Monday, February 04, 2008

American Empire III: Imperial War and Guilt

Thoughtful reader Ralph recently posed this topic:

"Could you address the growing guilt our society faces, concerning the current imperial war in the middle east, by using as a vantage point, the guilt most German citizens faced after WWII with Hitler. Are we not experiencing the same emotions as a society that they did? Will not history judge us harshly in the future for our apathy and collusion now?"

Here is an emotion rarely discussed or commented on in the mainstream media. Guilt? On the surface, and perhaps deep inside, Americans seem to reject guilt as an emotion with intrinsic meaning and focus on its depreciated useage as a goad to "meeting your goals in life." For instance: "Stop feeling guilty about what you eat," "stop feeling guilty about your kid, they are who they are," "stop feeling guilty about not exercising."

What's missing from "guilt over human failings," of course, is the concept of sin, or having done wrong. Was eating a chocolate sundae "wrong" in the sense that fire-bombing Dresden and Tokyo might have been "wrong"? And how might fire-bombing have been wrong when we were facing implacable, fanatic enemies in a global conflict to the death?

It might have been wrong in the sense that it was militarily ineffective. Germany's war manufacturing machine (and Japan's, too) had already been largely hidden; the bombing of cities left the manufacture of V-2 missiles and aircraft untouched; all it did was kill civilians. The idea there was such widespread destruction would break the will of the people to resist; but alas, as the British themselves knew from the Battle of Britain in 1940 and the firebombing of London, such "terror from the skies" only increased civilians' will to resist.

Do Americans feel guilty about the war in Iraq--what Ralph terms an "Imperial War"? If so, there is precious little evidence of it. Perhaps one reason is Americans have been trained since World War I to believe that the U.S. only pursues just wars, wars to defend liberty against fascism or Communism, or to free the oppressed from a brutal dictatorship. From this perspective, Vietnam was a just war in defense of democracy against global Communism, and Iraq is a just war freeing the Iraqi people from an insanely oppressive dictatorship.

Thus it appears the primary emotion Americans feel about Vietnam was shame in losing the war, not guilt over the death of 2 million Vietnamese citizens, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese combatants and over 50,000 Americans.

The parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are either facile or fabricated. If you are a student of the Vietnam conflict as I am, then you know the time, place, players, culture and strategic value are all wildly divergent between Vietnam and Iraq. Try as they might, opponents of the Vietnam War (myself included) could never pin down the Imperial strategic "value" of Vietnam: yes, it sits astride sea lanes, but Vietnam was a poor agricultural land with little strategic value to the U.S. or the West.

Iraq, on the other hand, sits squarely in the center of the world's reserves of petroleum. To deny its immense strategic value is specious in the extreme.

Vietnam was a common culture crudely divided by fiat into North and South after World War II. Iraq was an arbitrary nation-state creation of the British after World War I. Therein lies much of what fundamentally separates the two situations: Vietnam had a national identity for two thousand years, and a history of resenting foreign domination, be it Chinese, French or American. Iraq is a cobbled-together assembly of very different tribes: Kurds, Shi'ites and Sunnis, stuffed uncomfortably into an ersatz "nation" held together by the brutal hand of dictatorship.

Ironically, the U.S. and South Vietnamese scored a great military victory in the 1968 Tet Offensive--yet the intensity of the fighting turned Americans against the war. The definitive account is now out of print (no irony, there, eh?): Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington.

In the decades since the 1975 end of the Vietnam War, some commentators have argued that the U.S. could have won the war militarily by using other tactics. It is undoubtedly true that some tactics (and bombing campaigns) were more effective than others; for a detailed account of such combat tactics--more or less deploying the very techniques mastered by the Viet Cong against North Vietnamese regular troops--please read About Face/the Odyssey of an American Warrior by Colonel David Hackworth.

But what such analyses fail to consider was the endemic political corruption of the South Vietnamese puppet regime and its essential lack of political support amongst the populace. To "win," the U.S. would have had to allow an actual democracy, as opposed to a simulacrum of democracy controlled by puppet wires behind the scenes. Such a government might have ended up as a coalition of Viet Minh and Buddhist parties, or some other representative amalagam of South Vietnamese citizenry.

