Iraq looking more and more like Vietnam

August 30, 2005|By Gordon Livingston

AS IF THE resemblance between Iraq and Vietnam were not enough, President Bush has closed the circle for us.

Speaking before National Guard troops and their families in Idaho - another "safe" audience - he acknowledged those who had died in the war and said, "These brave men and women gave their lives for a cause that is just and necessary for the security of our country, and now we will honor their sacrifice by completing their mission." In other words, the way to honor the dead is by having more soldiers die.

This echoes what became one of the standard rationales for continuing the Vietnam War:

Sacrifice begets sacrifice, and no one wants to admit that those already killed may have died in vain, least of all the people who sent them there in the first place.

Never mind that the original rationale for the war - preventing Iraq from using its stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction against us - has evaporated; the issue now is that ever-reliable call to arms: freedom, ours and the Iraqis'.

Introducing an Idaho mother with four sons in Iraq, Mr. Bush said, "America lives in freedom because of families like the Pruetts."

Sounds great, but how, exactly, does our freedom hinge on what happens in that country, much of it desert, among squabbling factions trying to preserve that artificial state, the creation of Winston Churchill in the 1920s?

Along with most of our pre-war delusions, we have quietly relinquished the idea of a flowering secular democracy in Iraq that would serve as a beacon of hope to other peoples of the Middle East. In fact, we will be lucky if the Iraqis can agree on anything short of civil war.

If they do form a state that can sustain itself, it appears likely to resemble the Iranian theocracy. Again like Vietnam, where the average peasant was apolitical and just wanted the killing to stop, Iraqis appear more interested in security and basic services than in the details of governance.

"What can I do with a constitution if I have no water, gasoline and electricity?" asked one citizen quoted by The New York Times. "How come they gathered to approve the constitution while Iraqis are slaughtered?" asked another.

Here's where things look even more like Vietnam: Just as we could never create a South Vietnamese army that would fight, so too we are having trouble getting the Iraqis ready to provide their own security. The reason for that is the same as in our Southeast Asian adventure: We are an occupying force trying to get indigenous soldiers to do what our troops are doing, fight a determined insurgency. We speak of this effort as "training." But the problem of getting people to fight is not one of training but of will.

The insurgents have lots of it (they are willing to blow themselves up, after all) because they have us as the foreign enemy. Our Iraqis lack determination because they have little loyalty to the government and see themselves (correctly) as surrogates who will be abandoned by us at an early date.

We can continue to recruit large numbers of police by offering them money in a society where unemployment is the norm. But can we persuade them to risk their lives on behalf of a government widely seen as our creation? Doubtful.

Mr. Bush, in his contest with Cindy Sheehan, lacks moral standing. The spectacle of a bereaved mother by the side of a Texas highway asking for an audience with a self-indulgent president on vacation is compelling. That he avoided the war of his generation adds further irony to his demands that more American families sacrifice their children in this disastrous enterprise. His latest job approval rating is 36 percent; he can go bike-riding, but he cannot hide.

Gordon Livingston, a Vietnam veteran and a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia, is the author of Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart.

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