There used to be one word in the White House speechwriting shop that was absolutely taboo: Vietnam. The president was not even allowed to say it in a whisper. Now, in a daring reversal, the White House wordsmiths have written a presidential speech that puts Vietnam front and center. A gamble that big is a sure sign of desperation.
At first glance, it's a gamble the administration seems certain to lose. Peace activists started saying "Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam" back when they were just a lunatic fringe. Now that it's respectable to oppose the Iraq war, Democratic politicians constantly repeat the refrain: Vietnam taught us the folly of persisting in a war we can't win. We can't be foolish enough to make the same mistake again. With that view so widespread, it seems strange that Bush's speechwriters would want anyone to think, much less talk, about Vietnam.
But if you are betting that the administration is bound to lose this gamble, don't put down more than you can afford to part with. The Republicans are showing an uncanny ability to control the public debate. Remember just a couple of months ago, when it was Democratic Party gospel that this was indeed a war we couldn't win? Somehow the gospel is being rewritten. As the Washington Post reports, the Dem party line now says that we are indeed "making progress" on the military front. Our troops are doing a superb job. It's just those incompetent Iraqi politicians -- looking for "power, revenge, and personal advantage," Hillary Clinton says -- who are blocking the path to a glorious victory.
The turnaround isn't really so mysterious. The administration and the Pentagon PR machines have been working overtime to flood us with good news from Anbar province and other such good news places. If they can rewrite reality in today's Iraq, why not in yesterday's Vietnam and Cambodia? And if they can rewrite the military reality in Iraq so successfully, who's to say they won't have the same luck rewriting the political reality by the time Congess votes on funding the war?
But this still leaves the question: Why do so many people believe their good news? Why do Democrats at the highest level feel compelled to parrot the administration's line? Part of the answer lies in a parallel between Vietnam and Iraq that doesn't get much attention, though it's among the most important of all.
Long ago, historians of the Vietnam war noted that the intense debate about the war that gripped America rarely made much reference to the suffering of the Vietnamese people. Only "peaceniks" on the far left paid much attention to the two million or more Vietnamese who died, to the corpses and torched villages and napalmed children that were the living -- and dying -- reality of the war. In the mainstream, where the "serious" discussion unfolded, the only question that mattered was: What is this war doing to the USA? Is it to our benefit to keep on fighting, or are we better off withdrawing?
For most Americans, Vietnam was merely a backdrop to the great dramatic conflict that gripped the United States. The heroes and villains, and the victims, in the drama were the Americans who supported and opposed the war. The Vietnamese, if they were seen at all, were merely extras with brief walk-on roles. They never got to speak, never got to tell their stories or say what they thought about the war. (This was also the case in most American movies about Vietnam.)
Now we are seeing much the same scenario played out again. Only this time it's Iraq that forms the backdrop to the great American drama, much like those old Wild West shows where a curtain painted to look like a dusty main street formed the backdrop for the big showdown.
Is it Bush and Cheney or their antiwar critics who are wearing the white hats? That's for you to decide. In either case, political leaders and the mainstream media make it clear that you are deciding for a particular vision of what America is all about, what makes America great, and what direction America should take in the future. What happens to the people of Iraq is mentioned only in passing, if at all.
Sad to say, this is probably a fairly accurate reflection of U.S. public opinion. Most people here don't care too much what happened to the people of Vietnam or what is happening to the people of Iraq. A recent poll showed that the average American thinks under 10,000 Iraqi civilians have died in this war -- a vast underestimate. More importantly, the number of Iraqi dead scarcely figures into the public debate. As with the Vietnam war, it's all about what is happening to us.
That is why Bush's speechwriters could take the gamble of raising the specter of Vietnam, and why they may very well win. Since the war was turned into a fictional drama, few people know, or care, what really happened in Vietnam. Therefore, it's easy to change the story around. Few can refute Bush's absurd version, in which the forecast "bloodbath" supposedly actually happened, and the U.S. withdrawal triggered the Khmer Rouge outrages in Cambodia.
So it all boils down to who can tell a better story about Vietnam and Iraq. A story isn't better because it's closer to the empirical facts. A story is better because it is yields a bigger emotional payoff: more gripping, more inspiring, more comforting, more flattering to our side, more confirming of what we believe.
On all those counts, the yarn Bush is spinning could easily prove a winner. It says that we were close to winning in Vietnam. But then the antiwar "cut and run" crowd snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. That let loose a bloody tide of chaos that engulfed southeast Asia, humiliated the U.S., and emboldened the terrorists, who now want to make Iraq a home base from which to launch their next attack upon us. But we have a chance to right all those wrongs -- to stem the tide of chaos, regain our pride, crush the terrorists, keep our children safe, and show what America is really made of -- if only we have the courage to fight for God's truth.
Do the Democrats and antiwar forces have a story to tell that's any better, or even nearly as good? I wonder. It's a tall order. Already it looks like Bush's story about good military news from Iraq is gaining converts rapidly. That's why the Dems are scampering to join the "me too" chorus. But the antiwar side cannot win this showdown by trying to outdo the prowar side in praising the glories of the U.S. military occupiers. That's only playing the game the Republicans have chosen, because they are confident no one can beat them at it.
The alternative is to refuse to take the administration's new bait. The antiwar movement could refuse to use Iraq as a backdrop and Iraqis as extras in a drama about the trials and tribulations of America. Instead, we could insist that the issue is not about how well our soldiers are doing or what is happening here at home. It's about what is happening in Iraq, where ordinary people like us have been dying and suffering in horrifying numbers ever since we occupied their country. We have no magic button that we can push to end the tragedy now. But we can do our best to refocus the debate on the real terror: the terror endured by the Iraqi people who live under military occupation every day.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org