the actual military successes or failures in the war zone.
“I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well-placed... managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units...Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to their country.” - Colin Powell, current Secretary of State under George W. Bush, from his autobiography, My American Journey. In the post-September 11 world, patriotism has once again taken center stage. In the buildup to the Iraq War, Bush and his pals whipped up the nationalist feelings and passions of the American people. Tens of thousands of young people were being sent to suffer and die in the hot and sandy Iraqi war zone, and the administration needed to give them and their families a good reason why. Oil and geopolitical domination of the Middle East and colonial world were clearly not good enough reasons to give the US public. Therefore, imminent threat of annihilation by non-existent WMDs and the defense of “democracy” against a cruel dictator were found to be much more suitable.
Add to that a few million American flags and some good old-fashioned patriotic jingoism, and you could get the American people to support a war they clearly were not so sure of just a few weeks earlier. The millions of protesters who took the streets before the war started suddenly melted away when the rallying call to “support our troops!” was raised. But as we shall see, the millionaires who sent hundreds to their deaths and thousands to be disfigured and traumatized for life, do not really “support the troops” at all. Bush hasn’t even attended the funeral of a single soldier killed in Iraq. It’s big business and corporate profits that they support, in times of war as in times of “peace” (the war against working people is always going on although it is never openly declared).
Most people know that since the “end” of the war in Iraq, far more soldiers have died than during the war itself. But a majority of Americans don’t know how many soldiers have been wounded, sent home for “other” reasons (including severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder), or committed suicide. Bush, Rumsfeld, and Cheney are doing their best to cover these figures up. Although GW Bush allegedly went AWOL for a year during his Vietnam-era stint in the Air National Guard, and Dick Cheney had “better things to do” while 58,000 of their fellow Americans were killed in that quagmire, they believe it is quite an honor to “die for your country”. Curiously enough, the sons and daughters of the rich are not lining up to meet such a glorious end in the defense of “their country”. Most of those dying in Iraq are minorities and the poor in general, while the children of the rich profit handsomely off the billions in government subsidies to the war industry. Ironically, one of the first American soldiers killed in Iraq wasn’t even a US citizen, but a Mexican immigrant who had been promised citizenship if he “did his duty” for the United States.
So although these silver spoons managed to avoid serving in Vietnam, it appears that they learned some of the most important lessons of that war - but not enough to save them from the ever-increasing wrath of the American and Iraqi people. Despite their illusion that a guerrilla war was impossible because there are no jungles in Iraq, the US occupiers are faced with an implacable and increasingly well-organized resistance that takes a daily toll on Americans and Iraqis alike – with no end in sight. In Vietnam, the American imperialists failed to learn from the French. They seem also to have forgotten the humiliating French defeat in Algeria (where there are also no jungles).
Although the US enjoyed overwhelming military superiority in Vietnam, American forces were ultimately forced to withdraw with their tail between their legs. This was due to a combination of the progressive and heroic national liberation struggle of the Vietnamese people, and even more decisively, the growing opposition to the war on the home front. Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap knew that they could outlast the US. Once the American working class turned against the war, it was all over for the US imperialists.
The most famous US commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, badly misjudged the tenacity and endurance of the Vietnamese people. He had the illusion that the US could “bleed” the endurance out of the Vietnamese in a “war of attrition”. But the Vietnamese were fighting in their own country, with popular support, against a mostly-conscripted occupation army of young kids who had no interest in being there. As Ho Chi Minh prophetically told his French adversaries in the late 1940s: “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” After the war, General Westmoreland said that “Any American commander who took the same vast losses as General Giap would have been sacked overnight.”
CIA analyst Patrick McGarvey summed up Giap’s strategy in 1969 when he noted that Giap measured the situation not by his own casualties, but by “the traffic in home bound American coffins.” After the war, Colonel Harry Summers, Jr. met with a North Vietnamese colonel and said the following: “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.” To which his counterpart replied, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”
The American people always rally around the troops when a war begins. But that mood cannot last forever. As General Fred Weyland, the last American commander in Vietnam explained: “When the army is committed the American people are committed; when the American people lose their commitment it is futile to try to keep the army committed.” It took the US imperialists 30 years to recover enough from “Vietnam Syndrome” to be able to embark on the blatantly predatory campaigns of the last few years, but the memory still haunts them.
The Morale of the US Military
Morale is a very important thing in war. How one treats one’s soldiers both before and after the war can affect the long-term prospects for success or failure. In Vietnam, morale collapsed as the endless, seemingly pointless war dragged on and on. The anti-war protests in the US spread to the troops in the field, many of whom wore peace symbols and refused to go into combat. Insubordination and even the murder of officers grew rampant. It is estimated that as many as a third of the troops were addicted to opium of heroin, and drunkenness and the smoking of marijuana were routine. Relations between the enlisted men and the officers, and between white and black soldiers were increasingly polarized. Supply officers made huge profits on the black market. The My Lai massacre of over 300 civilians caused soldiers to believe their commanders were covering up other such grisly incidents. With soldiers being gradually withdrawn, nobody wanted to be the last one killed for a meaningless cause. The entire military establishment was in shambles.
