SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Finding a parallel in wars

INTERVIEW

V. SRIDHAR

TALKING ABOUT WARS: Alexander Cockburn.

TALKING ABOUT WARS: Alexander Cockburn.  

Alexander Cockburn.

THE U.S.-led invasion of Iraq is often compared to the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. How valid is that comparison?

The U.S. intervention in Vietnam began after 1954, after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. It was pitched as an effort to stop Communist expansionism. After China in 1949 and Korea in the 1950s, they (U.S. policy managers) realised that they were losing control of Vietnam. They also probably saw Indonesia going away from their control. The U.S. High Command and strategic analysts conceived the intervention in Vietnam as a way of putting in place a defensive cordon around expanding Communism. That is quite obviously different, in terms of intentions, from Iraq.

However, there are parallels. At a popular level the memory of Vietnam is still very vivid. At the intellectual level the parallels are obvious. The constant reference to the "quagmire" reflects this. The fathers of many soldiers serving in Iraq may have served in Vietnam. The parents of many of the protesters against the invasion of Iraq would have protested against the Vietnam War. Everybody remembers the bogus nature of the military claims of victory in Vietnam. The famous "body counts" when the military said that it was winning in Vietnam come to mind. Everybody in the anti-war movement today remembers what that war ultimately became, the near total destruction of huge areas of Vietnam. Robert McNamara, in a recent movie about him ("The Fog of War"), has estimated that 3.75 million people died in Vietnam — the normal figure you would hear is two million people dead.

The U.S fights so many wars that there is always some war that is on peoples' minds. Of course, there are substantial differences between the two wars. The war against Iraq is not a purportedly defensive war against Communism. It is an aggressive war, couched as a war to defend the U.S. and Europe against Saddam Hussein's totally imaginary weapons of mass destruction. But if you look at the programme of the Neoconservatives, a plan originally contracted for by the then Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu (1996-1999), the U.S. intervention in Iraq was conceived as a means of rearranging the politics of the Middle East.

Of course, it was also to gain command over Iraq's resources — oil, land, markets, telecommunications, irrigation, and many others. So, that is very different (from Vietnam). The intervention in Iraq is much more naked. In the post-communist world it does not take very long for the defensive pretensions to fall away.

How does the anti-war protests movement compare with protests of the Vietnam era?

Well, it is interesting. The U.S. presence in Vietnam began in 1955. It built slowly in the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras. The protests in the U.S. were originally instigated by far Left groups, particularly the Maoists and the Trotskyites, in 1962-63. That was when the Civil Rights movement in the Southern U.S. was getting stronger. It was also a time when the mass student movements were building up. By 1964 these movements and the protests against the Vietnam War were acquiring a big national presence — that is 10 years after the U.S. involvement began in Vietnam. It is obvious that these things (organising popular protests) take a while to gather critical mass.

The initial antiwar movement started after the US attack on Iraq in 1991. But the protests against the sanctions on Iraq remained tenacious although I would not call it a mass movement. After George Bush came to power in 2001, and after it became clear that the Administration was driving towards an attack on Iraq, there was a ramping up to major political protests. A lot of the organisation started on the far Left. But they managed to form large coalitions, which included the usual big peace coalitions — the churches, the Quakers, and many others. These protests in the U.S. were part of the worldwide protests of early of 2003. There were protests everywhere in the U.S. There were protests in even the small towns, which never had a history of such protests. The protests really slowed down in the summer of 2004 when John Kerry became the candidate of the Democratic Party. He came to the Party convention in Boston as a war hero in Vietnam. The Democratic Party committed itself to a candidate who not only did not denounce the war, but who said he would fight a better war and increase the U.S. armed forces by 40,000 troops. The mainstream antiwar movement, represented by United for Peace and Justice, basically said: "Don't rock the boat". It completely alienated large sections of the middle Left. There was a huge campaign against Ralph Nader by the Democratic Party in which, I regret people like Chomsky asked people to fall behind Kerry. That had a profoundly demobilising effect on the antiwar movement. To this day it has not recovered.

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