Thursday, February 24, 2011

1991: Lessons of Vietnam

This is another article written in the lead-up to the first Gulf War, twenty years ago this week. I still remember the chilling extent to which the media began to march in lockstep with White House propaganda. That's when it was clear the jig was up. Two weeks before it began, the Santa Cruz Comic News published this, headlined, "Lessons of Vietnam... and Panama... and Nicaragua... and El Salvador... and Grenada... and Lebanon... and Angola... and Chile... and Cambodia... and Laos... and Dominican Republic..."

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The lessons to be learned from Vietnam, of course, vary widely depending on one's point of view. Our leaders seem to have gleaned the impression that quick, brutal, and unrestrained use of force is the most viable political option available to them in waging a post-Vietnam 'police action.' The President also noted recently that "the final lesson of Vietnam [is] that a great nation can not long afford to be sundered by a memory," that is, that he would prefer that we just forget all about that particular police action.

The primary lesson of Vietnam for those who opposed it was that we would never forget it - nor allow anything like it to happen again. Now that it has, the lessons of our 30+ years of involvement in Southeast Asia - and the panoply of comparable interventions in our recent history - are terrifyingly illuminated once again.

One of the most central is that war spreads not only bloodshed and destruction abroad, but severe distortions of liberty and justice at home. As our nation has been on a permanent war footing for over a half a century now, these effects have become more or less permanent as well. Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark stunned a TV interviewer recently by stating that the present conflict was made possible because "we are living under a military dictatorship." I would consider this no exaggeration. Mr. Clark's comment is at least relevant since President Kennedy's removal from office, and arguably since the end of World War II. Our government's relentless militarism has left this country with a severely weakened Constitution, a growing and permanent underclass, a $4 trillion debt, countless new enemies, and, according to former CIA agent John Stockwell, responsibility for a minimum of six million corpses strewn across the planet.

The lessons of this mayhem are numerous, but those who oppose our tragic intervention in the Persian Gulf would do well to keep at least these few in mind. Firstly, as former National Security Council aide Craig Hulet puts it, "that governments never tell their publics anything except what they want them to hear is an axiom too valid to argue." In Vietnam they cooked the body counts and reassured us endlessly that there was "a light at the end of the tunnel." Expect plenty of similar lies and distortions from the White House and the Pentagon - and their allies in the media.

Second, that our government will display utter contempt for international laws and treaties, as well as our own Constitution, all the while proclaiming their fealty to same, and decrying the enemy's lawlessness. Third, that economic motivations are paramount in waging war, whether 'covert' or not. Fourth, that our "national interest" is not at stake; various private interests are. On their behalf, our government can, and frequently will, sell out our nation's best interests - and betray the trust of our soldiers. Fifth, that the United States, to minimize its own casualties, and thus public dissent, fights a particularly indiscriminate style of warfare, which generally results in massive civilian casualties in the target country.

The sixth lesson of Vietnam, et al, is just as chilling as the foregoing, but somewhat more immediate: our government will regard organized political opposition to its policies by US citizens as a threat to its 'interests' as serious as that of the current foreign devil. There is not a single "covert action" they have practiced abroad that they would hesitate to use against domestic dissenters. You can count on it.

1. We Lie: The Pentagon Papers (Gravel edition), leaked by former National Security Council aide Daniel Ellsberg to document the basis of his opposition to Vietnam, reveal that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, used by LBJ to justify his escalation of the war, was an utter fabrication. The true nature of the incidents that provoked our interventions in Panama and Grenada, and our entry into the Korean War, the Spanish- American War, and both World Wars are also at considerable variance with what the public was told at the time.

Now we are told that the "unprovoked" invasion of Kuwait by the madman Saddam Hussein and his designs on our Saudi allies demand the shedding of blood in response. We are not told of our government's collusion with Kuwait's efforts to squeeze Iraq's economy, of Kuwait's slant drilling under the Iraqi border to drain the Rumallah oil field, nor of the Bush Administration's tacit encouragement of Saddam's military response. Nor are we told that Iraq has neither the desire nor the capacity to invade and occupy Saudi Arabia, given its enemies to the north, east and west.

