Tuesday, May 18, 2004

The Meaninglessness of "Vietnam"

Marge: This is the worst thing you've ever done.
Homer: You say that so much it's lost all its meaning.

This is essentially how I feel about the Vietnam analog, as in the oft-used phrase "It's another Vietnam." For people my age and especially younger, everything has always been "another Vietnam." When I was in high school, El Salvador and Nicaragua were going to be another Vietnam. The 1991 Gulf War was to be another Vietnam. As was Afghanistan; it had already been Russia's Vietnam and it was Vietnam for the British Empire in the 19th century before Vietnam was even Vietnam for America (if that makes any sense). And of course, Iraq is now yet another Vietnam. (Here's a test. Google "Vietnam" and "Iraq" and you get nearly 4 million hits. Google "Vietnam" and "Cambodia", it's next door neighbor and a country Vietnam invaded, and you get less than 3 million hits.) As Homer said, You say that so much it's lost all its meaning.

Why is every war or conflict always inevitably compared to Vietnam? Two reasons.
1. The Boomers and Vietnam. Members of the Baby Boomer generation are power holders in the Old Media, tv, radio, and print, and Boomers are obsessed with the Vietnam War. It was the foreign policy event that defined their political consciousness. (The corollary domestic event is the Civil Rights Movement. These two struggles also gives them icons of heroism, JFK, MLK, RFK, and villainy, Nixon. Note that Clinton and now Kerry seek JFK comparisons and one of the anti-Bush best sellers is called "Worse Than Watergate.") Vietnam is much more than just a symbol of defeat for the Boomers in the media. It is the Worst Case Scenario, the Heart of Darkness. (Just as the Civil Rights Movement is beyond reproach as the Just Cause.) Since the Boomers have no positive foreign events to balance against Vietnam and since the Civil Rights Movement had no real foreign policy implications, the tendency is to view every overseas exercise of American power as Vietnam until proven otherwise. Remember the invasion of Afghanistan? The New York Times used the word "quagmire", Boomer code for Vietnam, to describe our situation in Afghanistan 12 days after the invasion began. Twelve days. Similar comparisons were made when our troops were stopped by a sandstorm during the invasion of Iraq. This was in the first two weeks.

The prison abuse scandal has brought out the full arsenal of Vietnam comparisons. The "My Lai Massacre". The grainy black and white photos of prisoners shot point blank, the naked girl fleeing napalm. "Unwinnanble." Anything less than a nearly instant and miraculous victory with zero civilian casualities and no criminal abuses by any military personnel brings forth the V word. In other words, to Boomers Vietnam is war.

2. Our lack of historical memory. The historical memory of Americans is about a week and a half. Millions of people have only the vaguest idea of life prior to cell phones, internet porn, and Friends. (the humanity!) We compare every military event to Vietnam because it really all most American's know of warfare. September 11 is often compared to Pearl Harbor but that's the extent of our collective memory of World War Two defeats (and, fortuitously, a Ben Affleck vehicle came out just months prior to 9/11, impressing millions of teenagers with the idea of horrible surprise attacks). We've seen Saving Private Ryan and some WWII documentaries of the History Channel but WWII is largely a black and white blur: bombers, Churchill, beach landings, the mushroom cloud, and we win, the end. The setbacks and the long horrible battles are not remembered by the man on the street. No one compares Iraq to Okinawa or Guadalcanal. No one compares Hussein to Mussolini or Iraq to Fascist Italy, which is a more apt comparison I think. (I'm reminded of another Simpsons episode. The school year ends and all the children rush out of the school. The history teacher stands in the doorway waving the history textbook. "But you don't know how World War Two ends!" he yells. The kids stop and turn around. "We won!" And the kids skip home to chants of "U-S-A!")

One example of this lack of historical memory was especially evident during one particular episode on the anti-Zionist left. In 2002 after the Israeli army moved into the West Bank to stop repeated suicide bombers who had caused hundreds of Israeli civilian casualties, certain Leftist referred to the Palestinian city of Jenin as "Jeningrad." Whether this comparison was meant to evoke the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad or the Battle of Stalingrad, which cost almost 2,000,000 lives, was unclear, even I think to the Leftists themselves. (The UN says 52 Palestinians were killed. Israel says 26 Israeli soldiers were killed.) In anti-Zionist demonology Israel is often compared to the Nazis, making "Jeningrad" even more absurd since the Nazis withdrew from Leningrad in defeat and an entire German army was surrounded and surrendered at Stalingrad, whereas the Israelis accomplished their mission and left Jenin on their terms. But these nuances don't matter to the anti-Zionists. "Jeningrad" just sounds sinister, man.

Americans don't generally think in historical terms to times beyond living memory much less to before television footage. (That's why there are so many WWII documentaries and so few of wars before that. What would we look at? Still photots? Paintings? Maps? Yuck?) Who would think to compare Fallujah to Verdunne or the siege of Vienna or Najaf to Vicksburg or Chickamauga? Who compares Iraq to Korea, with Iran and Syria playing the roles of the USSR and China? I'm not saying these are comparisons that I agree with (they're not) but who would think to make them and who would understand what they meant? News consumers don't want to have to look up what the hell things mean. They need quick and clear comparisons. They need shorthand. Hence the V-word.

Well, enough is e-fucking-nough. If you want to say Iraq is going badly, compare it to the Union at Second Bull Run or the Confederates at Gettysburg. Compare it to Gallipoli (it was a Mel Gibson movie after all). If you think the prison scandal is an atrocity compare it to the British internment camps during the Boer War or the Confederate POW prison at Andersonville. But stop comparing everything to Vietnam: you say that so much it's lost all its meaning.


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