Are we in Saidad or Baghgon?

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[Note to readers: Consider this a follow-up to my previous dispatch, Incident on Haifa Street. Those of you who haven’t read it might consider checking it out.]

Are we in Saidad or Baghgon?
By Tom Engelhardt

The other day I happened to notice a little piece from the Washington Times headlined, Pentagon seeks ideas to fight ‘urban’ wars. Journalist Jennifer Harper had come across a “solicitation” from the Pentagon’s futuristic research arm, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), calling on researchers to develop, among other things, “on-demand, infantry-operated, ultra-precision, beyond line-of-sight lethal and non-lethal weaponry that has high maneuverability for use in the congested, three-dimensional urban environment.” (Ah, that good old congested three-dimensional urban environment.) DARPA also wants to develop ways to see through “external and internal” building walls (think X-ray vision minus the kryptonite) and, of course, “systems that discriminate combatants from non-combatants” in what its solicitation charmingly terms “crowded urban settings.” Essentially, Harper tells us, DARPA is looking for “what it calls ‘force multipliers’ in 11 separate disciplines, seeking ways to bolster the smaller numbers of U.S. forces commonly on patrol in the likes of Fallujah or Kabul.” In the agency’s solicitation, however, no real-time place names can be found.

In fact, that solicitation is typical of DARPA’s sci-fi approach to the world. If, after all, you plan to dominate our disturbed and recalcitrant planet until the first aliens arrive or the Rapture sets in, then you probably should be thinking futuristically — and consider all the fun your researchers can have along the way, playing Blade Runner in their labs.

After all, somebody has to consider the future and plan for it. Let’s keep in mind that the only part of the Bush administration to openly explore the problems associated with our coming globally warmed planet, to give but an obvious example, has been the Pentagon which issued a reasonably hair-raising report last year on the phenomenon’s potential effects — on national security, of course. (“Learning how to manage those populations [of desperate illegal immigrants], border tensions that arise and the resulting refugees will be critical. New forms of security agreements dealing specifically with energy, food and water will also be needed Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life. “)

But be as futuristic as you want, or DARPA desires; create those “urban canyon flying vehicles” out of Star Wars, or those “perching machines” fit for Minority Report, or for that matter ray guns out of Flash Gordon. It doesn’t matter. All ideas about the future really come from and reflect present problems, concerns, realities, and projections thereof.

It always comes back to the present — which is unsurprising, since it’s the only place we ever actually are. From the Pentagon’s point of view, of course, the problems of the present very distinctly involve overstretched American troops, often Reserves or National Guards, in body armor and kevlar helmets, sweating hard in sweltering heat as they walk or ride through Iraq’s “three-dimensional urban environments,” many of them undoubtedly wishing like the dickens that there were a few “force multipliers” available to multiply them homewards.

Here, for instance, is Knight Ridder’s Nancy A. Youssef describing the experience of patrolling the no-go areas of Baghdad’s vast Shiite slum, Sadr City:

“A dirty look is better than no one out at all, the soldiers said. When parents are willing to venture out and let their children play, it means the insurgents aren’t planning an attack, at least for the moment. These are more than casual observations by the soldiers. The military calls it atmospherics, and it passes for military intelligence at a time when U.S. troops near Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood no longer can interact openly with Iraqis. It comes mostly from the limited view through the windows that line their Humvees. The soldiers said such looks helped them determine how dangerous their patrol route could be that day.

“The atmospherics ‘are almost like the old Indian smoke signals,’ said Capt. Clint Tracy, 30, of the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, A Company 1-12 Cavalry, from Fort Hood, Texas, which has a base at the edge of Sadr City. ‘A lot of people have lived in the same place for quite a while. They know everything before we do.'”

While the Pentagon considers the future, it makes sense not to forget the past (that other place where we don’t exist — except in memory). And the past in the American context is Vietnam. Everyone old enough to have lived through that era, for example, should recognize that, were you to replace one “three dimensional” landscape with another — the city with the countryside– Youssef’s could be a description of any patrol on foot or by halftrack through the hostile villages of Vietnam some forty-odd years ago.

Lost analogies

One of the fantasies of the present presidential race is that Vietnam is ancient history. It’s a matter of musty documents, disputed records, ancient statements, and youthful acts of heroism, shame, or indiscretion by our two candidates. Been there, done that — move on. And these days, when we do move on, it suddenly seems as if many people are in a rush to say that Iraq is certainly not Vietnam. Anything but. And in various ways this is obviously true (in part because nothing historically is ever anything else).

