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Wednesday, 25 October 2006 00:02

Danny Schechter: Those Vietnam Parallels

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by Danny Schechter, MediaChannel.org

Those Vietnam-Iraq parallels are back in the news. Not because the news media has drawn them, or explained why they might be relevant but because one columnist cited one similarity, and President Bush sort of agreed. ...The Voice of America, the government's own propaganda station which calls itself "A trusted source of news and information since 1942" covered the story this way:

"Bush Finds Vietnam War Parallel in Iraq

"President Bush says the recent upsurge in violence in Iraq is reminiscent of a tactic used by North Vietnamese guerrilla forces at a crucial point during the Vietnam War.

"The White House has resisted drawing comparisons between the fighting in Iraq and the Vietnam War.

"But during an interview with the ABC television network, President Bush spoke about one possible parallel. The comments came when he was asked about a newspaper column by New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman, who compared the recent spike in violence in Iraq to the Vietnam-era Tet offensive

"He could be right," Mr. Bush said. "There certainly is a stepped-up level of violence, and we are heading into an election."

He could be right? Is that all? Of course not! What's being left out? In fact, there is far more than one parallel as I pointed out in a column for Mediachannel published on May 2, 2005. As you would expect, that suggestion was roundly ignored and occasionally derided.

But as we know, truth is often denied at first, then grudgingly accepted until it becomes conventional wisdom. So let me run the parallels up the flagpole again and see who, if anyone, will salute:

The Unreported Vietnam-Iraq Parallels

There is a word missing in most of the coverage of Iraq. It's a ghost-laden word that conjures up distressing memories that Washington and most of our media prefer to keep in that proverbial "lock box," hidden away in dusty archives and footage libraries.

The word is Vietnam.

Its absence was never more noticeable than in the coverage this past weekend of the 30th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, marked in Vietnam with celebrations, but largely ignored in America where CNN led with the story of a bride who went missing when she had second thoughts. Is this denial or is it deliberate?

Just this past month, the national Smithsonian Museum of American History installed a new patriotically correct permanent war-positive exhibition, "The Price of Freedom: Americans at War." Hip-Hip Hooray!

If you want to know about the pain of the wars official America wants you to forget, you have to head a few blocks south on the mall in Washington to the Vietnam Memorial with its nearly 60,000 names engraved in black marble. That's where you will see the tears of visitors every day and their lingering memories three decades later.

While American media outlets avoid any parallels -- with pundits insisting that none exist -- overseas some see what many of us don't or won't. A BBC story by Matt Frei reports, "Thirty years after the end of the war, Vietnam continues to divide and haunt America far more than the country that lost 50 times as many people."

His is one of few Vietnam reports that references Iran even though the Iraq connection is buried in the last paragraph, an association even the journalist seems uncomfortable with: "Iraq is far from becoming another Vietnam. But today the ghosts of the jungle are busy getting resurrected in the sands around Baghdad."

‘What are those "ghosts"? And why do they deserve more than media burial in the jungles of Asia or the sands of Iraq?

Here are some of the largely ignored parallels:

1. Both wars were illegal acts of pre-emptive aggression unsanctioned by international law or world opinion. Earlier, U.S. interventions involved successive U.S. administrations. JFK's CIA helped put Saddam in power; Reagan armed him to fight Iran. George Bush, 41, led the first Gulf War against him but left him there; Clinton tightened sanctions. George Bush, 43, invaded again. Five Administrations, Democract and Republican -- Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford fought in Vietnam.

2. Both wars were launched with deception. In Iraq it was the now proven phony WMD threat and contrived Saddam-Osama connection. In Vietnam, it was the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident and the elections mandated by the Geneva agreement that were canceled by Washington in l956 when the U.S. feared Ho Chi Minh would win.

3. The government lied regularly in both wars. Back then, the lies were pronounced a "credibility gap." Today, they are considered acceptable "information warfare." In Saigon military briefers conducted discredited "5 O'Clock Follies" press conferences. In this war, the Pentagon spoon-fed info at a Hollywood style briefing center in Doha.

4. The U.S. press was initially an enthusiastic cheerleader in both wars. When Vietnam protest grew and the war seen as a lost cause, the media frame changed. In Iraq today most of the media is trapped in hotel rooms. Only one side is covered now whereas in Vietnam, there was more reporting occasionally from the other. In Vietnam, the accent was on progress and "turned corners." The same is true in Iraq.

