Today is the 47th anniversary of the second Gulf of Tonkin event, in which the overactive imaginations of a couple of navy sonarmen provided all the justification an American president needed in order to start a war in Southeast Asia. It was the weapons of mass destruction for Lyndon B Johnson, the smoking gun that anyone with more patience and less of an agenda could have discovered wasn’t smoking at all. A cautionary tale we had been warned of only three years before this incident in an almost prescient farewell address by Eisenhower.
Somalia seems to be collecting disasters, and it is starting to feel like the social equivalent of watching a horrible car accident. Civil war raging for decades, almost no government whatsoever, religious radicals imposing their warped perspective on the population, children being forcibly recruited by all sides to fight and die, and piracy as one of the only remaining activities that is even remotely viable economically. And now they have a massive drought that has resulted in now what the U.N. is calling famine conditions.
I’m not sure what else could be added to this conglomeration of human suffering, but I sincerely hope that it ends soon for the sake of the millions of people who are currently bearing the brunt of both humanities folly and natures capriciousness.
I sure hope these things work out. We seriously need to get ourselves out of Afghanistan. It has long since ceased to serve its original purpose of eliminating Al-Qaeda and morphed into another nation building exercise. Let the Taliban be in the government and just offer people asylum who don’t want to be there when the Tali take over.
the burned out embers of the war
that raged within my soul
lay cold and lifeless on the ground
like blackened scars upon the back
a wound that will not heal
the salve of peace is now applied
a bitter remedy indeed
to find the rest for so long sought
bound up within defeat
no longer can I rage against
these enemies of soul
for in the battle so long fought
that line which marked the us from them
was lost in all the dust
and when at last the smoke did clear
and all combatants could be known
I saw that much to my chagrin
that I was standing all alone
I was thinking about an article I read on The Moscow Times, titled “America Isn’t Much Better Than U.S.S.R.“. It is an interesting, if flawed, analysis of America, and especially of America’s different reactions to two different wars, Iraq and Vietnam. Because of it, I started to wonder what were the differences between the two wars that would cause such different reactions.
There are of course, some rather obvious reasons for the differences, distinctions that the author of the original piece should have picked up on and understood, but for whatever reason failed to. The first is, quite simply, that there is no military draft for this war. Young people are not afraid of being forced against their wills to go and fight a war that they do not agree with. It was LBJ’s decision to increase the monthly draft quotas that sparked the large protests on student campuses, and which later snowballed into wider segments of American society at the time.
This first point, however, needs a corollary. That is because there really are young people who were forced to fight in a war they did not agree with. What is meant by this though is that this war is being fought with a volunteer military. We reason that no one forced them to join and so no one forced them to go, but that isn’t always the case, especially early on in the conflict when soldiers could have signed up before knowing they were being sent to Iraq. But the number of these individuals is insufficient to really move public opinion on this matter, and for all intents and purposes, the soldiers in Iraq are viewed as having had a choice in the matter.
The second reason is also rather obvious, the body count, or more specifically, the American body count. The US military has simply not suffered the sorts of casualty numbers that occurred in the Vietnam war. I suspect that if Vietnam like numbers had occurred we would not be in Iraq right now. There are lots of factors that mitigate this comparison (improvements in armor and medical treatment, the number of troops present), but the bottom line is that people react to these kinds of things, and there really is no comparison, the number of dead in Vietnam dwarfs the number of US casualties in Iraq.
Both of these factors contrive to insulate the general public from the war and so reduce social tensions that might otherwise generate larger protests and other social actions. And because of this the war tends to have a smaller footprint in the public psyche. It is this which is being mistaken for apathy, this lack of urgency that one saw during Vietnam. People are acting, as demonstrated in the 2006 election, and there is a strong possibility that the war could also have an effect in the 2008 elections as well, although high commodity prices and economic difficulties domestically are detracting from the presence of the war in this election cycle.