During the war, most troops doing their tours of duty in Vietnam were conscripts (the average age was 19). Since those in college or with connections in government (like GW Bush and Cheney) could get assigned to the National Guard or get a total deferment, it was mostly the poor, and in particular minorities who did the killing, fighting, and dying for big-business America. After Richard Nixon ended the draft in the early 1970s, the arduous process of rebuilding the military as a cohesive fighting force for US imperialism was begun.
For all intents and purposes, the $120 billion spent on the war over the course of ten years, went straight down the drain. In “normal” times, this money would have been used to modernize the military. Instead, the US military found itself in the late 1970s with a demoralized and ill-equipped force. As late as 1980, then-army chief of staff General Edward C. Meyer warned Congress that he was presiding over a “hollow” force. Of course, this state of affairs was cynically used by Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. to spend billions upon billions on national defense to prepare the next series of imperialist adventures.
The armed forces now pride themselves on having an all-volunteer military, but the fact is it took a long time for the military to recover from the demoralization of Vietnam. And although they moved away from a conscript army largely to address concerns that it was disproportionately made up of minorities and the poor, today’s military has much the same social make-up. The lack of opportunities in the private sector (i.e. chronic unemployment), and the military’s promise of comprehensive health coverage, decent pay while learning a trade, and generous grants for education, has compelled many poor and minority men and women to sign up. By the 1990s the image of the US military as a professional, proud, cohesive, and disciplined force had been largely restored. But now even this is being undermined by the insensitivity and arrogance of Bush and his clique of ignorant parvenus.
Over-Extension of the US Military
The morale of the military forces in Iraq is not a fixed quantity. Thousands of soldiers who were pumped up to do their duty at the beginning of the war have now been overcome with cynicism, pessimism, and open hatred of their leaders, in particular the civilian leadership at the Pentagon. With US forces currently stationed in over 130 different countries (Haiti is the most recent addition to that list), it’s no wonder that the armed forces are feeling the squeeze of over-extension – much like the Roman Empire in its final days. The National Guard and Reserves are almost completely tapped out. Soldiers in these units joined in order to be “weekend warriors”, earn some extra cash, and get money for college – not to be blown up by an improvised explosive device on some dusty road in Iraq!
Reserve units are currently being used as an extension of the active-duty military. Some units have been deployed 3 to 4 times since September 11, causing severe stress and strain on their jobs (it’s hard to keep a full-time job when you’re never around) and families (two-thirds of Reserve troops are married). Thousands of troops are being forced to serve beyond their agreed-upon terms of enlistment, causing great consternation. One soldier recently told a reporter, “Yes, I’m very upset. I’ve got a wife and two kids at home that I want to get home to. I’ve done my time over here, it’s just time to go home.”
The conditions facing most of the soldiers occupying Iraq are extremely difficult and stressful, which explains the high rate of suicide and depression. While the US military can easily defeat any opponent militarily, it is another thing altogether to occupy a country and hold territory. Although the situation is not yet as bad as it is in Afghanistan, there are no safe “rear” areas in Iraq. Occupation troops are surrounded by a hostile population, and can be attacked at any time. Even the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, Paul Bremer, and the head of the US Central Command and the US forces in Iraq, John Abizaid, have come under attack in recent weeks. Many troops are stationed far from the cities, living for months at a time in tents and eating pre-packaged food. On top of this, many of these soldiers are being put into policing or bomb-clearing roles which they are not trained for. The mother of one soldier killed by a roadside bomb wanted to know “why my son was playing with bombs when that’s not what he was trained to do. It’s not a declared war so what did my son die for? It’s time for us to get out of there. No parent should have to go through this.”
All of this has led to a collapse in the rate of retention, with thousands of soldiers opting not to re-enlist. The modern military is extremely technology-reliant, and many of these soldiers are highly trained specialists that will be difficult to replace on short notice. This at a time when new military missions are already stretching existing forces to the limit. Although Donald Rumsfeld dreams of a smaller, leaner, and even more technologically advanced military, the bottom line is that in order to hold territory, you need plenty of ground troops - the grunts. Far from wanting to reduce the size of the military, the professional officers at the Pentagon want to expand the military, and have even floated the possibility of reintroducing the draft.
How Many Wounded in Iraq?
Due to the Vietnam experience, Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and co. are aware that the American people have a definite threshold for casualties. At a certain point, the quantitative accumulation of those killed and wounded is qualitatively transformed into mass opposition to the war and occupation. This is why they have worked so hard to present the war in as sanitized a form as possible, with terms such as “smart bombs” and “collateral damage”. During the Vietnam War, the nightly news showed dead US soldiers in the jungles and cities of Vietnam, and endless flag-draped coffins returning home. You won’t see a single image like this in today’s media. The government has imposed a total blackout on images of those killed, and of coffins returning from the war zone. They understand that although casualties remain relatively low when compared with the 58,000 killed in Vietnam, the longer the occupation continues, the more negative an effect the steady stream of dead and wounded will have on the American people. In an election year, this cannot be allowed!
