Legacy of Vietnam and Iraq Wars

Lately, pundits, politicians, and even President Bush have drawn parallels to the Vietnam war and the present war in Iraq. But there is another, not-talked-about parallel, and it is much more important.

During the Vietnam war, the military brass and assorted apologists for this appalling adventure complained about how the US was fighting with one hand tied behind its back, owing to the treasonous antiwar movement and their bullying of those weak-kneed liberal politicians.

Although most of today’s military strategists do not think there are anywhere near enough “boots on the ground” to achieve US goals, they avoid voicing this sentiment too loudly. There is a good reason why the US has not mobilized its military machine to the extent they did during World War II or even Korea.

During World War II, the United States mobilized almost all domestic economic activity to fighting the war. Although there was comparatively little actual damage to US territory, apart from Pearl Harbor (not part of one of the States at that time), Americans had rationing, a draft, and literally millions of men under arms. Our armies were huge. Almost all civilian production was geared primarily to war production. For example, in 1940, President Roosevelt ordered the building of 50,000 planes for combat. Meanwhile domestic spending and economic activity were cut, government programs gutted, most strikes outlawed–all for funneling America’s industrial resources into the war. Those who stayed home contributed to the war effort by working longer hours, having a reduced standard of living, and making many small and large sacrifices. There were neighborhood drives for surplus metal for the war effort, e.g. tin cans for tanks, rusting auto wheels for bullets and hand grenades. Some people even donated dinnerware and old family treasures. People sunk their spare change into war bonds.

Americans had no similar mobilization during the Vietnam war, although Americans were told that if they did not fight the communists there, they would be fighting them in the streets of America. (Does this sound familiar?) Instead, President Johnson promised “guns and butter,” and this actually became a campaign slogan. The Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations all engaged in a policy of “gradual escalation.”

Why did the politicians hesitate to build an army of millions and mobilize the American public for a massive war effort? They faced three powerful forces that, if mobilized, could have inflicted a historic defeat. Before every escalation, the war makers wanted to know what would the Soviet Union do (a major military power), what would China do (another major military power), and what would the American people do. Of course, the American people had no military power, that having been monopolized by their government. But Americans did have the power of mass action and mass protest. That power had just succeeded in knocking down the Jim Crow laws, at the cost of no little bloodshed, For those too young to remember, Jim Crow laws were the American form of Apartheid that mandated segregation in the American south and legitimized a reign of terror over African Americans that lasted from the 1880s to the 1960s.

The Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China offered very little resistance other than rhetoric. But the American people became more and more involved in a powerful antiwar movement. At first, the peace movement was comprised of a few pacifist groups and radicals, then student groups, and then eventually mainstream groups like churches and other organizations. It reached a point where the organizations involved in antiwar activities actually represented the majority of Americans. Finally, antiwar groups sprung up in the military, including among combat personnel. Military resistance was both organized and spontaneous. Soldiers refused orders to fight, there were mass desertions, and officers who insisted on combat were frequently killed (a practice called fragging, where a fragmentation grenade would end up in an officer’s tent in the middle of the night). Then when national guardsmen killed antiwar demonstrators on the Jackson State College and Kent State College in May of 1970, there was a political explosion. A nationwide student strike shut down most of secondary education in the country, especially in the big urban areas along the coasts, and at the same time, the truckers went on strike on the east coast (though not over the war). For a few days in that May, anti-government sentiment was higher than at any other time since the Civil War of 1860 to 1865, almost exactly a century earlier.

To those who did not live through the experience, it is almost unbelievable how unpopular the Vietnam had become and how deeply legitimate and heartfelt antiwar feeling had become during final 3 or 4 years, even among military personnel. Antiwar sentiment infiltrated our culture, our music, our lives. According to this article in the Encyclopedia Britannica, around a half-million young men avoided the draft. Moreover, tens of thousands more deserted the military. Fragging incidents and outright refusals to fight escalated to unheard levels. Morale broke down completely in the Army and it became unreliable. The Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force were on the road to becoming unreliable. General public sentiment for immediate and unconditional withdrawal spread through the ranks of the fighting men. That is, in large part, what actually caused the politicians to “tie” the military’s hands behind their back, that is to say, not mobilize sufficiently for a definitive defeat of the Vietnamese resistance.

Today, the military faces a similar situation. In order to achieve its goals, the United States would have to mobilize on a scale that would cause rebellion in the United States. According to the CIA World Fact Book, there are a little more than 26 million Iraqis. In June, 2006, there were 138,000 US troops in Iraq. That is a ratio of 188 civilians to one US troop. And the US military is an occupying force in a country where according to ABC News, polls show 6 out of 10 Iraqis feel it is justified to attack US military personnel in order to drive them out..

Today, the Iraq war is unpopular enough that one does not hear too many politicians or generals yammering about having their hands tied behind their backs by the present burgeoning antiwar sentiment. Opposition to the Vietnam war legitimized dissent against wars. That legacy haunts the worst nightmares of the war makers and informs the conscience of the American public.

One Response to “Legacy of Vietnam and the Iraq War Today”

  • They need to be in Iraq! Because they need the oil in there. Petro-military Industrial Complex. And it costs them billions of American Taxes and thousand lives are sacrificed because of a sole reason – Business!

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