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PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
THE FORGOTTEN VIETNAM
There used to be one word in the White House
speechwriting shop that was absolutely taboo:
The president was not even allowed to say it in a whisper. Now, in a daring
reversal, the White House wordsmiths have written a presidential speech that puts “Vietnam”
front and center. A gamble that big is a sure sign of
At first glance, it’s a gamble the administration
seems certain to lose. Peace activists started saying “Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam” back when they were just a
lunatic fringe. Now that it’s respectable to oppose the Iraq war, Democratic politicians constantly
repeat the refrain: Vietnam taught
us the folly of persisting in a war we can’t win. We can’t be foolish enough to make the same
mistake again. With that view so widespread,
it seems strange that Bush’s speechwriters would want anyone to think, much
less talk, about Vietnam.
But if you are betting that the administration is
bound to lose this gamble, don’t put down more than you can afford to part
with. The Republicans are showing an uncanny ability to control the public
debate. Remember just a couple of months
ago, when it was Democratic Party gospel that this was indeed a war we couldn’t
win? Somehow the gospel is being rewritten. As the Washington Post reports, the
Dem party line now says that we are indeed “making progress” on the military
front. Our troops are doing a superb job. It’s just those incompetent Iraqi
politicians -- looking for “power, revenge, and personal advantage,” Hillary
Clinton says -- who are blocking the path to a glorious victory.
The turnaround isn’t really so mysterious. The
administration and the Pentagon PR machines have been working overtime to flood
us with good news from Anbar province and other such good
news places. If they can rewrite reality in today’s Iraq, why not in yesterday’s Vietnam and Cambodia? And if they can
rewrite the military reality in Iraq so successfully, who’s to say they won’t
have the same luck rewriting the political reality by the time Congess votes on funding the war?
But this still leaves the question: Why do so many
people believe their good news? Why do Democrats at the highest level feel
compelled to parrot the administration's line?
Part of the answer lies in a parallel between Vietnam
that doesn’t get much attention, though it’s among the most important of all.
Long ago, historians of the Vietnam war
noted that the intense debate about the war that gripped America rarely made much reference
to the suffering of the Vietnamese people. Only “peaceniks” on the far left
paid much attention to the two million or more Vietnamese who died, to the
corpses and torched villages and napalmed children that were the living -- and
dying -- reality of the war. In the mainstream, where the “serious” discussion
unfolded, the only question that mattered was: What is this war doing to the USA?
Is it to our benefit to keep on fighting, or are we better off withdrawing?
For most Americans, Vietnam
was merely a backdrop to the great dramatic conflict that gripped the United States. The heroes and villains, and the victims, in
the drama were the Americans who supported and opposed the war. The Vietnamese,
if they were seen at all, were merely extras with brief walk-on roles. They
never got to speak, never got to tell their stories or say what they thought
about the war. (This was also the case in most American movies about Vietnam.)
Now we are seeing much the same scenario played out
again. Only this time it’s Iraq
that forms the backdrop to the great American drama, much like those old Wild
West shows where a curtain painted to look like a dusty main street formed the
backdrop for the big showdown.
Is it Bush and Cheney or their antiwar critics who are
wearing the white hats? That’s for you
to decide. In either case, political leaders and the mainstream media make it
clear that you are deciding for a particular vision of what America is all
about, what makes America great, and what direction America should take in the
future. What happens to the people of Iraq is mentioned only in passing,
if at all.
Sad to say, this is probably a fairly accurate
reflection of U.S.
public opinion. Most people here don’t care too much what happened to the
people of Vietnam or what is
happening to the people of Iraq.
A recent poll showed that the average American thinks under 10,000 Iraqi
civilians have died in this war -- a vast underestimate. More importantly, the
number of Iraqi dead scarcely figures into the public debate. As with the
Vietnam war, it’s all about what is happening to us.
That is why Bush’s speechwriters could take the gamble
of raising the specter of Vietnam,
and why they may very well win. Since the war was turned into a fictional
drama, few people know, or care, what really happened in Vietnam.
Therefore, it’s easy to change the story around. Few can refute Bush’s absurd
version, in which the forecast “bloodbath” supposedly actually happened, and
the U.S. withdrawal
triggered the Khmer Rouge outrages in Cambodia.
So it all boils down to who can tell a better story
about Vietnam and Iraq. A story
isn’t better because it’s closer to the empirical facts. A story is better
because it is yields a bigger emotional payoff: more gripping, more inspiring, more
comforting, more flattering to our side, more confirming of what we believe.
On all those counts, the yarn Bush is spinning could
easily prove a winner. It says that we were close to winning in Vietnam. But
then the antiwar “cut and run” crowd snatched defeat from the jaws of
victory. That let loose a bloody tide of
chaos that engulfed southeast Asia, humiliated the U.S., and emboldened the terrorists, who now
want to make Iraq
a home base from which to launch their next attack upon us. But we have a
chance to right all those wrongs -- to stem the tide of chaos, regain our
pride, crush the terrorists, keep our children safe, and show what America is
really made of -- if only we have the courage to fight for God’s truth.
Do the Democrats and antiwar forces have a story to
tell that’s any better, or even nearly as good?
I wonder. It’s a tall order. Already it looks like Bush’s story about
good military news from Iraq
is gaining converts rapidly. That’s why the Dems are
scampering to join the “me too” chorus. But the antiwar side cannot win this
showdown by trying to outdo the prowar side in
praising the glories of the U.S.
military occupiers. That’s only playing the game the Republicans have chosen,
because they are confident no one can beat them at it.
The alternative is to refuse to take the
administration's new bait. The antiwar movement could refuse to use Iraq as a backdrop and Iraqis as extras in a
drama about the trials and tribulations of America. Instead, we could insist
that the issue is not about how well our soldiers are doing or what is
happening here at home. It’s about what is happening in Iraq, where
ordinary people like us have been dying and suffering in horrifying numbers
ever since we occupied their country. We have no magic button that we can push
to end the tragedy now. But we can do our best to refocus the debate on the
real terror: the terror endured by the Iraqi people who live under military
occupation every day.