You could certainly start to make the case for the inapplicability of our Vietnam experience to Iraq with the greatest difference between the eras — that we are now in a one, not two, superpower world. As a result, the Iraqi guerrillas have no “great rear area” as the Vietnamese ones did. No equivalent of North Vietnam, China, or the USSR. Nor do they have the greatest “rear area” of all, which was the fear of a superpower nuclear war that would engulf and incinerate the planet. This was an apocalyptic scenario that, in its own way, possessed both Lyndon Johnson, who feared not just a ground war with China (as in Korea in the early 1950s) but a wholesale nuclear conflagration, and Richard (“I will not be the first president to lose a war”) Nixon, who privately threatened to launch a nuclear attack to scare the North Vietnamese into a deal. As Nixon’s aide H. R. Haldeman reported the President saying:

“I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communists. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

Well, so much for end-of-the-world fantasies. North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh never arrived.

All that’s now left of such fears of global conflagration and incineration in our single superpower era of asymmetric warfare is the smaller fear (which has nonetheless gripped the country tightly) of a terrorist nuclear attack on a city, a “lost” bomb from the old Russian arsenal, say, or a new one bought from the North Koreans and snuck into gulp New York where I live.

Then, if you’re still in the mood to enumerate differences, there’s the fact that the Iraqi insurgency seems to be a hodgepodge of at least four loosely interconnected groups: “Sunni tribalists, former Saddam regime loyalists, [Shiite] fighters loyal to anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and foreign jihadists.” Infused with a powerful brew of intense nationalistic and religious emotions, this movement has no named leaders other than al-Sadr and the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There is no equivalent of Vietnam’s disciplined, nationalistic communist party. (“Muqtada al-Sadr/Abu Musab al-Zarqawi/Saddam Hussein, I knew Ho Chi Minh and you’re no Ho Chi Minh.”) I’m sure many of you could list any number of other ways in which Iraq is not, and never will be, Vietnam.

But let me note here another phenomenon, which is a bit puzzling — the loss not just of the power of the Vietnam analogy, but of all potentially useful historical analogies. There was a time, not so long ago, when Vietnam was on people’s lips as a living example of disaster — think, for instance, of the way “quagmire” reentered the language in the wake of the invasion of Iraq) — and a whole host of critical writings cited, among other places and historical parallels, the French in Algeria in the 1950s (the Pentagon’s special operations chiefs even scheduled a special screening of the film The Battle of Algiers), the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s, Afghanistan during the war against the Russian occupation, and Israel in the occupied territories. Now, with the exception of the odd report, analogies seem for the time being largely to have departed the scene; while Vietnam, always just under the surface of American consciousness, has retreated to a musty debate topic in our media — what people did long ago. Here, for instance, is a typical headline from a late August piece in the Los Angeles Times: Kerry Shifts Focus From Vietnam to Iraq — that is, from Swift Boats to something living.

Perhaps we’re just ducking. Analogies, after all, can hurt because in them we usually know how the story ends — painfully. (The French withdrew from Algeria under chaotic conditions; the Americans were driven from Vietnam, the Israelis from Lebanon, and the Russians from Afghanistan.) Or perhaps things in Iraq have gotten so bad at such an ungodly, even a-historical gallop that the analogies have begun to look pallid by comparison (as in the recent headline for a Sidney Blumenthal piece, Far graver than Vietnam, that quotes retired general and former head of the National Security Agency William Odom as saying:

“This is far graver than Vietnam. There wasn’t as much at stake strategically, though in both cases we mindlessly went ahead with the war that was not constructive for US aims. But now we’re in a region far more volatile, and we’re in much worse shape with our allies.”

Whose jungle is this anyway?

So let me try to return us to the analogy fray by suggesting a way in which Iraq is indeed Vietnam. With a few rare and striking exceptions like the Tet Offensive, the war in South Vietnam took place in the rural areas. On one side, the massive American bombing campaigns, the endless patrols, the free-fire zones, the search-and-destroy missions; on the other, the expanding and shrinking patchwork of “liberated areas,” the booby-trapped mines and artillery shells that took such a toll (the equivalent of today’s IEDs and car bombs), the hit and run attacks — these all took place in the countryside. In Vietnam, in other words, the jungle was actually jungle.

Iraq is, in this sense, Vietnam but transposed to the cities — to, that is, an urban jungle. And as the foliage protected the guerrillas in Vietnam, helping to even the odds slightly in a technologically unbalanced war — hence our urge to defoliate so much of the countryside with Agent Orange to deprive the guerrillas of cover — so the alleyways, side streets, buildings, markets, mosques, the unfamiliar urban terrain, all offer a protection which evens the odds slightly in an asymmetric war in Iraq. These, however, can only be “defoliated” by — as in the old city of Najaf recently or in Falluja today — being turned into rubble. As in the countryside in Vietnam, so in the city in Iraq, American troops face a literal jungle of hostility — those same unfriendly eyes and hostile adult stares; the same kids running alongside Bradleys or beside foot patrols pleading for candy. There is the same inability or limited ability to communicate in a language and to a culture that seems alien to our soldiers and officials. There is the same inability to get serviceable information on the enemy from the civilian population (hence the feverish tortures at Abu Ghraib).

