Thursday, August 04, 2005

Just Around the Corner

I've been reading Daniel Ellsberg's memoir on Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers (and I have the DVD, starring James Spader, as you can probably guess from the picture above, as well).

Ellsberg was an international security expert at the Defense Department during the 1960's and a defense strategy specialist and researcher at the Rand Institute before that. In the Pentagon he served as a top aide to John McNaughton, the chief assistant to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. As a result, Ellsberg became intimately familiar with the thoughts and decision-making processes of the U.S. government at the highest levels during the conflict's escalation.

Ellsberg made an initial trip to Vietnam in 1961 as part of a presidential advisory group, followed later by a more extended stay from 1965-1967 after the U.S. began official military operations there. Upon his return to the U.S. Ellsberg went back to Rand but began work on a McNamara-ordered study on the history of the Vietnam War.

Once a committed Cold Warrior, Ellsberg was discouraged by what he saw in Vietnam and the contradictions between the optimism stated by U.S. officials and the realities of the situation in Southeast Asia. In researching U.S. policymaking in Vietnam from 1950-1961 Ellsberg also came to realize that a string of U.S. presidents had both lied to the American public about the nature of the actions they were initiating in Vietnam, as well as knowingly directing actions that they themselves were advised by subordinates as being insufficient to prevent the fall of the South Vietmanese government to the northern communists. After several years of working (and ultimately failing) to get U.S. policymakers in the administration and congress to change course in Vietnam and to level with the American people, Ellsberg leaked the contents of the Vietnam history study, popularly known as the Pentagon Papers, to the New York Times in 1971.

The Nixon Administration took the NYT to court in an effort to cease the publishing of the top secret documents. The Supreme Court sided with the NYT, and the paper continued to publish the once secret Pentagon study. Ellsberg was arrested for his actions but eventually acquitted. However, in an effort to discredit or possibly blackmail Ellsberg (is this sounding familiar already?), a team of "plumbers" from the Nixon Administration broke into the office of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist with the hopes of obtaining his medical files. The Nixon "plumbers" later went on to break into the Watergate office of the Democratic National Committeee, and the rest, as they say, is history. Partly due to the fallout generated by the release of the Pentagon Papers, the U.S. ended its military effort in Vietnam in 1973, and because of the plumbers, Nixon was forced to resign a year later. South Vietnam fell to the North Vietmanese in 1975.

In reading the history of Vietnam as observed by Ellsberg both from within the walls of the Pentagon as well as the fields of Vietnam, it is hard not to notice the budding similarities between U.S. actions in Vietnam then and those in Iraq today. I realize that this isn't a novel connection, but the book reveals several facets of Vietnam that resound with unique and eerie familiarity.

There is of course the false optimism displayed by U.S. officials in both situations. Ellsberg records event after event in which U.S. leaders were briefed as to the deteriorating conditions in Vietnam only to go before the public and announce their upbeatness about the level of progress. In Iraq, we had the illusionary reports of how the Iraqis would welcome us and the WMD we'd find. After our invasion we've been treated to numerous "turning the corner" events (the killing of Saddam Hussein's sons, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the handover of "sovereignty", the smashing of Fallujah, the purple-finger elections, and now the writing of the women-repressing Islamic Constitution set for release on or by August 15) as signaling how we were winning in Iraq and in the GWOT, all the while the violence and death continue and our troop deployment to Iraq maintains its already high level with no relief from shrinking enlistments in sight.

Then, as now, the U.S. military regarded their supposed indigenous partners with suspicion, believing them to be infiltrated by the enemy revolutionaries (Vietcong) or insurgents (Iraqis).

In both there are examples of falsifying data and producing phony records of military progress. In Vietnam, Ellsberg encountered it when he attempted to investigate the so-called "night patrols" being carried out by Vietmanese units. In Vietnam, the use of night patrols was viewed as having particular importance for confirming the military's control of provinces. While American forces performed night patrols, units comprised totally of Vietmanese personnel were not known to be doing so, creating questions about the Vietnam government's ability to govern and its military's ability to defeat the Vietcong (sound familiar?). But this one unit was supposed to be different. The U.S. leadership in Vietnam made much of the success of these "night patrols" and the bravery of the unit. Ellsberg, after witnessing a string of poorly coordinated efforts among the Vietmanese military was eager to see the improvements recorded by this unit. He was told this unit's success was the "real deal". But curiously, Ellsberg couldn't get clearance to travel with the unit. He was eventually told the reason why--the unit's record of night patrols was a lie, fabricated to impress or ward off demands of those higher up in the military and political chain of command. There were no night patrols. None. Zippo. Zero. But the military was producing "records" indicating that such patrols were occuring (and increasing) as an indication of the progress being made in Vietnam (is this sounding familiar?).