It is important to remember that the newspaper chains, wire services, and networks passing spoon-fed Pentagon briefings along to us have come under increasingly monopolized and interlocking ownership since the fall of Saigon in 1975. Our lenders have spoken often in subsequent years of their horror at the dreaded "Vietnam Syndrome" - public aversion to warfare - and the ensuing "crisis of democracy" - read too much of same. They have done all in their considerable power to make sure their ability to wage war with impunity is not so impaired in future conflicts, with considerable success so far.

2. We Cheat: The mainstream press is currently filled with gee-whiz commentary on the sudden effectiveness of the UN, now that the 14-member Security Council (though not the General Assembly) has endorsed limited use of force to enforce UN resolutions on Iraq. Discussions of UN resolutions against US interventions in Panama, Nicaragua and Grenada receive somewhat less prominent coverage. The complaints of Yemen and Algeria that we had violated the limits on use of force with our "surgical strikes" into Baghdad are mentioned even less.

The President has also been quick to condemn Saddam, our latest Great Satan, for his flagrant violations of international law, and they are indeed egregious. Our own record on this point, however, is also less than exemplary.

The resolution of impeachment introduced by Rep. Henry Gonzalez documents the violations of our Constitution and of ratified treaties, which have the force of law under that Constitution. These violations undercut our troops. Here too the example of French Indochina is instructive. By waging undeclared war on North Vietnam and "secret wars" on Laos and Cambodia, we undermined our authority to charge Geneva convention violations when those countries treated our pilots like 'criminals' for carrying out their bombing runs - precisely what Saddam is doing.

Vietnam became "our" war when we violated the 1954 Geneva Accords that called for free elections to unify the country, and instead installed our handpicked stooge to run the new nation- state of South Vietnam. Our involvement ended "officially" with the 1973 Paris Peace Accords. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the US announced it would violate those agreements the day they were signed (by continuing to support the Saigon government), reneged on the promised reconstruction aid, and has continued to 'covertly' destabilize the region ever since.

3. We Steal: Alfred McCoy's landmark work The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia tells of the massive CIA trafficking in opiates to finance their covert operations in Indochina. As the war wound down, the smuggling of drug profits and arms caches increased to help cover the next war, and, as in the Iran-contra scandal, line a few pockets as well (Kwitny, Crimes of Patriots). Great fortunes were made from Vietnam, for, among others, LBJ's cronies at Brown & Root, and Nixon's former employer Bell Aircraft, not to mention the heroin profits to Nixon's Mafia buddies. The long-term costs of the conflict, of course, dwarf these profits.

Most of our covert meddling involves backing regional strongmen like Zaire's Mobutu, who impoverish their own citizenry and drain US tax dollars, but enrich themselves and their US backers- tantamount to international muggings. Some of our clients, like Marcos, become expendable and are cut loose. Others, like Noriega, are insufficiently pliable, and are taken out. Saddam seems to have fallen into the latter category. Our policymakers seem to think they can return to the good old days - when the Shah of Iran was our Gulf Policeman - by replacing Saddam with someone as cooperative as, say, Panama's Endara. History, however, suggests stability may be elusive.

Saddam's invasion did at least finally prompt our President to consider alternative sources of energy, and one of the first he mentioned was liquid petroleum gas (LPG) a commodity supplied by the company Hollywood LPG2, in which the President and the Secretary of State are partners. Bush's company Zapata Oil specializes in offshore drilling, another 'alternative' he has stressed the need for. Bush and his cronies also hold stock in firms with strong interests in Iraqi phosphorus and sulphur deposits.

However much he may have welcomed Saddam's invasion as an excuse to police the region, Bush had no choice but to reinstall the royal family of Kuwait, and quickly. The al-Sabah family may have more money invested in the West than they do in Kuwiat. The al-Sabahs hold hundreds of billions in US assets, which, if transferred into marks or yen, would cause a string of bank failures that would make the S&L mess look like the $900 toilet seat scandal (Hulet, Why Bush "Needs" a War?, 1990 white paper).

