War Again in Iraq and the American Desire Never to be Labeled a Loser

Fighters of the Islamic State (Associated Press)
Fighters of the Islamic State (AP/NYT)

W.J. Astore

In April 2009, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com recounting Mary McCarthy’s critique of the American experience in Vietnam, and how her lessons applied to President Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan.  A central lesson cited by McCarthy was the American desire never to be labeled a loser.  That desire explains, at least in part, the persistence of folly within the Obama Administration today, as Peter Van Buren explains in his latest article for TomDispatch, “Apocalypse Now, Iraq Edition: Fighting in Iraq Until Hell Freezes Over.”

Here’s what McCarthy had to say in 1968 about the American moment and the Vietnam War:

The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.

Obama campaigned in 2008 as a “hope” and “change” candidate who as president would end the war in Iraq (so he could prosecute the “better” war in Afghanistan).  Yet the U.S. finds itself yet again bombing widely in Iraq (and now Syria) while deploying thousands of military “advisers” (combat troops in plain speak).  And after six weeks of airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS, with indecisive results, how long before those U.S. “advisers” start taking the fight directly to the enemy on the ground?

The questions I posed for President Obama back in 2009 were these:

Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?

Similar questions apply to our latest military operations in Iraq and Syria.  Is the U.S. surging militarily just to avoid the label of “loser”?  And even if the U.S. “wins” this latest round (whatever “win” means), won’t the price paid be indistinguishable from defeat?

In his article, Van Buren offers an excellent summary of the U.S. experience in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam in 2003.  In his words:

The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than 190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today’s front pages.

According to the crudest possible calculation, we spent blood and got no oil. Instead, America’s war of terror resulted in the dissolution of a Middle Eastern post-Cold War stasis that, curiously enough, had been held together by Iraq’s previous autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. We released a hornet’s nest of Islamic fervor, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and pan-nationalism. Islamic terror groups grew stronger and more diffuse by the year. That horrible lightning over the Middle East that’s left American foreign policy in such an ugly glare will last into our grandchildren’s days. There should have been so many futures. Now, there will be so few as the dead accumulate in the ruins of our hubris. That is all that we won.

Under a new president, elected in 2008 in part on his promise to end American military involvement in Iraq, Washington’s strategy morphed into the more media-palatable mantra of “no boots on the ground.” Instead, backed by aggressive intel and the “surgical” application of drone strikes and other kinds of air power, U.S. covert ops were to link up with the “moderate” elements in Islamic governments or among the rebels opposing them — depending on whether Washington was opting to support a thug government or thug fighters.

The results? Chaos in Libya, highlighted by the flow of advanced weaponry from the arsenals of the dead autocrat Muammar Gaddafi across the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria, chaos in Somalia, chaos in Kenya, chaos in South Sudan, and, of course, chaos in Iraq.

And then came the Islamic State (IS) and the new “caliphate,” the child born of a neglectful occupation and an autocratic Shia government out to put the Sunnis in their place once and for all. And suddenly we were heading back into Iraq. What, in August 2014, was initially promoted as a limited humanitarian effort to save the Yazidis, a small religious sect that no one in Washington or anywhere else in this country had previously heard of, quickly morphed into those 1,600 American troops back on the ground in Iraq and American planes in the skies from Kurdistan in the north to south of Baghdad. The Yazidis were either abandoned, or saved, or just not needed anymore. Who knows and who, by then, cared?  They had, after all, served their purpose handsomely as the casus belli of this war. Their agony at least had a horrific reality, unlike the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that propelled a widening war in Vietnam in 1964 or the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs that were the excuse for the invasion of 2003.

And this is how Van Buren concludes his article:

We’ve been here before, as the failures of American policy and strategy in Vietnam metastasized into war in Cambodia and Laos to deny sanctuary to North Vietnamese forces. As with ISIS, we were told that they were barbarians who sought to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region. They, too, famously needed to be fought “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here. We didn’t say “the Homeland” back then, but you get the picture.

As the similarities with Vietnam are telling, so is the difference. When the reality of America’s failure in Vietnam finally became so clear that there was no one left to lie to, America’s war there ended and the troops came home. They never went back. America is now fighting the Iraq War for the third time, somehow madly expecting different results, while guaranteeing only failure. To paraphrase a young John Kerry, himself back from Vietnam, who’ll be the last to die for that endless mistake? It seems as if it will be many years before we know.

