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Iraq through the lens of Vietnam

Thursday, Apr 17 2003

In the flush of the U.S. military triumph, it may seem odd to liken the war in Iraq to the past conflict in Vietnam. But there are fascinating parallels. Novelist and historian A.J. Langguth covered the Vietnam War for The New York Times and later returned to Southeast Asia to research Our Vietnam (Simon & Schuster, 2000), his widely acclaimed account of the conflict. HOWARD BLUME asked the Los Angeles-based author, who teaches at the University of Southern California, to ponder the parallels between then and now.

L.A. WEEKLY: What leaps to mind when you compare Vietnam to the war in Iraq?

LANGGUTH: There were always some people who wanted to suggest we were in Vietnam for the natural resources, for the tin and the rubber. If you had been there, you knew that this was really quite preposterous. There just wasn’t that much that was worth fighting for. It was truly an ideological battle. The people who got us into it thought that if we didn’t stop the communists in Vietnam, we were going to have to do it in the Philippines, or even in San Francisco. It was that kind of ideological frenzy, and never a question of natural resources.

And this time?

It’s very different this time, isn’t it? Because this time, there’s really no ideology, is there?

There’s an expressed and sometimes shifting ideology, such as a desire to eliminate weapons of mass destruction or a desire to liberate an oppressed people, but these rationales fall short in terms of consistency, and perhaps in terms of logic.

Yes. Is it that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? Then why not continue the inspections? It’s basically a crusade against one dictator, I guess. But this time when people say, "No blood for oil," I find it hard to disagree that oil is a large part of the equation. On any kind of rational basis there’s no reason for what we’ve done or what we’re doing. So you grasp at anything, and oil, we know, matters to our country and matters to the people running it right now a great deal more than to anyone else.

So Vietnam, which was such a sordid mess, was more of an ideologically pure endeavor, even if wrong-headed?

In Vietnam, our leaders didn’t even take into account that maybe the domino theory was flawed. They were so certain we were fighting an ideological war. They knew nothing about the history of Vietnam.

Well, they could have had a better understanding of what was going on. Undergraduates at Berkeley could figure it out.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara is particularly irritating on this subject. When I asked McNamara quite recently, "What in the world were you thinking?," he said, "Well, you remember I came from the Ford Motor Company. I was told by [former Secretary of State] Dean Acheson and Robert Lovett and all the pillars of the establishment that we had to hold on to South Vietnam. That’s what people who knew more about geopolitical issues than I did wanted, and so I’d do it for them."

Bush could offer a version of the McNamara excuse. Instead of saying, "Remember, I came from Ford," he could say, "Remember, I came from owning the Texas Rangers."

But perhaps there is a difference between taking your philosophical international thinking from the East Coast establishment and from a sports team.

It must rankle when you hear Bush talking about how America has always intervened on the side of right and to promote democracy. He probably doesn’t know any better.

Oh, he doesn’t know anything. For a man of his social class never to have been to Europe until he was elected president shows such a fundamental incuriosity. He’s just a very limited man. They found the right hand puppet for the tax cuts. The whole thing until September 11 was the tax cuts, wasn’t it? It was almost as though they said: "Look. We’ve got this one window of opportunity. He might be a one-term president, like his father. We’re going to snatch and grab." At least that’s the way it seemed from the outside.

But then there was September 11, and this man, with a fundamental disinterest and lack of curiosity in the greater world, is suddenly intervening in every geopolitical theater. It’s an astonishing turn of events, and frankly a little scary.

It is scary.

How do you make sense of it?

Harry Truman was right when he said a president makes foreign policy. But a lot of the policy he makes depends on his advisers. Colin Powell was emasculated. Remember before September 11, there were stories about how limited his influence was and about whether he might even resign. And there’s been so much documentation about the fact that the Richard Perles and the Paul Wolfowitzes of the world were ready to do this in Iraq long before Bush was elected. That goes back years. What’s going on is pretty transparent, although we might not understand the motive behind it.

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