Recall that the U.S. could have agreed to a coalition government in 1969, ending the war. In this interview with John Negroponte, he states the U.S. could have withdrawn from Vietnam in 1969; we only needed to agree to replacing the corrupt, venal Thieu government in Saigon with a coalition government which included the Viet Cong (who were South Vietnamese).

Was the effort to prop up a corrupt but non-Communist regime in South Vietnam a worthy, noble sacrifice made in defense of liberty, or a failed Imperial War? There is no doubt that North Vietnam was aggressively supporting full-scale campaigns of terror (assassinations of teachers and village chiefs, etc.) in the south, and invading the South with a well-equipped regular Army. Its goal was, from the North Vietnamese perspective, noble and just: to reunite their Imperially divided nation. The means mattered less than the end.

Can the same be said of Iraq? No. The swirling political, tribal and religious forces at work in Iraq are not so neatly condensed.

Is Operation Iraqi Freedom a cynically cloaked Imperial ploy to gain strategic control of the globe's largest remaining petroleum reserves, or a noble war of liberation? Can it be both at the same time? Perhaps the choice is a false one; for those who have lost good friends or sons and daughters in combat, the idea that it was all about providing cheap gasoline to fuel their neighbors' Tundra or SUV is unsavory, if not outright infuriating.

But to say the battle for Iraq is "the same" as the war in Vietnam is simply unsupportable. In the big picture, Vietnam was largely a domestic political decision of President Lyndon Johnson, who feared "losing Vietnam" would politically damage his re-election chances and his party. That the war ended his chances of re-election anyway was an irony lost on those whose son or father was killed or wounded in the war.

Americans have endless guilt over failed diets and dusty exercise machines; should they feel true guilt for the deaths of 600,000 Iraqis? I think it is fair to say those deaths should weigh upon our calculations of "just war"; and what of the lives Saddam would have taken in our absence? Are we not responsible for those, too, having been in the position to topple Saddam in 1991?

Could the entire Iraqi invasion and conflict reflect a deep ambivalence in America's will and conscience? Could we feel that control of events and resources is our "natural birthright," even as we also feel that spreading, or even imposing, liberty is also our duty?

It is easy, very easy, to dismiss all of this as the workings of a guilty national conscience, as frothy fig leafs which cover the sordid Imperial Truth: we want to control the oil, and all the talk of liberty and democracy is mere propaganda to persuade the American people to continue supplying the treasure and military personnel to enable the power-grab.

Such skepticism is healthy, but it doesn't tell the whole story, either. The Kurds have prospered in their freedom from Saddam's Sunni yoke; from their view, the war was indeed liberating. To dismiss the aspirations and experiences of millions of Iraqi Kurds is not skepticism--it is blindness to the complexities of Iraq, and of U.S. actions.

There is also the experiences of the U.S. military personnel on the ground in Iraq to consider. Are they as cynical and despairing as the draftees of 1969 fighting in Vietnam? From my personal contacts within active duty personnel, I would say they are not, though of course there are as many opinions in the military as there are in the civilian populace. But my point is this: even if you see the cynical hand of Empire in the White House and Pentagon, those actually conducting the war have a different perspective.

Should they have been sent there in the first place? The question is less important now than listening to their reports and experiences. For the ultimate question of American guilt comes down to what is yet to happen in Iraq. Many who have served there believe, based on their contact with Iraqis, that the U.S. mission is doing good in the sense of liberating Iraqis and opening the doors to a much brighter future for residents.

Was it worth 600,000 deaths and millions of refugees, not to mention the 4,000 U.S. deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars? In one sense nothing is worth such a high cost. But the conflict continues, regardless of what might have been. Will history judge the Iraq War as a failed Imperial War,a cynical grab for the region's oil, or as a great transforming event which finally addressed the damage created by earlier Imperial manipulations of borders and nation-states?

Perhaps Chou En-Lai was right, and it is too early to tell. Just as it was inevitable that Vietnam would be reunited in some way, perhaps it is inevitable that the false nation-states created in a London map room in the 1920s would fall apart, and that the U.S. would be drawn into the unpredictable re-ordering.

Readers Journal will be updated later today!


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