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The Fog of Peace: Vietnam Myths and the March of Folly in Iraq

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It's a little known fact that while most of us are sleeping soundly, the far right gathers to rewrite history. With the Bush administration throwing in the towel on finding weapons of mass destruction, these right wing night owls now claim that the absence of WMD is irrelevant since "there were lots of reasons" to go war. In due time, they may even tell us what those reasons were.

These same night owls, however, have done a masterful job with the Vietnam War, recasting it as a mythic crusade against communism that we noble Americans would have won had we simply let the military do its job. This historical fantasy is anything but harmless, since the same themes are echoed in President Bush's latest "stay the course" argument and right wing comments about Abu Ghraib.

The first part of this mythology is to dispel the notion that Americans committed any wartime atrocities. Just as the Swift Boat veterans disputed Senator Kerry's claim of atrocities in Vietnam, conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh sought to deflect attention from Abu Ghraib by dismissing it as equivalent to a fraternity initiation that extracted "information that actually ended up saving lives."

The reality is quite different, as the trial of Abu Ghraib ringleader Spc. Charles Graner's plainly displayed a picture of torture. In addition, such torture did little to save lives since General Taguba's report found that over sixty percent of the inmates were not even a threat and intelligence and FBI officials concede that such abuses yield little of value.

These actions are also counterproductive on a macro-level since, just as historians concluded that U.S. abuses as part of its Vietnam "search and destroy" strategy played into the hands of the Viet Cong; Abu Ghraib has turned Iraqi's against the U.S. and undermined our moral authority worldwide.

The biggest part of the right wing Vietnam mythology is that the United States could have "won" in Vietnam but for meddling politicians. The beauty of this mythology is that the night owls rarely feel the need to say anything further since it is understood that America always wins its wars. Ann Coulter recently advanced this theory to argue that we should just "let the Marines do their job" in Iraq and now President Bush claims that the mistake in Vietnam was not escalation but withdrawal.

The fact is that the United States deployed 3.4 million soldiers in Southeast Asia; dropped four times as many bombs as during all of World War II on nearly 70 percent of Vietnam's villages; sprayed millions of gallons of chemicals to deforest large sections of the country; at a cost of nearly $500 billion in current dollars and over 360,000 Americans killed or injured only to reach a stalemate in a war that was not vital to our national interests.

The night owls never say how many more soldiers would have been deployed, bombs dropped, dollars spent or soldiers killed to achieve a "victory" in a war both Presidents Johnson and Nixon concluded was unwinnable; nor do they ever address what "winning" means in military or political terms for the weak and corrupt South Vietnamese government.

In fact, Dr. Jeffrey Record of the Army War College concluded that "the only way the United States could have avoided defeat in Vietnam was by staying out of the war altogether."

The Vietnam War led to creation of the "Powell Doctrine" which calls for every military campaign to be assessed by several factors including whether its objectives are clearly defined. In essence, the Powell Doctrine is a clear-eyed antidote to the night owl's mythic views. Coulter's "let our boys win" argument, however, only highlights how the doctrine has been ignored, since we are again engaged in a war where "winning" is undefined (as are the reasons we went to war).

In The Fog of War, Robert McNamara appears as an American Oedipus lamenting the arrogance and blindness that led us into Vietnam. The night owls not only refuse to acknowledge what is now plain to the metaphorically blinded McNamara, but are leading us to repeat these mistakes in Iraq.

Thirty-five years after the Paris Peace Accords that led to the U.S. withdrawal, Vietnam again calls us to battle. This time the fight is not about territory but history. If we fail to engage this battle and challenge the night owl's dangerous Vietnam fantasies, we will be complicit in their blindness and the nightmare that is likely to follow.

Note: This column was adapted from Right Wing Fantasies and Iraq, Democratic Underground (January 25, 2005).