The presidential pageant has now risen full in the sky and is blocking out the sun. Until November, we dwell in a weird half-light, stumbling into spooky shadows but shielded from the harsh glare of the nation’s actual circumstances. Down is up, fiction is truth, momentous realities are made to disappear from the public mind. The 2004 spectacle is not the first to mislead grossly and exploit emotional weaknesses in the national character. But this time the consequences will be especially grim.
The United States is “losing” in Iraq, literally losing territory and population to the other side. Careful readers of the leading newspapers may know this, but I doubt most voters do. How could they, given the martial self-congratulations of the President and relative restraint from his opponent? High-minded pundits tell us not to dwell on the long-ago past. But the cruel irony of 2004 is that Vietnam is the story. The arrogance and deceit–the utter waste of human life, ours and theirs–play before us once again. A frank discussion will have to wait until after the election.
Several Sundays ago, an ominous article appeared in the opinion section of the New York Times: “One by One, Iraqi Cities Become No-Go Zones.” Falluja, Samarra, Ramadi, Karbala, the Sadr City slums of Baghdad–these and other population centers are now controlled by various insurgencies and essentially ceded by US forces. This situation would make a joke of the national elections planned for January. Yet, if US troops try to recapture the lost cities, the bombing and urban fighting would produce massive killing and destruction, further poisoning politics for the US occupation and its puppet government in Saigon–sorry, Baghdad.
Three days later, the story hit page one when anonymous Pentagon officials confirmed the reality. Not to worry, they said: The United States is training and expanding the infant Iraqi army so it can do the fighting for us. That’s the ticket–Vietnamization. I remember how well General Westmoreland articulated the strategy back in the 1960s, when war’s progress was measured by official “body counts” and reports on “new” fighting forces on the way.
But this time Washington decided the United States couldn’t wait for “Iraqization,” a strategy that might sound limp-wristed to American voters. The US bombing and assaults quickly resumed. The Bush White House is thus picking targets and second-guessing field commanders, just as Lyndon Johnson did forty years ago in Indochina. Bush is haunted by the mordant remark a US combat officer once made in Vietnam: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”
Meanwhile, Bush’s war is destroying the US Army, just as LBJ’s war did. After Vietnam, military leaders and Richard Nixon wisely abolished the draft and opted for an all-volunteer force. When this war ends, the volunteer army will be in ruins and a limited draft lottery may be required to fill out the ranks. After Iraq, men and women will get out of uniform in large numbers, especially as they grasp the futility of their sacrifices. Yet Bush’s on-the-cheap warmaking against a weak opponent demonstrates that a larger force structure is needed to sustain his policy of pre-emptive war. Kerry says he wants 40,000 more troops, just in case. Old generals doubt Congress would pay for it, given the deficits.