That is indeed the question.  As Mary McCarthy noted about the Vietnam War, “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”

Back to 2014 and the present moment: The more troops committed against ISIS, the more bombing raids made, the more money spent, the more prestige put on the line, the fewer the options the United States has in the Middle East.  Indeed, the only option that remains is “to win,” since losing is unacceptable for the reason Mary McCarthy indicated.

But as Michael Murry, a Vietnam Veteran and regular contributor to this site, noted about Vietnam (citing Bernard Fall’s classic book, Street Without Joy), “You can’t do a wrong thing the right way,” and “We lose the day we start (these stupid imperial wars) and we win the day we stop.”  Put differently, just as with Vietnam, the Middle East is not an incredibly complex puzzle for us to solve; it’s simply an impossible situation.  Impossible for us.  Until we admit this, the U.S. can never “win”; it can only lose.

The U.S. finally “won” in Vietnam when we admitted defeat and left.  How long before we come to this realization in the Middle East?  Tragically, the persistence of American hubris, amplified by resistance to the very idea of being labeled a “loser,” suggests yet another long, bloody, learning curve.

7 thoughts on “War Again in Iraq and the American Desire Never to be Labeled a Loser

  1. Excellent commentary. The Middle East is incredibly more complex than Vietnam because deep seated and perverse religious factors are at play. Add to that the 10,000 pound gorilla of oil and our love for that Saudi oil and you have complexity within complexity and your real enemy held to your breast as Dubya so aptly put it, Saudi head of Intelligence “Prince Bandar Bush.” It is insanely stupid bordering on criminal for the U.S. government to commit more of our precious and declining human and economic resources to this area while protecting the Gulf States and Israel from their self-serving policies that are doomed to create more and never ending instability and violence.

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  2. [PROLOGUE: I am in awe of Google’s system for targeting ads! Here we are discussing US policy in the Middle East and Google had the wisdom to show me an ad for “Top 7 Dumbbells For 2014”!! Wow! Perhaps we should have this company running the State Dept.?] During the US war of aggression against the peoples of Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese liberation forces learned to dig shelters that provided surprisingly effective protection against bombs. So the US and its new Coalition of Lickspittles–and my, what a collection of freedom-cherishing democracies are they, eh what?!?–may only enjoy limited success in this airstrikes campaign. Since Syria, convulsed by civil war though it is, is still legally a sovereign state, these air raids on its territory constitute acts of war and would be opposed by the UN Security Council if that body was “right thinking.” Of course, any proposal by Russia to halt this aggression would be vetoed by the US and a US proposal to approve the actions under the flag of the UN will be subject to Russian veto. Making the UN largely an irrelevant body of gasbag politicians.

    We should soon know what kind of intestinal fortitude is possessed by the fighters of the Islamic State. If they survive the bombing campaign(s) largely unscathed and prove they can still launch effective attacks to seize new territory, then “boots on the ground” will be next. Does anyone doubt Obama will pursue this folly? Looks carved in stone already to this observer. (“We were waist deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on.” — from Pete Seeger’s 1967 protest anthem.) I go on record right now guaranteeing there will be “blowback” on the soil of this benighted nation and its foolish allies. This is the inevitable result of deliberately sustaining an atmosphere of Old Testament style vengeful bloodlust. And this will be used as justification to further whittle away our civil liberties here at home, add more military gear to local police forces, keep juicy contracts flowing to the war profiteers, and on we go along the road of national suicide. From “The War Is Over,” by Phil Ochs: “Find a flag so you can wave goodbye, But just before the end even treason might be worth a try, This country is too young to die.” Oh, Phil! If you were still alive what bounteous fodder you’d have for writing a hundred more songs!

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    1. I know that Phil Ochs and Tom Lehrer could do better, but just on the spur of the moment, how about:

      Too Stupid to Stipulate

      Vietnam and Syria,
      Cambodia and Laos:
      American hysteria,
      A guarantee of chaos.

      Afghanistan and Pakistan,
      Iraq, Iraq, Iraq.
      Make-work war with just one plan:
      Start. Fail. Leave. Go back.

