Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Pecca Fortitir

Blogtalk: Bush, Iraq and Vietnam - The Caucus - Politics - New York Times Blog

Today President Bush used an appearance in front of a group of veterans to argue against the early removal of American forces from Iraq, drawing historical parallels to the end of the Vietnam war.

It was inevitable: unable to avoid comparisons with Vietnam, Bush is forced to embrace them. This is desperation: can he conjure up enough support from Americans who don't remember Vietnam or who believe that we would have done better to keep on fighting? Not.

I remember when I first heard about Vietnam. I was 14, at Beaverbrook Music Camp. Without TV or newspapers, preoccupied with 8 hours of orchestra, string ensemble or band, and chorus rehearsals a day we didn't know what the heck was going on. One day we heard that a war had started and, having grown up during the Cold War, when local post offices stocked brochures with instructions for building fallout shelters and schools ran regular air raid drills, we were convinced that we'd all die. The Russians would nuke us, we'd nuke the Russians and that would be it.

By the time I got home, I realized that we wouldn't die right away. Then there was 10 years of misery, following the body count on the evening news every day, watching the country come apart, marching in the streets, being trashed as traitors until eventually everyone came around and the war effort collapsed. There was the child burnt with napalm running naked and the helicopters grabbing people off the rooftop--it was over. Very few people who remember Vietnam believe that we should have stayed--and there are lots of us who remember.

We should certainly remember the similarities between Iraq and Vietnam as it was 40 years ago, and the differences. The Vietnamese as I remember were interested in national liberation, throwing off the yoke of a colonial regime and its neo-colonial successors. I seem to remember this area being called "French Indo-China." Iraq, I recall, was an independent country for decades, under the thumb of a tin-pot dictator who kept a lid on waring tribes and clans and, as warlord-in-chief, promoted the interests of his own clan and more broadly the Sunni minority, at the expense of other tribes while keeping a lid on tribal conflict.

It shouldn't have been that hard to predict what would happen once the lid was off. Of course these primitive tribal people would form militias under local warlords and gang leaders in rural areas and urban slums, engage in ethnic cleansing, turn the country (if it was ever a country) into a Hobbesian free-for-all, and make life intolerable for educated professionals, the cosmopolitan middle-class, and anyone who didn't fit neatly into the tribal system. We bombed this country into the stone age so that it's now inhospitable for any but stone age people--the peasantry and urban underclass who are happy with sharia, with warlords and tribal leaders, and with a world where women breed and men fight.

We should certainly learn from Vietnam and start getting out people who will be vulnerable--the American collaborators especially, but also all the educated professionals, all the middle class and all who don't fit into the tribal system, and airlift them to the US. We've got plenty of space, and could in any case use more doctors, nurses and engineers and can probably absorb more educated people even if they don't have valuable skills. Let the peasants and proletarians, the warlords, gang leaders and their militias, duke it out until they achieve an arrangement that suits them--and manage to kill off a sufficient number of young lower-class males to make the country decent and safe. Maybe a decade or three after that citizens of this tribal society decide they want to re-join the civilized world. Maybe a few of the exiles or their children will decide to go back--though I doubt it: why should they?

We broke it--we should fix it. But what a fix! This is the oldest civilization in the West, and possibly in the world: the Fertile Crescent, the Tigris and Euphrates. This is our ur-history--before Greece, and even before Egypt: Mesopotemia, the land in the land between the rivers. This is our root--the root beyond the root, which is Greece, and the most ancient civilization to which we can trace our history. Following the news after the invasion--the museums looted, the most ancient artifacts lost--who wasn't moved? How could we do such a thing?

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