In this context so much is, in fact, the same. The infiltrated military and police forces, our “allies” who simply can’t be counted on; a corrupt and weak central government which can’t extend its sway to the “jungle” areas; the frustrating inability to tell friend from foe, civilian from rebel; the no less frustrating ability of the enemy to blend into the local population; the growing “body count” which seems proof of military victories that inevitably turn out to be political losses.

As an American NCO stationed in Iraq recently wrote at the Libertarian website

“We have fallen victim to the body count mentality all over again. We have shown a willingness to inflict civilian casualties as a necessity of war without realizing that these same casualties create waves of hatred against us. These angry Iraqi citizens translate not only into more recruits for the guerilla army but also into more support of the guerilla army.”

All of this is taking place within “congested, three-dimensional urban environments” of sweltering animosity and misery which — whatever Saddam Hussein inflicted on his people (and that was plenty) — we are now inflicting on the Iraqis. And it’s bound to get worse for Iraqis and Americans.

The reason to make analogies in the first place is to extrapolate from a known experience to an unknown one, and it’s really not so terribly hard to extrapolate here. All you need to do is use the famed testimony of the young John Kerry (“I am not here as John Kerry. I am here as one member of the group of veterans in this country, and were it possible for all of them to sit at this table they would be here and have the same kind of testimony.”) before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on April 22, 1971. He summarized then events and acts to which other soldiers back from Vietnam had testified only months earlier in the Winter Soldier hearings, a set of informal war crimes inquiries organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He said, in part, in words that should still reverberate as a warning for all who care to listen:

“They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, tape[d] wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in [a] fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country

“We saw Vietnam ravaged equally by American bombs as well as by search and destroy missions, as well as by Vietcong terrorism, and yet we listened while this country tried to blame all of the havoc on the Vietcong. We rationalized destroying villages in order to save them. We saw America lose her sense of morality as she accepted very coolly a My Lai and refused to give up the image of American soldiers who hand out chocolate bars and chewing gum. We learned the meaning of free fire zones, shooting anything that moves, and we watched while America placed a cheapness on the lives of Orientals.”

“We watched the U.S. falsification of body counts, in fact the glorification of body counts. We listened while month after month we were told the back of the enemy was about to break. We fought using weapons against “oriental human beings,” with quotation marks around that. We fought using weapons against those people which I do not believe this country would dream of using were we fighting in the European theater or let us say a non-third-world people theater, and so we watched while men charged up hills because a general said that hill has to be taken, and after losing one platoon or two platoons they marched away to leave the high [ground] for the reoccupation by the North Vietnamese because we watched pride allow the most unimportant of battles to be blown into extravaganzas, because we couldn’t lose, and we couldn’t retreat, and because it didn’t matter how many American bodies were lost to prove that point. And so there were Hamburger Hills and Khe Sanhs and Hill 881’s and Fire Base 6’s and so many others.

“Now we are told that the men who fought there must watch quietly while American lives are lost so that we can exercise the incredible arrogance of Vietnamizing the Vietnamese.”

Now, of course, we are dealing in the cheapness of Iraqi lives while we Iraqicize them. Like the “liberated areas,” the free-fire zones have begun to spread in Iraq’s cities, as they once did in Vietnam’s countryside; while American troops, spread thin, take parts of Najaf, or Falluja, or Haifa Street and Sadr City in Baghdad only to give them up again. And as we already know from the photos at Abu Ghraib, the abuses, the tortures, the humiliations have begun. Imagine what will follow when the sweltering, “disillusioned and bitter” as well as beleaguered troops the Bush administration — which can’t lose and can’t retreat — has put in harm’s way can’t take the hostility, the casualties, the mortarings, the seeming ingratitude, the IEDs, the suicide bombers, the Iraqi police who don’t police and the Iraqi soldiers who won’t soldier against other Iraqis.

You don’t have to be some historical genius to know where our splendid little adventure in Iraq is headed now that everything’s visibly going wrong. You don’t have to guess too hard what exactly will happen if, after our November election, the administration really does order the “taking” of Falluja, or Ramadi, or Baquba, or Sadr City. We’re already willing to bomb the urban jungle just as we once were willing to bomb the actual jungle. The further devastation and the crimes will follow as night does day. This — more than anything else — is why our war in Iraq must be stopped now before embittered representatives of a new generation of American soldiers decide to throw their medals back on the White House lawn.

DARPA, of course, represents one solution to the urban jungle of Iraq and soon, you can be sure, scientists and researchers in its pay will be hard at work on miraculous vehicles and spying eyes and perching machines, those “multiplication factors,” meant to pacify future urban jungles. But there’s another simpler, cheaper way to go. Leave the jungle.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and consulting editor at Metropolitan Books. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture (where you can read more about Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, the “madman theory,” and the Vietnam War) and The Last Days of Publishing, a novel.

Copyright C2004 Tom Engelhardt