by Christopher Bassford

Newsday, 16 November 1990

Drawing by Anthony D'Adamo

It is a commonplace that generals usually prepare their armies to fight the last war. It is less frequently noticed, but just as often true, that peace movements usually set out to prevent the last war. Either approach can be deadly dangerous. French generals who remembered Verdun brought us the Maginot line. Pacifist politicians who remembered 1914 brought us Munich.

Today's protesters are running true to form, warning in shrill voices that war with Iraq will be "another Vietnam." However, beyond the most basic fact of war--that a great many people will die--it is hard to find any point of similarity between the two conflicts.

First of all, combat between UN forces and Iraq will bear no resemblance to a war in the jungles of Indochina. The terrain, Saddam's mechanized army, and Iraq's demographics weigh heavily against any conflict degenerating into an indecisive guerrilla war. There can be no "Ho Chi Minh trails" in the open desert. There are no hordes of local peasants who can be dragooned into repairing the transportation routes after each day's bombing as in the Korean war. Technological advances mean night no longer offers enemy supply columns a respite from air attack. Iraq's huge army, containing an absurdly large percentage of the Iraqi population, will find it extremely difficult to get the food, fuel, and water it needs simply to sustain itself in Kuwait.

In fact, it is difficult to see how a war, however bloody, could be protracted. Vietnam, a nation of 55 million people with no significant industrial resources of its own, waged war supported by the entire communist bloc. Iraq, a nation of 17 million also lacking much industry, will wage war with no support from anyone.

Seeking other parallels with the Vietnam debacle, some in the antiwar movement have tried to equate America's volunteer soldiers with Vietnam-era draftees. In this view, volunteers are "economic conscripts," the dregs of society forced by poverty to fight a rich man's war they are too ignorant to comprehend. That is patently ridiculous: Today's volunteer Army recruits are 95 per cent high-school graduates, commanded entirely by college graduates. To see and listen to the soldiers in Saudi Arabia is to realize that they are not from the underclass. They are certainly no more expendable than draftees, but they have voluntarily taken an oath they are perfectly able to understand.

Despite the fantasies of a few Marxist college professors, who called the Vietnam War a case of "capitalist imperialism," America had no real economic objective in Vietnam. Again, Iraq is a different case. Many of today's protesters decry a "war for the oil companies," but the oil barons have no particular interest in a war to increase the oil supply and depress prices. This accusation reveals an adolescent belief that economics are solely the concern of the rich. In reality, a world economic crisis triggered by Saddam's aggression--and his whole purpose in seizing Kuwait was to restrict oil production and drive up the price--means little to the wealthy. They will still be able to drive their Mercedes. For the rest of us, however, it means plenty. It means mass unemployment and mass misery. For the third world, it means less money available for humanitarian assistance, more starving millions, more babies growing up blind from vitamin deficiencies. It may mean economic collapse and political disaster in the struggling post-Communist East. Ultimately it means more wars. It is, after all, no coincidence that World War II was preceded by an economic depression. Prosperity may well be something worth shedding blood to preserve.

Vietnam was a hot-spot in the Cold War, an ideological struggle between two superpowers in which the Vietnamese were largely victims. There is no ideological point at issue now. Iraq, the victim of no one except its own homicidal leader, is an outlaw nation that started a senseless, bloody war against Iran and has now brutally seized an independent state. It has used chemical weapons against not only foreign enemies but its own people as well. Iraq now seeks to build nuclear weapons, and our experience with Saddam Hussein offers us no reason to think he will not use them.

What is actually at stake is the tangible promise of world peace offered by the collapse of Communism. If America shoulders a greater burden than others, it is in the service of its own ideals and the very highest hopes and aspirations of mankind, embodied in the United Nations' Charter. For once the world stands behind us, and an impressive number and variety of other nations have ranged their own troops next to ours.

Objections to an American military presence in the Gulf based on the Vietnam simile are thus entirely unjustified. This is probably irrelevant to the current protesters, however. When CNN managed to hunt down two student protest organizers to represent the dissenting view, their central complaint was that every dollar spent in the Gulf meant less student aid for themselves. Ron ("Born on the Fourth of July") Kovic is simply obsessed with his own war injuries; he expresses no concern for the agony of the Kuwaiti people, for the crimes committed by Saddam Hussein against the Iraqis themselves, for the threat to world peace and prosperity. Much opposition to American action in support of the UN is stated in the despicable terms of resisting a "Jewish conspiracy."

The Vietnam-era antiwar movement had a claim on the moral high ground and a vision of a better world. Its 1990s successor seems to be motivated by nothing more respectable than shameless self-preoccupation and naked fear. These are not the things America used to stand for.

As usual, the peace movement is preparing to stop the wrong war. Iraq is not Vietnam. The question is, is America still America?