The Vietnam Syndrome Revisited


In the 1980's, activists produced a button that read "El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam." Although it provided a punchy reminder of a bloody conflict, the comparison was inappropriate. While the US was supporting a repressive regime against a leftist insurgency, it committed little in the way of troops; moreover, unlike Vietnam, the US was successful in containing the insurgency. So much so that the former guerillas have largely been integrated into the political process.

However, in Iraq, the comparison has a better fit: A war started under dubious circumstances (Gulf of Tonkin incident vs. Weapons of Mass Destruction); involving regime change (the assassination of Diem vs. the overthrow of Saddam Hussein); and a gaping sinkhole of money, troops and resources with no end in sight (the aftermath of the Tet offensive vs. the Iraqi Intafada). Small wonder then, that the issue should provide such a focal point in the US presidential race.

George W. Bush famously avoided Vietnam by finding a berth in the Texas National Guard. Many of the Republican leaders such as John Ashcroft and Dick Cheney also avoided service in Vietnam. So, it came as no surprise when John Kerry, who not only served but was also decorated in the war, made this a central point of his campaign. (A decision he has come to regret since he obviously underestimated the Republican slander machine). Yet, while Kerry came to oppose the war after his return, he seems to have little difference with Bush today; other than saying he would have conducted the war better (a more efficient war?).

And yet, many on the left see Kerry as at least a lesser evil. In the last two issues of Left Business Observer, Doug Henwood has editorialized about the need to support Kerry ("until November 2). Likewise "anarchist" professor Noam Chomsky who continues to use the analogy of expanding the cage to support imperialist politicians. The argument is reminiscent of the International Socialists perennial election slogan "Vote [insert pseudo-left candidate here] with no illusions." Ah, but only people voting have illusions.

Likewise in Iraq, where ostensible leftists, feeling they have little power to effect change, have opted to support the Iraqi Intafada in the name self-determination or opposing imperialism. The partisans of the Intafada are clearly opposed to the US presence in Iraq, but what would they replace it with? It seems increasingly clear that the real opposition to the US is the fundamentalists, who were largely contained during the rule of the Baath party. Given the recent car bomb massacre of schoolchildren and the increasingly militant Islamic rhetoric, it seems likely the insurgents, if successful, will establish a regime every bit as bloody and repressive as the one the US overthrew. And as capitalist.

In both of these situations, a key factor has been overlooked. Electing a lesser imperialist candidate with a more human face will not make the US a more equitable, less capitalist state. It is likely that Kerry will be able to screw workers more effectively since many believe the Democrats are the friends of labour. Supporting the insurgents in Iraq will not make Iraq a more democratic country. The solution to the problems of US and Iraqi society lies not in supporting lesser evils, but in the American, the Iraqi and the global working class. For only the working class has the social power to uproot the social relations of capitalism and create a New World. Anything else leaves us destined to be discussing the Iraq Syndrome two decades hence.


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