Monday, January 31, 2005


surrealism goes to war

There he goes again. Christopher Hitchens, the man who put the ‘con’ in neocon, is using Mobius-strip logic, misstatements, and vituperation in another vain attempt to defend the Iraqi war policy of his mentor, Paul Wolfowitz. I thought I had finished with Hitchens in my last piece on him, and invective's more his specialty than mine. But I’m getting sick of being called a Baathist or jihadist supporter because I oppose a bloody, counterproductive war and its mendacious architects. His piece cites Monty Python and that’s appropriate, because it is Pythonesque in its surrealist absurdity. So, Chris, here’s my open letter to you. Actually, it’s more of an editorial note. I’ll go through the piece line by line, because – well, to be honest, it still needs a lot of work.


Dear Chris:

Just read your latest Slate piece on Iraq. The great thing about the Internet is you can go back in and make revisions if you find there are problems. Unfortunately, this piece has plenty. Let’s go through it together, and maybe we can clear a few things up. You did a lot of great work back in the day. Maybe I can pay back the debt by lending a hand now.

There it was again, across half a page of the New York Times last Saturday, just as Iraqis and Kurds were nerving themselves to vote. "Flashback to the 60's: A Sinking Sensation of Parallels Between Iraq and Vietnam."

Do you think the Iraqis and Kurds were reading the Times that day? If so, why lead with this?

The basis for the story, which featured a number of experts as lugubrious as they were imprecise, was the suggestion that South Vietnam had held an election in September 1967, and that this propaganda event had not staved off ultimate disaster.

“As lugubrious as they are imprecise.” That reminds me of … oh, forget it. shall we continue?

I can't quite tell why this article was not printed on the day before the Afghan or Palestinian elections, or at any of the times when Iranian voters overwhelmingly chose reform candidates but were thwarted by the entrenched reserve strength of the theocracy.

Well, Chris, it's because we didn’t go to war to make the Palestinian or Iranian elections happen. So no war critic, however "lugubrious,"would draw a parallel with Vietnam. You’re making a false argument here. With Afghanistan, maybe it's because there was a rationale for the war that was both rational and honestly presented. And, by the way... maybe there is a parallel.

But perhaps now is the moment to state the critical reasons why there is no reasonable parallel of any sort between Iraq and Vietnam.

"Perhaps now"? Are you going to debate your timing with the reader? Yes, Chris, now would be fine.

(to continue click on "Permalink Page" below)

To begin with, Vietnam had been undergoing a protracted struggle for independence since before World War II and had sustained this struggle militarily and politically against the French empire, the Japanese empire, and then after 1945 the French empire again. By 1954, at the epic battle of Dien Bien Phu, the forces of Ho Chi Minh and Gen. Giap had effectively decided matters on the battlefield, and President Eisenhower himself had conceded that Ho would have won any possible all-Vietnamese election. The distortions of the Cold War led the United States to take over where French colonialism had left off, to assist in partitioning the country, and to undertake a war that had already been lost.

Lengthy and off-point – lose it. While it’s ample demonstration of your emotional attachment to the Vietnamese struggle, one I actually find somewhat moving, it’s a non sequitur. Iraqis also do not speak Vietnamese or practice the Buddhist religion, Vietnam is near neither the Tigris nor the Euphrates, and the national flags use different colors. So?

Whatever the monstrosities of Asian communism may have been …

Chris, Chris, Chris! Would you ever allow it to pass unremarked if an Iraq war opponent began a paragraph with, “Whatever the monstrosities of Saddam’s regime may have been …”?? Sounds like moral relativism mixed with a desperate attempt to structure a winning argument.

… Ho Chi Minh based his declaration of Vietnamese independence on a direct emulation of the words of Thomas Jefferson and was able to attract many non-Marxist nationalists to his camp.

You’re undercutting your own argument. Saddam was able to attract Iyad Allawi to his "camp," remember? Yet we selected and supported Allawi. In fact, Saddam was also able to attract Ronald Reagan and Donald Rumsfeld to his "camp"! You’ve seen the photo. You know Rumsfeld, of course – he’s the guy who employs your man in Washington, Paul Wolfowitz.

Why do I say Wolfowitz is “your man”? Perhaps I’m thinking of this quote from your radio debate with Tariq Ali, in answer to his question about whether you are a neoconservative: “I would say I was a supporter of Paul Wolfowitz, though, if you want that answer from me.

He had, moreover, been an ally of the West in the war against Japan.

And Saddam had been an ally of the US in the war against Iran, with the support of the Defense Department in which Wolfowitz then served. And, let’s see, you support Wolfowitz, right?

Nothing under this heading can be said of the Iraqi Baathists or jihadists, who are descended from those who angrily took the other side in the war against the Axis…

Is genealogy now a reason to declare war? Look out, Silvio Berlusconi, Hitchens is coming! I suggest you leave guilt by ancestry out of your future polemics. It reeks of eugenics, with a little Hutter Gibson thrown in on the side.

… and who opposed elections on principle. If today's Iraqi "insurgents" have any analogue at all in Southeast Asia it would be the Khmer Rouge.

A pretty decent analogy, but - unfortunately for your argument - one that reinforces the parallel the article draws. The Khmer Rouge were the enemy of the Vietnamese whose government we were placing in power through US-sponsored elections, and of the Cambodian royalty we supported. I’m sure those “experts” you’re castigating appreciate the help, though.

Vietnam as a state had not invaded any neighbor (even if it did infringe the neutrality of Cambodia) …

Oh, that little thing!

… and did not do so until after the withdrawal of the United States when, with at least some claim to self-defense, it overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime. Contrast this, even briefly, to the record of Saddam Hussein in relation to Iran and Kuwait.

