Vietnam Syndrome

Thursday, February 17th, 2005

“Yes, war does involve casualties. This is the real world, not a hippie love-in.”

Patience, patience. One day the Iraq war is going to be history, and the strident voices now fueling it with mocking self-righteousness will be as silent and conciliatory as, oh, let’s say a chastened Trent Lott as he reached out to his African-American brothers and sisters on Black Entertainment Television in an attempt to save his job.

One day — remember, you’re reading it here first — war itself will be deemed to be as obsolete as racism; nations will demilitarize; domestic violence will plummet; “satyagraha” (Gandhi’s term, combining the Hindu words for “truth” and “holding firmly”) will enter conversational English.

I don’t know that it will happen in my lifetime — the timetable for such a transformation is no doubt longer than the civil rights movement’s, unless you count the civil rights movement as beginning about 1863 — but I know that it will happen. Because it must.

I speak today in praise of Vietnam Syndrome, which is as close as we’ve come so far. Conservative columnist William Safire defined the syndrome several years ago as “that revulsion at the use of military power that afflicted our national psyche for decades after our defeat.” It’s what the correspondent quoted above no doubt meant to dismiss as a “hippie love-in.”

“We have an objective,” that writer went on, “a free Iraqi people able to self-govern and creating a better future for ALL people. There is a cost. Democracy is not free. Is it worth it, are you willing to pay the price? What this guy doesn’t mention is that there is a cost to doing nothing as well.”

“The guy” in question is me, in this instance the third party in a troubled conversation about a troubling statistic: 100,000 Iraqi civilian dead so far in this war, mostly at the hand of coalition forces. Thus Lancet, the British medical journal, reported in November, and ever since I’ve been among those trying to insert that number into the national narrative about our foreign policy and its alleged altruism. This number should be the starting point.

Merely a few thousand (non-American) civilian dead may be no big deal. A bargain even. “Democracy is not free.” But when you bump the casualty count up to six figures, the debate crosses a threshold; doubt creeps in around the edges of the patriotism. Vietnam Syndrome looms.

The basic storyline that threads most mainstream reporting is that outrage over 9/11 and fear of terrorism have supplanted post-Nam “defeatism” in the national psyche. If you’re a neocon, you add: Praise the Lord. But cautiously.

In February 2003, at the dawn of the Iraq invasion, when neocon hopes were high, H.R. McMaster wrote a piece on the Hoover Institution Web site called “Kicking the Vietnam Syndrome.” In it, he took pains to establish a clear distinction between the good war and the bad one, the straight-shooting decisiveness of George W. Bush vs. the twisted folly of LBJ, who vainly tried to “preserve a fragile consensus” for his war “built on lies and deceptions.”

Oops. One distinction down. As the occupation has dragged brutally on, we’ve learned that every pretext for it was a lie. The justification for our presence is down to raw altruism: bestowing freedom on the Iraqi people. Maintaining this fiction requires as much discipline as fighting the war.

The Abu Ghraib revelations hurt; revulsion began leaking into the mainstream. Now, if the kill count of the Iraqi people turns out, tragically, to be approaching genocidal numbers, the last lie could fall. Eventually, it will become impossible to counter the antiwar voices with the glib observation that “democracy isn’t free.” An honest national debate would ask the question: How many women and children, precisely, is democracy worth?

Framed thus, the lie that sustains militarism will begin to break down. Vietnam Syndrome isn’t “revulsion” over a humiliating defeat but common sense about humanity’s interdependence and the recognition that ends and means are inseparable.

The neocons understand this perfectly, and perhaps deep in their secret hearts understand also that “kicking the Vietnam Syndrome” in any permanent way is wishful thinking. That means they see how limited their time is for extending the American empire the old-fashioned way. They need to do as much damage as possible now.

The growing ranks of troubled Americans must raise their voices louder, push back harder, hold even more firmly to the truth. Democracy isn’t free.