"Vietnam Syndrome" is Alive and Thriving

Politicians and journalists have interpreted widespread support for the military actions in Afghanistan as a significant shift in Americans' attitudes toward war. In the weeks following the massacre of September 11, Vice President Dick Cheney described the crowd's reaction to a speech he made in New York: "There wasn't a dove in the room," he said with a smile.

This isn't the first time in the post-Vietnam era that our leaders have made such pronouncements. "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all," President George Bush the First declared in 1991, in the wake of the Persian Gulf War.

But their words are starkly contradicted by their own actions. In every military action since Vietnam, our politicians and generals have been extremely reluctant to risk American military casualties. In the Persian Gulf War, there were more soldiers killed in training and accidents (including "friendly fire") than at the hands of enemy troops. In the war over Kosovo we did not lose even a single pilot.

The murder of thousands of civilians in the worst terrorist action ever on American soil seems not to have changed this part of the "Vietnam syndrome" at all. The US military has fought this war, like the others, from the air. Our planes now bomb from altitudes so high that they cannot even be seen by the fighters and civilians below.

When it came time to search the caves of Tora Bora for Osama and his friends, US officials started talking about "the right mix of incentives" (money, weapons) to get Afghans to do the job.

From the safety and calm of their armchairs and op-ed pages, pundits have argued vehemently that American troops should take on these tasks. But this isn't likely to happen any time soon.

What our politicians fear, but nobody wants to talk about, are the political consequences of American casualties. This is not because Americans are lacking in courage; as the heroic actions of the firefighters and others at the site of the World Trade Center showed, there is no shortage of people who are willing to risk their lives for the sake of their fellow citizens.

But since Vietnam, there has been a widespread mistrust of American foreign policy. During the war, we were told that we were helping the Vietnamese -- saving them and the world from communism. This turned out to be a huge lie, with terrible consequences. Millions discovered that the United States was really fighting a dirty colonial war that the French had abandoned.

Recent revelations have only reinforced this mistrust, as well as the worst picture imaginable of that war: the atrocities committed by former Senator Bob Kerrey, for example, or historian Michael Beschloss's analysis of President Lyndon Johnson's tapes, showing that he knew as early as 1965 that the war in Vietnam could not be won -- yet continued to send tens of thousands of Americans to die there.

In the post-Vietnam era, Washington has mainly contracted out the dirty work -- mass murder in Guatemala and El Salvador, or trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua in the 1980s. But whether the US military was directly involved -- as it was in the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the Persian Gulf War and Kosovo -- or not, it is a sordid record. In general, US officials lied about the purpose of their interventions, and none of them had much to do with US national security.

For these reasons, public support for the "War on Terrorism" is miles wide but only an inch deep. Our political leaders want to use this crusade the way they used the "War Against Communism," and more recently, the "War on Drugs" in Colombia: as an excuse for the violence and brutality that are necessary to police a worldwide empire.

It remains to be seen how much of this they can get away with, or whether they will expand the current war to countries such as Iraq, Somalia, Iran or elsewhere. But they know one thing very well: they cannot allow the US casualty count to rise very high before people begin to question their motives.

This "Vietnam syndrome" will not be reversed. It is a permanent change in American consciousness, like those that followed the abolition of slavery or the victories -- however partial and incomplete -- of the civil rights movement. What will fade, eventually, is our leaders' addiction to empire. But when that goes, America will not have much need for foreign military adventures.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. (www.cepr.net).


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