The Iraq Syndrome

Tomgram: Chernus, An American Identity Crisis in a Losing War

In recent days, we’ve have two reports on timing, when it comes to the future of the President’s “surge” plan for Baghdad. According to Richard A. Oppel of the New York Times, “The plan, which calls for 17,000 additional troops in Baghdad, will continue until at least this fall, the second-ranking commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, told CNN on Wednesday. ‘I don’t want to put an exact time on it, but a minimum of six to nine months.'” On the other hand, Simon Tisdale of the British Guardian reports that the new military “brain trust,” headed by Lt. General David H. Petraeus, which has just surged into Baghdad’s Green Zone, is operating on a more truncated schedule. Petraeus’s men, who believe themselves to be working with too little of everything, especially boots on the ground — since the Iraqi government has once again not delivered its promised full contingents — have “concluded the US has six months to win the war in Iraq — or face a Vietnam-style collapse in political and public support that could force the military into a hasty retreat.”

Give me a buck for every predicted six-to-nine month window of opportunity from the military or the White House in the last four years and I’d be rich as Croesus. Amid the hopeless chaos of Iraq, you can already hear various individuals preparing their exculpatory “exit strategies” from this war. So many key players are going to stab one another in the back with their various explanations for failure in the coming years that blood will run between the pages of the many memoirs still to be published.

Of course, for the neocons, the Bush White House, the Vice President and his crew, and various military and intelligence types, the real villains will not, in the end, be themselves. Count on this: The “weak-willed” American people will take the brunt of the official blame (with the “liberal” media, Democratic and Republican politicians who opposed the war, and the antiwar movement, as well as the incompetence of anyone but the speaker of the moment, thrown in for good measure).

As Ira Chernus points out below, we’ve heard this tune before — and once upon a time, in the post-Vietnam years, it ended up playing us for a long, long while. The question is: Will history repeat itself in the wake of an American defeat in the Middle East?

Here’s the money paragraph in the Tisdale piece, which should have a Surgeon General’s warning attached to it:

“Possibly the biggest longer-term concern of Gen Petraeus’s team is that political will in Washington may collapse just as the military is on the point of making a decisive counter-insurgency breakthrough. According to a senior administration official, speaking this week, this is precisely what happened in the final year of the Vietnam war.”

Mom, I tell you that fish I had hooked was at least as long as the boat and I was just bringing it in when you made me come home… Tom

Will We Suffer from the Iraq Syndrome? Beware of the Boomerang
By Ira Chernus

The Iraq syndrome is headed our way. Perhaps it’s already here.

A clear and growing majority of Americans now tell pollsters that that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake, that it’s a bad idea to “surge” more troops into Baghdad, that we need a definite timeline for removing all our troops.

The nation seems to be remembering a lesson of the Vietnam War: We can’t get security by sending military power abroad. Every time we try to control another country by force of arms, we only end up more troubled and less secure.

But the Iraq syndrome is a two-edged sword, and there is no telling which way it will cut in the end.

Remember the “Vietnam syndrome,” which made its appearance soon after the actual war ended in defeat. It did restrain our appetite for military interventions overseas — but only briefly. By the late 1970s, it had already begun to boomerang. Conservatives denounced the syndrome as evidence of a paralyzing, Vietnam-induced surrender to national weakness. Their cries of alarm stimulated broad public support for an endless military build-up and, of course, yet more imperial interventions.

The very idea of such a “syndrome” implied that what the Vietnam War had devastated was not so much the Vietnamese or their ruined land as the traumatized American psyche. As a concept, it served to mask, if not obliterate, many of the realities of the actual war. It also suggested that there was something pathological in a post-war fear of taking our arms and aims abroad, that America had indeed become (in Richard Nixon’s famous phrase) a “pitiful, helpless giant,” a basket case.

Ronald Reagan played all these notes skillfully enough to become president. The desire to “cure” the Vietnam syndrome became a springboard to unabashed, militant nationalism and a broad rightward turn in the nation’s life.

Iraq — both the war and the “syndrome” to come — could easily evoke a similar set of urges: to evade a painful reality and ignore the lessons it should teach us. The thought that Americans are simply a collective neurotic head-case when it comes to the use of force could help sow similar seeds of insecurity that might — after a pause — again push our politics and culture back to a glorification of military power and imperial intervention as instruments of choice for seeking “security.”

Read all of it here.

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