Vietnamnesia

Will Iraq be the Next "American" Tragedy?

by Matt Taibbi


TED KENNEDY made big headlines this week, and Democrats across the country are lining up to blow him for it. He is being lauded for his political conviction, his bravery, for the fact that he "knows what he believes and is not afraid to say it." He is being set up to assume the same role that Howard Dean filled last year, that of the true conscience of the party, helping it to rediscover its ideological underpinnings; his continued presence in the public eye will allow Democrats, the theory goes, to say they stand for something, and not merely against George W. Bush.

Here's what Kennedy said that made him such a hero: "Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam, and this country needs a new president."

Good point. Except that what Kennedy left out is that Vietnam was his brother John's Vietnam. It was Dean Rusk's Vietnam, Robert McNamara's Vietnam, McGeorge Bundy's Vietnam, even Bobby Kennedy's Vietnam. That was before things started getting messy and Americans started getting their legs shot off on television. Then it somehow became Lyndon Johnson's and Henry Kissinger's and Richard Nixon's Vietnam, while the old Democratic hawks remade themselves into doves who listened to Ravi Shankar and talked plaintively at college get-togethers about peace and self-determination.

The reason we got into so much trouble in Vietnam, and why we are in so much trouble in Iraq now, is that we never learned to use the proper language when referring to these military misadventures. While Democrats and Republicans fight over who best to stick with the blame for our Southeast Asian ass-whipping, both sides remain completely blind to the fact that Vietnam was not really Johnson's or Nixon's Vietnam, any more than Iraq is Bush's Iraq. Vietnam was, first and foremost, Vietnam's Vietnam—and the current absurd debate about the comparison between the two wars has proven that the vast majority of Americans still have trouble grasping that fact.

Don't believe me? Try this simple test. Go on Lexis-Nexis and enter a single number: 58,000. It is a magic number in the American psyche, and it has been trotted out by scores of opportunists this week, all of them seeking to gain political or rhetorical advantage from the current mess in Iraq. For some, 58,000 represents the heroic dead who were sacrificed in that great failure of military will known as the Vietnam debacle. To others, 58,000 is the number of our shame, the beautiful youth who died defending a doomed, if well-meaning, mistake.

Both sides insist that they still thusly disagree on the meaning of the number. But in an important way, they do not. Because for both sides, 58,000 remains the total number of dead in Vietnam. Across the political spectrum, when we talk about the loss of life in Vietnam, this is the number we use. This past week, dozens of newspapers across the country pulled ol' 58,000 out of the drawer as a warning about Iraq, including such prestigious organizations as the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Associated Press and others. Even Sen. Robert Byrd, in a blistering denunciation of the war, wrote an op-ed piece decrying the number. Here is what Byrd wrote:

"Nearly 40 years ago I voted for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution—the resolution that led to the war in Vietnam, the deaths of 58,000 Americans, massive protests and a deeply divided country."

That is how the anti-war forces in America talk. Here is Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun:

"The president and his supporters don't want to hear those comparisons. But, sorry, too many of us remember Vietnam, and year after year of funerals. We ended up with 58,000 funerals."

The more pro-war voices take a different approach to 58,000. According to their logic, Iraq is not in the same league as Vietnam, because nowhere near 58,000 people have died yet.

UPI's Martin Sieff: "And so far, total U.S. dead in Iraq is only around 1 percent of the 58,000 who perished during the more than a decade long Vietnam conflict in the 1960s and into the 1970s."

Jay Ambrose of Scripps Howard: "Despite the fighting now going on in Iraq, it seems close to hallucinatory to suppose we will lose a fraction of the 58,000 American soldiers lost in Vietnam."

(It is characteristic of people like this, incidentally, that they measure the loss of life in "fractions" and "percents.")

Mark Barabak, Los Angeles Times: "There are important differences. The U.S. involvement in Vietnam spanned well over a decade and more than 58,000 Americans were killed. By contrast, the U.S. invaded Iraq a little over a year ago, and there have been fewer than 700 American soldiers killed so far."

What did the Byrd essay, as well as all the hand-wringing editorials in all of these prestigious papers, have in common? Not one of them mentioned the number of dead Vietnamese. That number, incidentally, is not so precise and round as our beloved 58,000. It is an estimate we place in the millions, with the conservative count edging toward one million, the outside edge pushing for three million. It is hard to be precise when you are counting bone fragments in B-52 craters.

If anyone needs a hint as to why the rest of the world hates us so much, this is why. Thirty years after the fact, America still insists on looking at Vietnam as "our national tragedy," the tragedy apparently being 58,000 dead, a regrettable loss of public confidence in the institution of the presidency, a brief period of political turmoil on American campuses, an enduring hesitancy to use military force. Just look at our movies about Vietnam: the tragedy is always the poor Vietnam vet who comes home and suffers through a long period of monosyllabic turmoil and intermittent employment, doomed to live out his days limping around his hometown in boots and a shabby field jacket, wondering where his life went so wrong.

Right. That's the tragedy. Not the indiscriminate murder of one-sixth of Laos. Not the saturation bombing of wide swaths of rural Indochina. Not the turning of ancient cultures into moonscapes. Not the napalming of children or the dropping of mines and CBUs into civilian villages for scare value.

This process is starting all over again. With 58,000 looming in the background, we are starting a new count, which is up to about 640 as of this writing. Do we even count the number of Iraqi dead? Maybe in the daily battle reports, but you have to really look for a running total. I've seen numbers ranging from 10,000 to 15,000, but it's never anything like the concrete numbers we grimly and tearfully assign to coalition deaths. As in the past, we're content to let that other figure drift off into an estimate.

When this whole mess is over, I'm sure we can expect more of the same. With half of Mesopotamia turned to glass, we will build a sunken wall to our boys and give an Oscar to the first director with enough balls to do Saving Private Lynch. We have no shame in this country.



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