Another Vietnam?

"Those who do not remember the past may be condemned to relive it.” This old adage applies especially to politicians who, driven by public opinion and sentiment, rarely remember the past. Few members of Congress care to remember the Vietnam War (1961-1973) which took the lives of more than 50,000 American soldiers, some 400,000 South Vietnamese allies, more than 900,000 North Vietnamese men, and countless women and children. They all died in an international conflict waged primarily by the United States to assist the South Vietnamese people in their desperate struggle for independence.

At first glance, the Vietnam War differed significantly from the present conflict that is raging in Iraq. In Vietnam, the United States forces together with South Vietnamese armies were unable to defeat the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese invaders; they failed despite massive military aid to South Vietnam and in spite of heavy bombing and U.S. commitment of nearly 550,000 men most of whom were reluctant draftees. In Iraq, the American army of some 150,000 volunteers routed the Iraqi forces in a few days and readily occupied the country. In Vietnam, American intervention meant to repel the insurgents and invaders and halt the advance of militant world communism. In Iraq, the American invasion merely intended to prevent a tyrant from developing nuclear weapons and liberate the people from his heavy yoke. Such were the stated motives. In politics, unfortunately, the true motives of an action are usually concealed; some noble pretext may be placed in front of any action.

We may only speculate on the driving force that made the political heads of both sides give the marching orders. But any reflection may soon reveal the similarities in the cultural and ideological background of both conflicts. The Vietnam War escalated from a Vietnamese civil war into an international conflict between the United States and world communism. North Vietnam received much support in the form of armament and technical assistance from the Soviet Union, from China, and other communist countries. The war did not end, despite a 1973 peace agreement and American withdrawal, until North Vietnamese forces occupied all of South Vietnam and reunited the country in 1975.

The Iraqi conflict, just like the Vietnam War, has become a phase of a broader struggle which may prove to be as protracted and costly as the Vietnam War. It may be a bitter conflict not only with the Arab world of some 250 million people but also with the fanatical forces of the world of Islam with more than one billion believers. Surely, the vast majority of Muslims throughout the world is nonbelligerent, seeking to live by the words of the Koran in which God speaks in the first person. But it takes only a few thousand insurgents and revolutionaries to continue the fight. By now the number of attacks against American forces launched by underground insurgent groups is legion. Nearly every day we hear of killing, sabotage, destruction of public and private property, hostage takings, and suicide bombings. Favorite targets are police- and army recruiting centers, electrical installations, oil-producing facilities as well as American troops on the road.

During the Vietnam War American public opinion gradually turned rather adverse and hostile toward its continuation. Its length, the high casualties and even the news of American soldiers involvement in war crimes, such as the massacre of My Lai, turned many Americans against the war. In major cities thousands of young men fearing early calls for military service and combat in Vietnam soon aired their opposition in protest rallies and marches. On college campuses from coast to coast hordes of students expounded their disapproval and defiance. Sensing a growing antiwar movement, a few senators, such as J. S. Fulbright, R. F. Kennedy, E. J. McCarthy, and G. S. McGovern soon sought to lead the movement.

In Iraq, much public support for the invasion was lost when American television vividly depicted life in Baghdad after its fall. American soldiers gleefully watched widespread acts of looting, vandalism, and sabotage of public and private property. They watched when the national museum of Iraq, which housed some of the finest treasures of the ancient world, was looted. All over the world the friends of the private property order were saddened by the spectacle of willful destruction. They waited for the news that a brief telephone call by the president of the United States or his secretary of defense or just an American general in Iraq had called a halt to the looting and the wanton destruction – they waited in vain.

Many Iraqis waited for a relief plan like the Marshall Plan which had helped to rebuild Europe after World War II. But there was no plan, no preparation for the new order which proved to be much more destructive than the war itself. After the looting and burning came a wave of street crime by many thugs, psychopaths, and criminals who had been released along with political prisoners. There was no police which was scared and hiding. With the chaos and lawlessness came economic disintegration, goods shortages, hunger and want. Hundreds of thousands of civil servants lost their jobs as the Saddam command system disintegrated. They soon haunted the occupyers and insurgency unleashed carnage throughout the country. At their disposal was a million tons of weapons and ammunition of all sorts which were stored in numerous unguarded depots around the country.

It cannot be surprising that in chaos, insecurity, and want political Islam has come into view. Ever since Iran had become a theocratic Islamic republic in 1979, some qadis and mufties have been working diligently to reform other Muslim countries as well. In Iraq where the movement had lain underground throughout the Saddam years it emerged into open and is heard loud and clear. In Shiite Iraq where religious authority is clearly defined, several ayatollahs are highly critical of the occupation. In Sunni Iraq a new generation of clerics readily embraces the militant aspirations of the large Arab world. Some deliver messages of jihad, the Muslim holy war, that views the United States and Israel as inseparable allies in a war against the Muslim world. Ardent disciples, jihadists from the ranks of the Sunni Arab Ba’ath party, a socialist group whose overall goal is Arab unity, and from militant Islamists from all parts of the Muslim world are offering their lives in the fight to expel the invaders and establish a fundamental Islamist state.

