WASHINGTON - While most people here still recoil from comparisons of Iraq and Vietnam, the political parallels are piling up between the wrenching wars that have sharply divided two generations of Americans.
Few suggest Iraq has reached the same military proportion. But its disputed origins, a surprisingly resilient local resistance, and now repugnant abuses by US troops all recall the trauma of the distant jungle conflict.
This is just so disgusting and off the charts. It just plays to everything, the humiliation of these men, the whole issue of pornography and the argument that all the West wants to do is make it into one large brothel.
Ohio State University political science professor
Photographs of hooded and naked Iraqi prisoners abused by US guards have triggered a wave of revulsion not seen here since the Indochina campaign, alarming one-time staunch supporters of the desert war.
"We risk losing public support for this conflict," influential Republican Senator John McCain, himself a prisoner in Vietnam, told an emotionally charged congressional hearing Friday.
"As Americans turned away from the Vietnam War, they may turn away from this one, unless this issue is quickly resolved with full disclosure immediately," McCain said.
Polls show nearly half of Americans now feel the invasion was not worth it, and 62 percent believe the occupation is going badly. Yet the public is still resisting equating the embattled occupation with Vietnam.
A Pew Research Center survey published last month before the prison scandal broke found only 25 percent feared Iraq would become another Vietnam war, which claimed 58,000 US lives between 1961 and 1973.
But officials and analysts still see disturbing links between the conflicts.
Both sprang from dubious provocations: in Vietnam it was disputed North Vietnamese attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin; in Iraq it was the weapons of mass destruction that were never found.
In 1968 a daring Tet offensive convinced US commanders in Vietnam that they were up against a resourceful and determined foe. US occupation forces in Iraq learned the same lesson last month in the battle of Fallujah.
And if the 1968 massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese in the village of My Lai highlighted the ugly side of US military adventurism, it has been matched by the burgeoning scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, once the nation's top general, raised eyebrows last week when he voluntarily compared Abu Ghraib to My Lai. But analysts say the prison debacle may be worse in some respects.
John Mueller, a political science professor and author who has written two books on war and public opinion, said that while My Lai was horrific, it was an extension of the basic US "search and destroy" mission.
"Going into Iraq, however, the idea is not to kill, not to humiliate, not to murder Iraqis," said Mueller, who teaches at Ohio State University. "We're trying to clean up Iraq from this kind of disaster."
"This is just so disgusting and off the charts," he told AFP. "It just plays to everything, the humiliation of these men, the whole issue of pornography and the argument that all the West wants to do is make it into one large brothel."
Evocations of Indochina carry heavy political overtones in a presidential election year, and when Senator Ted Kennedy called Iraq "George Bush's Vietnam" last month, he drew a stinging rebuke from the president.
"I think the analogy is false," Bush said. "I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops and sends a wrong message to the enemy."
But even army officers are now starting to go public with doubts whether the United States may be winning a series of battles in Iraq but losing the overall war just like in Vietnam.
"Unless we ensure that we have coherency in our policy, we will lose strategically," Colonel Paul Hughes, who last year directed strategic planning for the occupation authority in Baghdad, told the Washington Post.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam war veteran who has been hammering Bush on his Iraq policy, said last month that Iraq "is not Vietnam yet."
"I underscore yet," the Massachusetts senator added.
© Copyright 2004 AFP