Although Vietnam flooded instantly back into American consciousness as the invasion of Iraq was launched in March 2003–along with its ancient vocabulary from “hearts and minds” to “quagmire” (or the deeply referential “Q-word”)–for the Bush administration the rhetorical reference point was World War II and its aftermath. From Churchillian phraseology to that famed “axis of evil”, modeled on the Axis powers of that global war, to endless invocations of the successful occupations of Germany and Japan, World War II was its analogous war of choice.
Yet from the beginning, no American critic had the Vietnam War era more firmly lodged in the brain than the top officials of the Bush administration. It was as if their invasion was always aimed, as in a suicide mission, directly at America’s well-guarded Green Zone of Vietnam memories. After all, much war planning was based on what they considered the “lessons” of defeat in Vietnam.
From the dead-of-night way they brought the dead and wounded back from Iraq to the Pentagon’s decision to embed the dreaded media, long blamed for defeat in Vietnam, in military units, Iraq was to be the anti-Vietnam battlefield. If we had, as the right believed, never lost an actual battle in Vietnam, but lost every one on the home front, then the major campaigns of the Iraq War would first be launched and managed on that home front (and only secondarily in Iraq).
But even as the White House and Pentagon were attempting to erase all Vietnam-like thoughts from the reality they hoped to mold both in the Middle East and in the US, even as they were avoiding the “Q-word” or the infamous phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” (for which, in the years to come, they would substitute an endless string of Iraqi “milestones,” “landmarks,” “tipping points,” and “corners” turned), they were themselves hopelessly haunted by Vietnam.
That events in Iraq bore remarkably little relation to those in Vietnam over three decades earlier–beyond the obvious unlearned lesson that smaller powers in our time will not let bigger ones occupy them–seemed to make no difference. Forget the fact that there was no other superpower backing the Iraqi resistance or that the insurgency was a minority Sunni one in a majority Shiite country; forget that Vietnam had next to nothing of resource value other than rice to offer, while Iraq lies at the heart of the oil heartlands of the planet. Just focus for a moment on the recent thoroughly depressing jigsaw puzzle of a map of Baghdad produced by the US military “to reflect… ethno-sectarian fault lines” and leaked to the Times of London. Its various complex patterns of Sunni and Shiite stripes and solids, of flashpoints and “Christian communities,” representing the complex swirl of civil war, insurgency, and ethnic cleansing bear no relation to anything imaginable in the Vietnam era.