It is just that with this social distance comes a complacency, a willingness to settle the matter in a slower, more conservative fashion, through the ballet, and to refrain from more radical political moves. Essentially it isn’t important to most people because it doesn’t directly impact most people, and so other concerns easily distract us. This is another failure of insight for the author of the piece I referenced in the beginning. The soviet era persecutions and killings were much more widespread and socially dispersed than the effects of the Iraq war in the US. It really isn’t comparable the degree the two turned a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbors, for all of the above reasons.
There is one more factor that I think is having an influence. Vietnam failed when through the Tet offensive it became obvious (at least to public and political opinion) that the military goals of the mission were unfeasible. This was a strategic loss even as it was a tactical victory for the American forces. But the reverse has seemed to occur in Iraq. Right when support was flagging at its lowest since the start of the war, the Surge was introduced into Iraq, and with apparent success. It is this success that has diffused much of the dissent with the war, leaving its opponents with a much less forceful argument than they previously had.
It is these rather marked differences that have determined the radically different approaches public dissent has taken between the two wars, and not some strange reversal in social responsibility on the part of the American public. There are some similarities between the two wars, but compared to the numerous and fundamental differences, they seem rather superficial and the result of a cursory analysis.
Wow, that would seriously freak me out if I had a child old enough to be in a war zone and this was on my answering machine. I can totally understand his mother when she said, “‘Oh my God, this may be the last time I hear my son’s voice on the phone”.
I’ve been listening to the Senate hearings today with General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. The greatest percentage of the hearing seemed to be taken up with the posturing of prima donna senators who have an eye immovably fixed on the upcoming election (which sadly means that they are by and large distracted from the actual substance of the meeting).
One thing that was brought to my attention is the graphs that General Petraeus provided as supplemental materials for his report. There are many interesting things these graphs exhibit. First of all, they definitely show that the increase in military personnel in combination with the buying off of various Sunni groups and a cease fire by Moqtada al-Sadr has had a dramatic effect on the level of violence within Iraq.
Unfortunately, even Petraeus admits that these gains are fragile and easily reversible, and these hearings bore this out. The Sunni groups that we are currently paying to cooperate with us are doing so only as long as the money continues to come, and should that money diminish, their cooperation will too (they’ve said as much themselves so this really isn’t a point of contention).
Next, we’ve already seen just how ephemeral the Sadr cease fire can be with the recent violence between his group and the government (there are a number of different interpretations on the outcome of this, but one thing seems obvious to me, that al-Maliki went in strong with a hard line about removing guns from unauthorized persons, and has since backed away from both the strong military approach and the enforcement of the gun ban).
And finally, the increased US military presence in Iraq is unsustainable (everyone involved admits this; it was even a built in feature of the surge that the extra troops could only be a temporary increase). And this is where Petraeus’ graphs become very interesting. All of the graphs show a increase in violence that almost exactly mirrors the decrease in US soldiers in Iraq (his handout doesn’t have troop levels, but you can see a graph of it in this BBC article on the hearings).
Thus, it seems to me that not only are the benefits of the surge “fragile” and potentially “reversible”, but that there is at least some initial evidence that they are already in reversal, and that the security gains are only sustainable so long as the troop level is sustained. However, as we have already heard, these troop levels are not sustainable, that they are going to have to go back to pre-surge levels, and that the only thing preventing a further degradation of the situation is Petraeus reluctance to make any further reductions in the levels of personnel (Petraeus is already staking out this ground by arguing for a 45 day suspension not only of troop withdrawals, but of even considering further troop withdrawals).
It is almost guaranteed that what this government is going to do is maintain as many troops in Iraq as they feasibly can and simply wait out the remainder of Bush’s term, then lay the blame on the incoming administration for anything bad that happens. This isn’t a plan, it is a lack of a plan, it is the sticking of your proverbial thumb in the leaking dike and then claiming that you’ve fixed the problem and saved Holland only to then lay incriminations on anyone who comes after you when they realize the unsustainable nature of the stopgap method.
Of course when this plug the hole strategy is abandoned some “water” is going to get in, but it is going to be a necessary step towards creating an actual fix for the problem, instead of simply covering it up and hoping that it goes away.