The main reason there are so “few” deaths in Iraq, is the advanced state of modern battlefield medicine. Wounds that would have meant almost certain death in the Vietnam era are now survivable – although the injured are often left horribly disfigured for life. It has also been reported (though not yet confirmed), that soldiers who later die of wounds suffered in Iraq are not counted among those “killed in Iraq”! If this is true, it shows just how desperate the Pentagon is to conceal the real situation from the American public.
From a military point of view, wounding enemy soldiers is sometimes preferable to killing them outright. A wounded soldier must be attended to by others, effectively reducing the number who are actively participating in the fire fight. A wounded soldier also continues to drain the enemy’s economic and medical resources. By wounding so many troops, the Iraqi resistance forces are slowly bleeding the morale and resources of the armies of occupation.
Just as they do their best to hide the war dead from public view, the administration conceals the high number of wounded, regularly treating these soldiers as second-class citizens in the process. We only hear about those that are wounded when they are wounded in incidents in which soldiers are killed. The thousands of soldiers wounded in the countless isolated attacks across the country are off the public radar. Although the actual figures are not known, it is estimated that in 2003 alone, 11,000 to 22,000 US soldiers, Marines, and sailors were evacuated from Iraq because of wounds, illness, or other battlefield reasons. The reason the estimated range is so wide is that it has been virtually impossible to get accurate figures.
Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, asked Donald Rumsfeld for the “total number of American casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq.” He also asked: “What is the official Pentagon definition of wounded in action? What is the procedure for releasing this information in a timely way to the public and the criteria for awarding a Purple Heart [awarded to those wounded in combat or posthumously to the next of kin of those killed or those who die of wounds received in action]?” The reply he received was astonishing: “The Department of Defense does not have the requested information.” Are we to believe that the world’s largest military machine, with massive bases and troops all around the world cannot even keep track of how many Purple Heart medals are being awarded in this war?
Treatment of the Wounded
We have all heard the stories of homeless, disabled Vietnam War veterans freezing to death in Washington DC because they “slipped through the system”; of veterans too traumatized by their wartime experiences to hold down a regular job and maintain a stable home. That’s all changed, right? The government now takes care of those who have sacrificed for their country, right? Wrong. Not only are the numbers of casualties being kept from public view, many combat veterans wounded in Iraq are physically marginalized and kept from the quality care they are entitled to. According to one officer, they are “being treated like dogs”. Many wounded veterans have had to wait in “medical hold” for “weeks and months at places such as Fort Stewart military base in Georgia, for proper medical help,” often under conditions “unacceptable for sick and injured soldiers.” More than 1,000 National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers, including hundreds who had served in Iraq were forced to wait in hot concrete barracks with no air conditioning or running water. According to one Sergeant, it “took months to get appointments . . . We were made to feel like we had failed the Army.”
All of this comes as no real surprise in a country that cannot provide universal, quality health care for all of its citizens while the HMOs and pharmaceutical companies pocket billions in profits. But these are not just any citizens. These are Bush’s “heroic” veterans who have placed their lives on the line, many of them suffering disability and loss of limb in order to defend “democracy” and the “American way of life”!
Again, this cynicism is not at all surprising, considering the Republican-dominated Congress’ plans to slash veteran’s benefits by $15 billion over the next ten years. They plan across-the-board cuts of 3.8 percent in mandatory spending on entitlements such as compensation for service-connected disabilities, burial benefits, means-tested pensions for permanently disabled low-income veterans, and education benefits like the Montgomery GI Bill. These benefits comprise 93 percent of the funding for programs under the jurisdiction of the Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Committee. For many veterans, this could mean eliminating burial benefits and reducing the cost of living allowance (COLA) increases in compensation payments with service-connected disabilities for the next six to ten years. This could mean 168,000 fewer veterans with health benefits, 400,000 fewer hospital bed days of care for veterans, or 8,700 fewer nurses in VA hospitals. These cuts would arrive right at the same time that aging veterans become even-more dependent upon governmental veterans’ health care programs. If they are so callous and greedy as to cut veteran’s benefits in this way, we can only imagine the cuts they are preparing for the working class as a whole in the coming years!
So far, Bush and his “ultra-patriotic” pals have been successful in keeping the real casualty rates from the American people as a whole. But that cannot last forever. Ironically, his treatment of the servicemen and women and their families threatens to undermine an important layer of his electoral support. There are many other similarities (as well as important differences) between the Vietnam War and the occupation of Iraq, and we will return to this topic in the future. Suffice it to say that despite having learned some lessons from the experience of Vietnam, GW Bush and co. seem to have forgotten one of the most important, and one that will come back to haunt them: soldiers are workers in uniform, and as such, are a reflection of American society as a whole. The “hearts and minds” to be won are above all here in the United States. It is abundantly clear that these people do not represent the interests of working Americans, both in and out of uniform. They are happy to send our children, relatives, and friends to die for the profits of big business, but they can’t even follow through on their promise to “support the troops”. Although it is not as openly apparent now as before the war started, opposition to the Iraqi occupation is much greater now than it has ever been. Tremendous discontent is simmering below the surface of American society, and sooner or later, the US working class will move decisively to end the rule of the handful of ultra-rich men and women who currently control our lives.