2005-02-11 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

The stories in recent newspapers in the wake of the elections in Iraq in the last days of January and first days of February were all upbeat.

“Large Voter Turnout In Iraq Gives G.I.s Hope,” one headline blared.

“Large Turnout Despite Threats Vindicates President,” said another.

“Voter Turnout High, Democracy On Way To Iraq,” said yet another.

The media was replete with pictures of Iraqi voters with their purple fingers, a mark that they had voted, pushed defiantly into the air.

All was right with the march towards democracy in Iraq?


Don’t be so sure.

Take a look back at another wartime election in another time and another place.

Take a look at Vietnam.

I know. I know. Neocons keep telling me that there is no relationship between the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq.

Most of the people who say that, however, didn’t live through that war and have only history books to rely on.

As somebody wise once said, “You had to be there.”

Witness, for your consideration, one example that should convince you that the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq are closer than you might think.

From the New York Times, September 4, 1967, a full three years after the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” that marked the beginning of America’s escalating role in Vietnam.

“U.S. Encouraged By Vietnam Vote,” the headline blared.

“Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror,” said the drop head.

The lead to the story read,” “United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of the turnout in South Vietnam’s presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.

“A successful election has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson’s policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South Vietnam.

“The purpose of the election was to give legitimacy to the Saigon government…”

Substitute some words: Iraqi for Vietnam, Insurgents of Vietcong; President Bush for President Johnson, and you have a story that is as up-to-date as today’s headlines.

And, we all know what happened after the “surprising” voter turnout, what eventually happened to the winners of that election and then what happened to the entire American effort to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, to save it from Godless Communism and to bring democracy to that part of the world.

One of the more compelling photographs ever taken is of men and women climbing the ladder to the last American helicopter out of Vietnam. Will we be seeing a like image ten years from now as Americans flee from Baghdad? Don’t think it can’t happen, because it has happened before.

We can look back at it now without much rancor because we all understand that the war in Vietnam, which was directed by politicians rather than by the military men who knew how to win all along, was never winnable under those conditions.

We should begin to have the same feelings about Iraq. What does the election mean? Do the Iraqis really want democracy and western values and mores? How can the insurgents be beaten militarily when the war is being directed by politicians, not soldiers?

Make no mistake. The parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, particularly for somebody who lived through both, are both startling and frightening.

What you are going to see next are the “strategic hamlets,” and “firebases” that Vietnam became so famous for.

You are also going to see a replication of other “famous” pictures such as the South Vietnamese officer executing a Vietcong officer by shooting the handcuffed man in the head. We are already getting reports of Iraqi police committing atrocities and torturing captives to get information. Can the “famous photo” of this war be far away?

Many believe that we have already given up on the idea of bringing an American-style democracy to Iraq. President Bush intimated as much in his recent State of the Union speech.

Fareed Zakaria, writing in Newsweek, puts it succinctly.

“The United States has essentially stopped trying to build a democratic order in Iraq and is simply trying to fight the insurgency and gain some stability and legitimacy. In doing so, if that exacerbates group tensions, corruption, cronyism and creates an overly centralized regime, so be it.”

If that does not hearken back to the

original 1967 New York Times article cited above, then either you are not paying attention now or you were not paying attention in 1967.

It is true that there are differences of motive and tactics between the insurgents in Iraq and the Vietcong in Vietnam and in the pursuit of the war as a whole.

Those differences, however, are narrowing each day.

Will the administration in Iraq be as corrupt as the administration was in Vietnam? We will have to wait and see. Will the people of Iraq mistrust the new religious administrators as much as the South Vietnamese mistrusted their generals? I think that they will, but we will have to wait for that as well.

Does everybody in Iraq, with the exception of the people our government is supporting with billions of dollars and the lives of American men and women, want America out of Iraq? Of course they do.

Just this Sunday, the New York Times spoke of the leading candidates who are all calling for the new Iraqi constitution to make religion the central guiding principle of the nation, based on the Koran, of course. I would not be surprised if the women who win in the election are refused seats.

As Yogi Berra once reportedly said, “It’s dejavu all over again.”

If you don’t think so, think again!

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