4. We Betray: The book Kiss the Boys Goodbye by Monika Jensen-Stevenson asserts that the US left some of its prisoners behind when the “official” POWs came home after the Paris Peace accords. Some were cut loose because of their knowledge of CIA heroin trafficking, while others, captured during the secret wars, were never acknowledged as prisoners in the first place. This shocking thesis is corroborated by a 1990 minority report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The US government continues to cover up the fate of these men, in part because they feel it might hamper armed forces recruiting efforts.

Of course, the betrayal of our soldiers did not stop there. Back at home the government struggled mightily for years to avoid having to compensate Agent Orange victims. And the cuts in funding for veterans' benefits under the Reagan- Bush Administrations continue apace, with another $70 million slashed this year.

Now George Bush professes moral outrage at Saddam Hussein's hostage-taking. Yet the book October Surprise by Barbara Honnegar asserts that Reagan-Bush campaign aides paid off Iran in 1980 to stymie President Carter's attempts to free our 53 hostages. History also records our 1975 betrayal of the Kurds, for whose welfare we currently profess concern. After backing them against Iraq, our CIA, under George Bush, cut them loose to face retribution when the Shah cut a deal with the Iraqis (William Blum, CIA: A Forgotten History).

5. We kill: Given our use of defoliants and incendiary devices in Vietnam, the US has little standing to pontificate on Saddam's use of chemical weapons. Our treatment of the Vietnamese people, both north and south, was every bit as brutal as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Entire families, in places like My Lai, were tossed into ditches and shot. Entire villages were herded into barbed-wire-enclosed 'model hamlets' to isolate them from the guerrillas, while the surrounding jungle was defoliated. As many as 50,000 "potential communist sympathizers" were assassinated in the CIA's Phoenix Program, many of them teachers, mayors, and priests.

At this stage of the game in Panama, our government was claiming civilian casualties of about 84 or so. After weeks of questioning, that total was revised upward to 231, then stabilized at 202. The recently released report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Invasion of Panama (South End, 1991), however, indicates that civilian deaths arising from our invasion of Panama reached at least 1000, possibly as many as 4000. If our “smart bombs” really are locating the correct Baghdad street addresses before exploding, such care would indicate an uncharacteristic concern for civilian lives on the part of our military, perhaps in deference to the sensibilities of our Arab coalition partners. Keep in mind, however, that the Pentagon's initial high claims for 'kill ratios' of strategic targets were quickly revised downward, with 'collateral damage' - read civilian deaths - rising accordingly. Reports from Europe indicate between 100,000 and 300,000 Iraqi civilian and military casualties to date.

6. We are the enemy: Those who have grasped the extent to which our government has lied, cheated, stolen, betrayed and killed in the past will want to do everything in their power to oppose this latest outbreak of madness. This is a long and honorable tradition in our country. With the arguable exception of World War II, each of our governments 'major' wars has aroused significant opposition amongst the US citizenry. Certainly nothing will stop George Bush from managing this conflict on our terms" unless he finds the political costs of doing so to be unacceptably high. Be forewarned, however, that choosing to oppose this war is not without risk. If you do so, you are the enemy, in the minds of our leaders. Recall especially the conduct of the Johnson and Nixon Administrations during the Vietnam war.

The book Cointelpro Papers, by Ward Churchill, documents the breadth of the war on dissent undertaken during those years. FBI papers released under the Freedom of Information Act show that the anti-war movement was broadly infiltrated by government agents. To a remarkable degree, those now identified as informants are recalled by veteran activists as the strongest advocates of the kind of violence and disruptive tactics that alienated Middle Americans from the peace movement. The book Glass Home Tapes by Louis Tackwood exposes a special unit of the Los Angeles Police, Department that, with federal assistance, set out to stage provocations that they then blamed on 'radicals' and used as an excuse to crack heads. This, and more, is what your government will do to those who threaten their interests, citizens or no.

But there is a seventh lesson of the war in Vietnam, and that is that a broad-based and effective coalition of forces arose to oppose the government's war-making policies, and achieved at least a partial victory. The US did not withdraw its troops because it was the right thing to do, but because the social costs of domestic dissent proved too high to justify its continuation. For if there is one thing our rulers fear, it is an aroused and informed citizenry.

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