Someday, we will undoubtedly discover that, in the term “surge” — as in the President’s “surge” plan (or “new way forward”) announced to the nation in January — was the urge to avoid the language (and experience) of the Vietnam era. As there were to be no “body bags” (or cameras to film them as the dead came home), as there were to be no “body counts” (“We have made a conscious effort not to be a body-count team” was the way the President put it), as there were to be no “quagmires,” nor the need to search for that “light at the end of the tunnel,” so, surely, there were to be no “escalations.”
The escalations of the Vietnam era, which left more than 500,000 American soldiers and vast bases and massive air and naval power in and around Vietnam (Laos, and Cambodia), had been thoroughly discredited. Each intensification in the delivery of troops, or simply in ever-widening bombing campaigns, led only to more misery and death for the Vietnamese and disaster for the U.S. And yet, not surprisingly, the American experience in Iraq — another attempted occupation of a foreign country and culture — has been like a heat-seeking missile heading for the still-burning American memories of Vietnam.
As historian Marilyn Young noted in early April 2003 with the invasion of Iraq barely underway: “In less then two weeks, a 30 year old vocabulary is back: credibility gap, seek and destroy, hard to tell friend from foe, civilian interference in military affairs, the dominance of domestic politics, winning, or more often, losing hearts and minds.” By August 2003, the Bush administration, of course, expected that only perhaps 30,000 American troops would be left in Iraq, garrisoned on vast “enduring” bases in a pacified country. So, in a sense, it’s been a surge-a-thon ever since. By now, it’s beyond time to call the President’s “new way forward” by its Vietnamese equivalent. Admittedly, a “surge” does sound more comforting, less aggressive, less long-lasting, and somehow less harmful than an “escalation,” but the fact is that we are six months into the newest escalation of American power in Iraq. It has deposited all-time high numbers of troops there as well, undoubtedly, as more planes and firepower in and around that country than at any moment since the invasion of 2003. Naturally enough, other “all-time highs” of the grimmest sort follow.
This September, General David Petraeus, our escalation commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, our escalation ambassador there, will present their “progress report” to Congress. (“Progress” was another word much favored in American official pronouncements of the Vietnam era.) The very name tells you more or less what to expect. The report has already been downgraded to a “snapshot” of an ongoing set of operations, which shouldn’t be truly judged or seriously assessed until at least this November, or perhaps early 2008, or… With that in mind, here is the second Tomdispatch “by the numbers” report on Iraq. Consider it an attempt to put the Iraqi quagmire-cum-nightmare — two classic Vietnam-era words — in perspective.