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2014

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  3. Bernard Fall, Street Without Joy: the French Debacle in Indochina (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1961)

    Back in mid-1969, after completing the U.S. Navy’s nuclear power training program and serving briefly on staff as an instructor at the Idaho Falls reactor prototype facility, I got orders to attend 11-weeks of Counter-Insurgency School at Coronado Island, San Diego. As part of the course curriculum, we had to read Bernard Fall’s book on the failed French attempt to reimpose their colonial control over Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) following the end of WWII in 1945. After reading the book, I had to wonder if the people who had assigned it to me had understood a word of it. Particularly the following:

    “Chapter 14: The Second Indochina War …

    “The point needs to be made, and made clearly before a new mythology becomes accredited which blames the military setbacks of 1963-64 not upon the military and civilian bunglers who are responsible for them, but on the Buddhist monks or the American press corps in Saigon.

    The hard and brutal fact is that, for a variety of reasons which can be as coldly analyzed as the French defeats described earlier in this book, the strictly military aspect of the Vietnamese insurgency was being as rapidly lost in 1961-62 as its socio-political aspects were.”

    So there I sat in class in the middle of 1969 having just learned that the entire U.S. enterprise in Southeast Asia, military and political, had already begun to lose during the first year of the Kennedy administration, my freshman year in high school. I don’t think I can adequately describe the awful depression that began to envelop me as I contemplated eight months of foreign language training still to come followed by at least a year in South Vietnam following that. I think that about this time I began to notice two contradictory slogans circulating within the U.S. military. One expressed the die-hard careerist mentality of the “lifers,” as we called them. They had nothing but contempt for winning the hearts and minds of the Southeast Asians. They would joke: “Grab ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.” Those of us dragooned and bullied enlisted men who just wanted out of the endless, mindless disaster would mutter to ourselves: “We lost the day we started and we win the day we stop.” But no one in authority above us gave a damn what we thought. So we just had to get on with the damned insanity and hope that we would survive to someday return home to a normal civilian life.

    Now, after more than twenty years of failed attacks on the people of Iraq, along with thirteen years of failed attacks on the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have yet another American president who thinks he can do the same stupid things all over again in Iraq and Syria, but this time achieve some sort of unspecified “success.” In perhaps three years. Or something like that. In truth, he has lost his presidency, just as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon lost theirs, hoping against hope that he can kick the can on down the road so that the inevitable “losing” will happen on his successor’s watch, not on his. Nothing but pathetic political procrastination, with not a thought for the enormous waste of life and hope to come of it.

    I still have Bernard Fall’s book, along with several others just like it. But here in mid-2014, it appears that we have two-and-a-half years of Barack Obama’s new Iraq war ahead of us, even though the entire world has seen how we lost the previous two the day we started the bombing. I would find this depressing, but I’ve already gone through that phase of indentured helplessness. Now I just write vitriolic verse about the venal vermin who infest my nation’s thoroughly militarized government. They sure look like losers to me.

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  4. UPDATE.. Direct from the Liar in Chief (CIL), ‘we and our allies have bombed targets in Syria’.
    Well, that doesn’t quite square with the U.S. Central Command’s report which says only the US did the deed.

    Statement from Central command.
    ” Central Command said that separate bombing mission was undertaken solely by U.S. aircraft and took place west of the Syrian city of Aleppo. It said targets included training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communication building ,and command and control facilities.”

    And then to make perfectly clear that the CIL was playing loosely with the truth Central Command issued this statement
    ” Arab partners participated in or supported ” the airstrikes. But Central command was NOT more specific. Then of course are feckless Secy of State had this ambiguous statement to buttress Obama’s outright misstatement . ” Our Arab allies will do their share”. If Obama’s statement were the truth what was the need for Kerry to issue this ambiguous statement when Central Command had already claimed that the strikes were “solely by US aircraft”.
    WELCOME TO THE MADHATTER’S TEA PARTY!” Just remember that when you vote. They all think we are stupid. Let’s take seriously a totally different political direction, not the lesser of evils.

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    1. P.S. And let us add to this dismal performance of our illegal intrusion into the sovereign nation of Syria with absolutely no legal basis that our assault has killed at least ten (10) innocent civilians according to early reports. Will that win any hearts and minds other than from the other dicey insurgent groups who are eager to get part of that $500 million that the war hungry congress eagerly gave the CIL?

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