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Iraq Replaces Vietnam as Metaphor for Tragedy

06/24/2014 06:23 pm ET | Updated Aug 24, 2014
Shutterstock / Aekkaphob

A few years ago in a New York subway train I witnessed a scene that will always serve for me as an important marker of sort. A man in ruffled clothes walked up and down the aisle and panhandled in a loud voice. "Can you help a Vietnam Vet? I've got issues and I've been out of work. Folks, can you help?" All of a sudden a young man, who had been watching him, stood up and exploded: "You f'***g liar. You're too young to fight in NAM. Want to know issues? I've got issues. I just came back from Iraq."

There was a collective hush, and some people fled to another car.

For almost three decades after U.S. helicopters flew over a smoke-filled Saigon, Vietnam served as a vault of tragic metaphors for every American to use. In movies, in literature, someone who went to 'Nam was someone who came back a wreck, a traumatized soul who has seen or committed too many horrors to ever return to normal life. In politics, Vietnam was a hard-learned lesson that continued to influence U.S. foreign policies. It was an unhealed wound, the cause of post-traumatic stress, the stuff bad dreams were made of.

Then came Iraq. Many comparisons have been made about the two wars. But what Iraq may have finally done is not so much remind us of Vietnam as ultimately usurp it from our national psyche.

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Cartoon by Carlos Latuff.

Fighting the Vietnam War brought a multitude of symbols and icons to the American mind. A new set has been acquired with the war in Iraq. One can almost imagine one era being replaced by another in the way that two kids might trade cards: "I'll take My Lai for your Haditha"; "I'll take 'Hearts and Minds' for 'Operation Iraqi Freedom'"; "Let's have Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh for Muqtada al-Sadr and Osama Bin Ladin"; "I'll take Tiger Cage for Abu Graib"; and "Let's have your Gulf of Tonkin for my WMD."

Two and a half years after the U.S. pulled out of Iraq the country has crumbled into a bona-fide failed state, with Baghdad under siege by ISIS (jihadist militants from the Islamic State), who are having a run of Iraq, and some analysts now worry that ISIS will commit mass genocide against Iraq's Shi'a population if Baghdad falls.

The war in Iraq started with Operation Shock and Awe but ended in a fizzle and, some would argue, in an epic exercise in human futility. Here are some facts: Iraq claimed 4,487 American lives, and left 32,226 Americans wounded, according to Pentagon statistics. According to Iraqbodycount.org, the number of Iraqis who died from violence ranges between 103,000 and 114,000 during the U.S. occupation. Though Congressional Research Service has estimated the cost of Operation Iraqi Freedom at around $806 billion dollars, President Obama has said that the cost of the war is over $1 trillion.

Yet, for a long time, Vietnam functioned as a benchmark for spectacular American failure, it remained a deep, searing wound. It took some time after the war's end before movies were made and books sold on the topic. There was a willful repression of America's only military defeat, followed by a flourish of Vietnam novels and movies. Together they constructed a mythic reality around the nation's experience in Vietnam that challenged our old notion of manifest destiny and examined our loss of innocence.

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In the 1980s, conservatives began to claim that the Vietnam Syndrome -- which they saw as an undesirable pacifism on the part of the American public and the U.S. government -- has been "kicked." Most famous of them all was George Bush Sr., who declared in 1991 after victory in the Persian Gulf War that "the ghosts of Vietnam had been laid to rest beneath the sands of the Arabian desert."

But Bush Sr. spoke too soon. The glory of winning did not translate into a second presidential term, and Vietnam continued to haunt our national psyche. When president Clinton withdrew troops from Somalia after 18 soldiers were killed in Mogadishu in 1993, diplomat Richard Holbrooke called it the new "Vietmalia syndrome."

What we are learning now with the enormous failure of Iraq -- the lies and deception from the George W. Bush White House, the images of Iraqis wailing beside their dead loved ones, the shattered homes, bloody sidewalks, tortured prisoners, body parts in market stalls, burnt-out cars, roadside bombs, downed helicopters and horribly maimed American soldiers, the two million refugees, the unending sectarian violence -- is that tragedy cannot simply be overcome with some military victory, but with another tragedy of equal if not greater proportion.

In another generation, when a future U.S. president sends troops to occupy some intransigent country on a dubious objective, American pundits will most likely ask this familiar question made new: "Will it be another Iraq?"

Indeed, the unfinished violence in Iraq is showing us that the so-called Vietnam Syndrome cannot be "kicked," as it were, by winning but by losing, as it forces us to face our collective grief and guilt anew. For all the horrors committed in the name of democracy, and all the soul-searching Americans did after the Vietnam War, we failed to alter the bellicose nature of our nation. And, as if a reflection of our collective amnesia, the only obvious winner is the ever-growing military industrial complex.

Going back into Iraq is an option unimaginable to the American public, and suicidal for any sitting president. But what will we do if the war between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims engulfs the Middle East? How do we reconcile with the lives imperiled by our direct intervention? What moral obligations do we have toward other nations that went up in flame due to our own meddling?

Carl Jung, who made great inroads into man's collective psyche, once noted that, "It often seems as if there were an impersonal karma within a family, which is passed on from parents to children. It has always seemed to me that I had to answer questions which fate had posed to my forefathers, and which had not yet been answered, or as if I had to complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished."

That observation can be applied to the fate of nations as well. For a country unable to confront and reconcile with its own heart of darkness is a country fated to repeat acts barbarism. A war is waged then there follows a period of reckoning. But then, like clockwork, amnesia settles in. And another war, and along with it, new tragedies, would begin.

Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and author of the "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres." His latest book is "Birds of Paradise Lost," a short story collection, was published in 2013 and won a Pen/Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2014 and a finalist for the California Book Award and shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.