In Iraq, we have false reports about how much of Iraq is controlled (another point of dissension in the Vietnam conflict as discovered by Ellsberg) and how many Iraqi troops are ready for duty (there are either 175,000 or 2,000, whatever, but it's all very complicated).

In both countries, corruption led by the occupation authority and assisted by the country's elite robbed the country of its resources and failed to build up the country's infrastructure and provide the level of support that was promised. In Vietnam, Ellsberg examined school buildings constructed with one-third the required concrete, resulting in walls and floors that crumbled and sank on impact. In Iraq, valuable historical sites were left unprotected and later ransacked, oil revenues and other occupational authority revenue was "disappeared", and town after town left in ruins.

Both settings demonstrate the disdain between the U.S. "deliverers" and the occupied country's residents. Frustrated Vietnam vets fired into and set fire to the huts of villagers suspected of harboring or sympathizing with Vietcong. In Iraq, U.S. soldiers are found to have been torturing and in at least some cases, killing Iraqi citizens swept in off the streets charged (sometimes just based on the reports of others) with acting against the U.S. occupation. Meanwhile, residents applaud insurgent attacks on U.S. personnel and the largely ceremonial Iraqi legislature votes on resolutions to dispel the American forces from the country.

In both circumstances, opponents of the war were and have been labeled as traitors and the war ministers and their media minions have tried to smear and discredit those who have voiced opposition to either the war itself or the evidence used by the government to generate support for the war (Ellsberg then, Joseph Wilson today).

In both wars, U.S. leaders defiantly state their determination to "stay the course".

And naturally, both conflicts were initiated under false pretenses.

What does seem dissimilar between the two conflicts is the level of U.S. domestic opposition, both official and among the mass public. During Vietnam (which admittedly had resulted in much higher U.S. casualties) opposition among the political elite and citizenry was more widely known, if still not well received by the administration or the establishment-coddling press. Today, even after all the well documented failures and deceptions, opposition to the continued U.S. effort in Iraq seems muted. At last week's gathering of the Right Wing of the Democratic Party (the DLC) none of the event's Gubernatorial or Senatorial representatives questioned the rationale for the war in Iraq or called for any significant or detailed changes in policy there. Nor did any of the gathering's speakers express any apparent misgivings about the fact that, according to the most conservative estimates, upwards of 25,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed so far in the war. Viewers were instead lectured that Democrats needed to be ready and willing to use military force (to what extent and under what conditions wasn't made exactly clear) to ensure America's "security".

Even Paul Hackett, the Iraqi vet and recent Democratic candidate for Congress in Ohio's special election this week, and much heralded by the progressive blogosphere, did not call for any significant change in policy in Iraq but stressed the need to "stay the course" there until Iraqi forces are able to secure the country.

And unlike Vietnam, there are now no Walter Cronkites in the press to credibly question the U.S. effort in Iraq. Instead, the now cable-driven "news" media continues to cheerlead for the war and to emphasize only the plight of American servicemen and women (and their families on the homefront) serving there and the assumed righteousness of the U.S. cause in that country. That is, when it bothers to cover the war at all.

And unfortunately, it's unlikely that even a new Daniel Ellsberg or the release of top secret data about the Iraqi war would make much difference to what appears to be an increasingly deadened and dissipated populace, content to not confront their party's or country's leadership and its questionable actions abroad just as long as the gas for their SUV's continues to flow (albeit at much higher per gallon rates).

Meanwhile, leaders of the progressive movement and the Democratic Party continue to preach the gospel of incrementalism, centrism, non-confrontationalism, me-too-ism, and image-blurring, believing that, like victory in Iraq, the next era of Democratic Party dominance is just around the corner.

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