It’s with some reluctance that I find myself forced to return yet again to the subject of the ongoing bloodbath in Iraq.
My reluctance stems from the feeling that there isn’t a lot new one can say about this shambles: anyone who watches even just the nightly TV news can see that it’s more of the same. Another day or two, another few bombs, another massacre, another mass grave, another assurance from George Bush that progress is being made.
Nevertheless I feel obliged to address this depressing topic once more, because to ignore it is an abdication of professional responsibility. No doubt Bush, Blair and Howard would be happier if people threw up their arms and wrote about something else - anything else! - but I at least am unwilling to do them that favour. Today’s Iraq is the creation of these three men - principally, of course, of George Bush with the others tagging along behind like the loyal little lapdogs they are - and they need to be called to account for what they have done.
People like me warned more than once that the easy defeat of the Saddam regime did not mean that all that remained was a simple task of cleaning up the mess and setting up a democratic, non-aggressive regime. (See my On Line Opinion contributions of May 2003 and November 2004.) There is no satisfaction in saying “I told you so”, even though I did, because the price of being right has been thousands of lives.
About the only bright spot in this sorry tale was the willingness of millions of Iraqis to do what they never could under Saddam, come out and vote in free elections despite the threat of attack and reprisal from the militant resistance. Unfortunately, their courage has not received its just reward.
The revealing admission from the former (post-Saddam) Iraq Prime Minister Ayad Alawi that his country is now in a state of civil war shows the extent to which the US and its allies have failed. Security in Iraq is now a bad joke; outside the “green zone” enclave in Baghdad there is no security for anyone. What began as an anti-US insurgency driven by mainly Sunni Saddam loyalists has escalated into a sectarian conflict which is only getting worse. Even if the occupying troops left Iraq tomorrow, the killing would still go on.
Under these conditions, the inability of Iraq’s elected politicians to form a workable and credible government is hardly surprising. No doubt under US pressure something will eventually be cobbled together, but the resulting administration will be about as effective as was that in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam. Indeed, there are growing suspicions that Iraqi security forces have formed “death squads” which arbitrarily kill people they see as enemies.
It is dangerously easy to draw parallels between the Vietnam War and that now underway in Iraq; the situations are not identical and experiences in Vietnam cannot simply be transferred to Iraq and used as predictive tools. Nevertheless, there are parallels - not identities - between the two. The weakness of the “official” regime the US and its allies are trying to prop up is certainly one.
Another is what Richard Nixon famously called “Vietnamisation”. This was his code for handing security responsibilities to the Saigon Government, thus allowing him to withdraw ever more American troops from the country. The outcomes of “Vietnamisation” were, first (and from Nixon’s viewpoint, the only important one) that US troops left Vietnam safely and, second, the collapse of the Saigon regime, which was quite incapable of sustaining itself without a foreign army in support.
Where Iraq differs from Vietnam is that there is not a large conventional force (like the North Vietnamese Army) poised to take advantage of any US pull-out. Instead there are the antagonistic sects, religious and ethnic, poised to slug it out to see which gets to lord it over the rest. Thus, as I say, a US withdrawal will not stop the killing. Things have gone too far for that now.
The Iraqi and Vietnamese wars are similar, however, in their effects on the American polity and armed forces. Nixon turned to “Vietnamisation” because he knew that the American people would not long tolerate a continuation of the conflict. Bush is altogether sincere in his wish to give the feeble Iraqi authorities more security responsibilities because he too is experiencing a downturn in domestic support fuelled in large part by the effects of the war.
The immense costs of the war are also a similarity, though person for person it will be costing the US far more to sustain its Iraqi force (lavishly equipped as it is with the latest costly high-tech gadgetry) than the army of conscripted “grunts” who bore the brunt of the Vietnamese fiasco. How long the US economy can bear these huge costs without adverse consequences is a matter for economists, but Bush’s requests for ever more funding are starting to meet resistance even from a Congress his Republican Party presently controls.
The Vietnam War nearly ruined the US Army, just as the Afghan adventure crippled the Soviet military. In Iraq too we are beginning to see the corrosive effects of a long struggle with no end in sight. The damage to morale is one reason why we are now beginning to hear of atrocities - mini-massacres - perpetrated by American troops. This, too, occurred in Vietnam as soldiers grew ever more frustrated with, and suspicious of, people they could not trust and learned to fear. When you have comrades killed by fire from a neighbourhood, the impulse to kill everyone around can become too great to resist.
I do not know how the Iraqi bloodbath will turn out. I do know that a great many more people will die violently before anything approaching peace returns to Iraq. And I know one other thing. It is George W. Bush, Tony Blair and our own John Howard who created the situation that now exists; they have this blood on their hands. They invaded Iraq, on pretexts now shown to be utterly false. They constituted the occupying powers, and mandated the present Iraqi Government (such as it is). They are guilty.
I hope they sleep as poorly as they deserve.