Surely, the insurgents who are few in number, probably no more than a few thousand, cannot defeat the American forces militarily. But they may succeed in perpetuating the disorder, creating an atmosphere of intimidation, insecurity, and despair. They may inflict some casualties on U.S. forces, ever increase the cost of U.S. involvement, and thus weaken support for the war. They may tax American staying power and erode the willingness to persist.

In free societies public opinion may change and redirect public policy; it is stronger than the legislature and nearly as strong as the moral code. It led to the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam in 1973, from Lebanon following the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 260 marines, and from Somalia a decade later after 18 servicemen were killed. These precedents seem to indicate that the world of militant Islam may outlast the world of an American president and his party.

If the future is only the past again, entering through another gate, we must prepare for American withdrawal from Iraq. In Vietnam the American people endured the anguish and affliction for a decade; in Iraq the voices of frustration and disappointment are already heard after two years of victory and success. In the Vietnam War two Democratic presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, perceiving a growing communist threat, dispatched the military advisers and combat divisions; a Republican president, Richard M. Nixon, brought them back. In Iraq a Republican president, George W. Bush, ordered the troops to Baghdad; it may take a Democratic president to call them back. He may realize that American occupation forces will never win the hearts and minds of Islamic people and that his political efforts are unlikely to succeed in creating an Islamic democracy.

In Vietnam, the rulers and commanders of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and The People’s Republic of China obviously relished their success and rejoiced in the American retreat. But in the span of barely two decades the forces of communism were disintegrating and retreating while the United States emerged as the sole superpower and undeniable leader of the world. In 1990 the Soviet Union ceased to be the citadel of socialism as the Soviet-bloc nations of Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary shed their communist rule and chose to become independent again. Ukraine soon followed suit. In economic and political turmoil the Congress of People’s Deputies voted for the dissolution of the USSR; Mikhail Gorbachev, its president, resigned and was not replaced. In China after the 1976 death of Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, his successors worked diligently toward two major objectives: to modernize and strengthen the economy and to forge closer political and economic ties with Western nations, especially the United States. They even designated several coastal regions as free-enterprise zones to draw foreign investments, trade, and technology, especially from the United States. In Vietnam economic conditions continued to deteriorate despite substantial aid from the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, finally, changes in national leadership led to a policy readjustment toward privatization of commerce and industry and foreign investment. But the government continues to be racked by corruption, abuse of power, and incompetence. Vietnam continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world with per-capita income of barely one-third of that of the People’s Republic of China.

In Iraq, it is unlikely that the hostile forces will soon disintegrate and give way to Western values and mores. The world of Islam is a spirited living religion that is nearly 1400 years old, and the world of Arab nationalism, although much younger, is full of life and growing with every day of American occupation of Arab land. Both forces undoubtedly would jubilate about American withdrawal and immediately return to their ancient ways and the law and order of the Koran. But such a world is indicative not only of much economic destitution but also of political and clerical authority. There is pitiful poverty in Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Sudan where per-capita income is less than $1,000 a year. Income in oil-producing countries is higher but the emoluments of emirs, sultans, and princes greatly reduce the income of the common people.

The poverty of the Muslim world stems especially from two economic prohibitions ordained by the Koran. They limit all believers to just two sources of income: payment for services rendered, that is, wages and salaries, and transfer income which flows from private charity and public welfare. They prohibit the two other sources of income that render human labor much more productive: interest on savings and investments, and entrepreneurial profit, which rewards investors and innovators. The Koran, Sura 3:13, is specific:”Believers do not live on usury, doubling your wealth many times over. Have fear of God, that you may prosper, guard yourselves against the Fire prepared for nonbelievers.” Similarly, they prohibit any reward for risk-taking and speculation on the chances of quick or considerable profits.

Economic destitution and political authority undoubtedly explain the migration of Muslims, legal and illegal, amounting to many millions of young people, from Islamic regions to Western countries, such as France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and many others. In the United States their numbers are growing rapidly, probably exceeding five million now. They are attracted by high standards of living and economic freedoms which are the attributes of the Western order. They labor and prosper, earning profits and interest. But we cannot help wondering what they would do to our economic order if they were in a majority and at liberty to introduce and enforce the economic prohibitions and limitations of the Koran.

Cf. Sowing the Wind, p. 265 ff.