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Wars: Vietnam versus Iraq and Afghanistan

Watching John Frankenheimer’s excellent 2002 film “Path to War” about the escalation of the Vietnam conflict brings back the familiar heartbreak. Once again I wonder why our perception of that war, the one that defined a generation, evokes sentiments so different from the present two in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Why does one war cause grief and sorrow and hallowed remembrance and the two others aversion and anger at the loss of life caused by a government gone rogue?  Is it that the sheer numbers in the Vietnam war are staggering (more than 58,000 American soldiers killed, between one and two million Vietnamese)?

There is no easy answer. A possible one is that although the war against communism as well as the so-called “war on terror” were and are waged for absurd reasons, as wars usually are, the Vietnam war was, to a certain extent, driven by men of principle who agonized over doing what they had to do. President Johnson, a brilliant and conflicted man, was certainly no saint (although his stand on civil rights and in support of the disenfranchised remains admirable) but he sincerely saw his theory of containment essential to preventing the “domino effect” of that part of the world falling to communism. But ultimately, he was responsible for sending out hundreds of thousands of young Americans to the killing fields where they fell to the tune of a thousand a month. The Vietnam war was a war that could never be won. But is any war won, given the price always, always paid for what Robert McNamara once called “the dangerous illusion of victory”?

But Johnson never saw himself as having God on his side, as George W. Bush did, nor did he ever sleep soundly whereas Bush was proud of being able to “sleep like a baby.” The present war, the “war on terror” that we’re still in, was based on incredible lies and deception. Who can believe the patriotic pronouncements and the grandiose justifications? Did Cheney’s heart bleed for the Kurds, for the indiscriminate killing of ordinary people, for the marsh people, for all the victims of the abominable Saddam?   The facts coming out every day point to the inevitable conclusion that the war in Iraq was waged for oil and for the deep pockets of Cheney’s buddies at Halliburton. As for the war in Afghanistan, it was waged for who knows what. There is no doubt in my mind that getting rid of Saddam was planned long before September 11. The horrific event gave the administration the excuse it was looking for but it would have found one anyway. The vice-president played Bush like a fiddle and knew that Rumsfeld’s considerable ego would keep him on board.

In the case of Vietnam, we still go to Maya Lin’s monument and grieve and ask “why,” coming up with no answer. Regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, we ask “what for” and the answers are there, and are all revolting.

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  1. September 17, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    Very thoughtful words, Saideh. I personally see Afghanistan and Iraq through different prisms. I supported the action in Afghanistan, hoping (perhaps naively) that the US would succeed in booting out a much despised and barbaric regime and bring some level of stability to this very damaged country. Bush said at the time that “we will never again abandon Afghanistan”, which he precisely did as soon as he turned his attention to Iraq. Had he not, and had he finished the job and secured Afghanistan, had he US helped a capable and nationally respected leader to rule the country instead of Karzai, the ex-Union 76 Oil executive and crony, the world, and particularly Afghanistan & Pakistan would be a much better place.

    In contrast, the war in Iraq has no redeeming motivation to excuse it. It started as an exercise in lie and deception and resulted in total failure: failure in security, in advancing US national interest, and in maintaining a regional balance of power. Never has the mollah’s Islamic Republic been as secure as it is now that it can effectively, cheaply and rapidly cause massive upheavals in Iraq the moment it feels under pressure.

    • September 18, 2011 at 12:25 pm

      Of course I’m being facetious but perhaps Bush pulled out of Afghanistan when his army didn’t find the oil fields and that was how he discovered he was in the wrong country.

  2. September 18, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Thanks to freefarz for great comment, though I still think the war in Afghanistan was and is a mistake. I’m not a great fan of monarchy but the country has gone from bad to worse since the fall of Zahir Shah who was the only cement that could, to a certain extent, hold together this backward, fractured, fragmented country of many tribes and languages. As for Pakistan which I know well, its government is historically one of the most inept, corrupt, and devious. Call me a pessimist but I don’t believe anything would change that.

  3. October 1, 2011 at 4:10 am

    Having just spent two fascinating weeks in Vietnam, exploring the country that evoked such hostility and fear during my youth, I believe that America (my country) was wrong to interfere – though this is said with the wisdom of hindsight and maturity.
    The Vietnamese are gentle, industrious people working very hard to raise standards in their country. Education is the driving force.

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