5. In both wars, prisoners were abused. In South Vietnam, thousands of captives were tortured in what were the called "tiger cages." Vietnamese POWs were often killed; In North Vietnam, some U.S. POWs were abused after bombing civilians. In Iraq, POWs on both sides were also mistreated. It was U.S. soldiers that first leaked major war crimes and abuses. In Vietnam, Ron Ridenour disclosed the My Lai Massacre. In Iraq, it was a soldier who first told investigators about the torture in Abu Ghraib prison. (Seymour Hersh the reporter who exposed My-Lai in Vietnam later exposed illegal abuses in Iraq.)

6. Illegal weapons were "deployed" in both wars. The U.S. dropped napalm, used cluster bombs against civilians and sprayed toxic Agent Orange in Vietnam. Cluster bombs and updated Mark 77 napalm-like firebombs were dropped on Iraqis. Depleted uranium was added to the arsenal of prohibited weapons in Iraq.

7. Both wars claimed to be about promoting democracy. Vietnam staged elections and saw a succession of governments controlled by the U.S. come and go. Iraq has had one election so far in which most voters say they were casting ballots primarily to get the U.S. to leave. The U.S. has stage-managed Iraq's interim government. Exiles were brought back and put in power. Vietnam's Diem came from New Jersey, Iraq's Allawi from Britain.

8. Both wars claimed to be about noble international goals. Vietnam was pictured as a crusade against aggressive communism and falling dominos. Iraq was sold as a front in a global war on terrorism. Neither claim proved true.

9. An imperial drive for resource control and markets helped drive both interventions. Vietnam had rubber and manganese and rare minerals. Iraq has oil. In both wars, any economic agenda was officially denied and ignored by most media outlets.

10. Both wars took place in countries with cultures we never understood or spoke the language, Both involved "insurgents" whose military prowess was underestimated and misrepresented. In Vietnam, we called the "enemy" communists; in Iraq we call them foreign terrorists. (Soldiers had their own terms, "gooks" in Vietnam, "rag heads" in Iraq) In both counties, there was, in fact, an indigenous resistance that enjoyed popular support. (Both targeted and brutalized people they considered collaborators with the invaders just as our own Revolution went after Americans who backed the British.)

11. In both wars, as in all wars, innocent civilians died in droves.

12. In both countries the U.S. promised to help rebuild the damages caused by U.S. bombing. In Vietnam, a $2 Billion presidential reconstruction pledge was not honored. In Iraq, the electricity and other services are still out in many areas despite unfulfilled promises. In both wars U.S. companies and suppliers profited handsomely; Brown & Root in Vietnam; Halliburton in Iraq, to cite but two.

13. In Vietnam, the Pentagon's counter-insurgency effort failed to "pacify" the countryside even with a half a million U.S. soldiers "in country." The insurgency in Iraq is growing despite the best efforts of U.S. soldiers and the billions spent to keep them there. More have died since President Bush proclaimed "mission accomplished" than during the invasion.


The Vietnamese forced the U.S. into negotiations for the Paris Peace Agreement. When the agreement was continually violated, they brilliantly staged a final offensive that surprised and routed a superior million-man Saigon Army. Can the Iraqi resistance do the same? Insurgent groups reportedly have asked for negotiations and some have secretly taken place.

The Vietnam war ended when the costs rose. The BBC reminded us, "As the casualties mounted so did the questions about how much a threat the Vietcong could really pose. Today another pre-emptive war against an enemy far from home has posed similar questions."

As the insurgency in Iraq escalates and continues to seize the initiative with the capacity to attack where and when it wants, as US and allied casualties rise, is it unthinkable to suspect that another April 30th campaign of the kind that "liberated" Saigon is possible in Baghdad?

Remember the US military made the defense of Saigon the centerpiece of its strategy. The slogan then was "as Saigon goes, so goes Vietnam." The same is now being said of Baghdad.

We have already seen one "fall" of Baghdad. Will it "fall" again? Of course not! Repeat after me. We are winning. Democracy is on the march even if we are no longer allowed to say "Mission Accomplished" or "Stay the Course."


News Dissector Danny Schechter, editor and "blogger in chief" of Mediachannel.org, reported from Vietnam in 1974 and 1997. His film, "WMD (Weapons of Mass Deception)," (Wmdthefilm.com) examines media coverage of the Iraq War.