Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Another Vietnam

"Is Iraq Another Vietnam? Actually, It May Become Worse", said in April 2004. The piece concludes:

The danger now is that in his desperation to “avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat,” the repudiation of his entire presidency, and a generation-long disdain for U.S. military power, Bush will resort to apocalyptic barbarism.
The Apocalypse is, at the moment, the province of the rhetoric of the Iranian president, and barbarism has largely been that of Iraqis, as it has turned out. Ahmamadbastard dreams of his seventh Imam, while in Iraq children are abducted and tortured, with electric drills turning their eyes, elbows and knees into abominations, after which they are decapitated.

No doubt we, and the Americans, are to blame for this. But there has still been some barbarism from the US military, as a consequence of which we have all become familiar with the name Abu Ghraib. It is hard to find a parallel for Guantanamo Bay in the Second World War though, in fairness, it's difficult to use Spandau Prison as a comparison for anything in Iraq.

This is not to say that commentators, especially from the left, have found it hard to draw comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam more generally. Of course, Vietnam is a symbol we children of the 'sixties are familiar with, so perhaps it is unsurprising that it springs to so many lips. Michael Herr's Dispatches was the book Hunter S. Thompson wished he'd written. The sound of a helicopter was the only sound Herr knew that was both sharp and dull at the same time and nobody made the incoming helicopters, the grunts waiting for death, the empty beer bottles in trenches on beseiged hills as real as Herr.

According to (preceding link), people who bought that book also bought A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo which, by a strange coincidence, I was reading in the bath this evening.

Somewhere between 1946 and 1975, a change took place in the psychology of America's military. This isn't limited to America, but it's more pronounced there. Perhaps it began in the jungles of the Second World War. Certainly, by Vietnam, it was developing roots. As Caputo puts it in his preface:
Whether committed in the name of principles or out of vengeance, atrocities were as common to the Vietnamese battlefields as shell craters or barbed wire. The marines in our brigade were not innately cruel, but on landing at Danang they learned quickly that Vietnam was not a place where a man could expect much mercy if, say, he was taken prisoner. And men who do not expect to receive mercy eventually lose their inclination to grant it.
This is true in Iraq, in fact it is true in all our confrontations with Islamists. But to continue:
... the feeling that the enemy was everywhere, the inability to distinguish civilians from combatants created emotional pressures which built to such a point that a trivial provocation could make these men explode with the blind destructiveness of a mortar shell.
Out there, lacking restraints, sanctioned to kill, confronted by a hostile country and a remorseless enemy, we sank into a brutish state. The descent could be checked only by the net of a man's inner moral values, the attribute that is called character. There were a few - and I suspect Lieutenant Calley was one - who had no net and plunged all the way down, discovering in their bottommost depths a capacity for malice they probably never suspected was there.
I'm sure this was always true in war. But the experience of Vietnam, combined with the simultaneous but longer lived Cold War, led to a normalisation of unorthodox military tactics. Indeed, we have seen it at the movies and all now know what "wet work" means.

The phrase probably come from the Russian, “mokrie dela”, and from the KGB - though it has also been attributed to the CIA and, perhaps inevitably, Mossad. It's certainly true that Mossad has conducted some very unorthodox actions, though never quite going so far as the French bombing of a Greenpeace ship in the territory of a friendly country, New Zealand.

While Sidney Reilly pre-dated all these, the idea that conflict justifies unorthodox methods has only become mainstream, and a part of the repertory of orthodox armies, in the past half century. And this is a Bad Thing.

Radical Islam is vastly weak, far weaker than people seem to assume. Radical Islamist states make nothing, do nothing, know nothing. They transform capable people into vicious morons. If we can manage to prevent our fascist sympathisers and appeasers from surrendering before we win, we will win. We need to have an eye to that victory, one that will include everyone presently within the compass of radical Islam.

We need to ensure that, in winning, we do not take on too many of the vices of our foes, if only because if they manage to change us to too great a degree, they will have won regardless of the apparent outcome.

Over the past half-century, that has happened to too great a degree. We cannot combine the ruthlessness of the Stasi with the sadism of the Viet Cong and WWII era Japanese, and ice it all with the contempt for human life of the Islamists, and still be the people we deserve to be - and in that "we" I include Saudis, Iranians, Afghanis, as well as Europeans and Australians and Americans.

So while it has been fun to hear James Caan talking about "wet work" in Arnie movies, it's time for a reaction against this trend. The only way Iraq could become another Vietnam would be in the viciousness of Allied actions, and that must not happen.

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