The war you support, Chris, was not in response to any invasion. And again, the US encouraged Iraq against Iran.

Vietnam had not languished under international sanctions for its brazen contempt for international law, nor for its building or acquisition, let alone its use of, weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq had dismantled its weapons of mass destruction prior to our invasion - a fact known to weapons inspectors and therefore our own decision-makers at the time. Thanks for the reminder that we are spending hundreds of billions of dollars, and the lives of our young people, under false pretenses. Glad you still think the war’s a good idea, though – that must be such a comfort to those Gold Star Mothers.

Vietnam had never attempted, in whole or in part, to commit genocide, as was the case with the documented "Anfal" campaign waged by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds.

A horrible and despicable act – like all decent human beings, I’m outraged by it. Unfortunately, Anfal would have been more difficult without the relaxed posture the Reagan Administration took toward Saddam in the 80’s. Did I mention that Paul Wolfowitz served in that Administration? And that you referred to yourself as a Wolfowitz supporter? I didn’t want to leave that out.

In Vietnam the deep-rooted Communist Party was against the partition of the country and against the American intervention. It called for a boycott of any election that was not an all-Vietnam affair. In Iraq, the deep-rooted Communist Party is in favor of the regime change and has been an enthusiastic participant in the elections as well as an opponent of any attempt to divide the country on ethnic or confessional lines. (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is not even an Iraqi, hates the Kurds and considers the religion of most Iraqis to be a detestable heresy: not a mistake that even the most inexperienced Viet Cong commander would have been likely to make.)

Chris, now you're cut-and-pasting the data in true Brion Gysin fashion - interesting, but not coherent. That is to say, the Communist Party was the party waging revolution in Vietnam, and later the government, whereas it’s a marginal movement in Iraq. It is the oldest political party in that country, which is the germ of truth on which you base this otherwise random-seeming association, but to equate the two in this context is meaningless.

Re Zarqawi – sure, he considers the religion of most Iraqis a heresy. If that's a tactical mistake, he will not succeed. He is one of many leaders in a disorganized and decentralized insurgency. There aren't very many people who think he is in an equivalent role to a Viet Cong commander, so ... your point? Zarqawi interprets the Quran differently than other Iraqis. Ho Chi Minh thought the political views of the peasant class were incorrect. Bush thinks most of us – including you and me – will be left behind in the Rapture. This is all sleight-of-hand stuff, immaterial to the issue we’re discussing.

No car bomb or hijacking or suicide-bombing or comparable atrocity was ever committed by the Vietnamese, on American or any other foreign soil. Nor has any wanted international gangster or murderer ever been sheltered in Vietnam.

No car bomb or hijacking or suicide-bombing or comparable atrocity was ever committed by the Iraqis on American soil, either. And the notion that Saddam sheltered terrorists spread in part because al Qaeda activity allegedly took place in Iraq –but in territory controlled by the Kurds whose cause you advocate, not by Saddam. Other than that, there is no basis for this allegation. It doesn't serve your argument, except to put me in the creepy position of appearing to defend the Butcher of Baghdad by forcing me to set the record straight about another false justification for this wasteful war.

American generals and policymakers could never agree as to whether the guerrillas in Vietnam were self-supporting or were sustained from the outside (namely the northern half of their own country) ... it was certainly true that Hanoi, and the southern rebels, were regularly resupplied not by minor regional potentates but by serious superpowers ... The Iraqi "insurgents" are based among a minority of a minority, and are localized geographically, and have no steady source of external supply. Here the better comparison would be with the dogmatic Communists in Malaya in the 1940s, organized principally among the Chinese minority ... But even the die-hard Malayan Stalinists had a concept of "people's war" and a brave record in fighting Japanese imperialism. The Iraqi "insurgents" are dismal riff-raff by comparison.

Is that why we’re winning so handily? A long digression indeed. Your shout-out to Malayan Stalinists is interesting, though.

Where it is not augmented by depraved Bin Ladenist imports, the leadership and structure of the Iraqi "insurgency" is formed from the elements of an already fallen regime, extensively discredited and detested in its own country and universally condemned.

These “dismal riff-raff” have “leadership and structure”? It seems you ascribe an organizational sophistication to them that does not exist in fact. Intelligence from the field suggests many rag-tag independent groups are at work. What’s more, the theory that the insurgency is being led by former Baathists is widely discredited. Certainly many former Baath Army members are participating in the revolt, since the Army was disbanded under your friend Wolfowitz’s management – a move now widely accepted to have been a major blunder. Oh, wait – you discuss that below, and create another trap for yourself. Hang on for a paragraph or two and we’ll get there …

This could not be said of Ho Chin Minh or of the leaders and cadres of the National Liberation Front.

The option of accepting a unified and Communist Vietnam, which would have evolved toward some form of market liberalism even faster than China has since done, (really??) always existed. It was not until President Kennedy decided to make a stand there, in revenge for the reverses he had suffered in Cuba and Berlin, that quagmire became inevitable. The option of leaving Iraq to whatever successor regime might arise or be imposed does not look half so appetizing. One cannot quite see a round-table negotiation in Paris with Bin Laden or Zarqawi or Moqtada Sadr, nor a gradually negotiated hand-over to such people after a decent interval.

See? That didn't take long. You’ve just contradicted your statement above, that the “leadership and structure of the Iraqi "insurgency" is formed from the elements of an already fallen regime.” Neither Bin Laden, Zarqawi, nor Moqtada Sadr were members of the former regime, yet it would certainly be the “leadership and structure” of the insurgency that would take power under your scenario.

Try to leave at least three paragraphs between your contradictions next time. (We’ll let the psycho-historical fantasia about Kennedy’s motives pass for the moment – although I was waiting for you to complete that list of his motives with “and his inability to sustain an erection.”)

In Vietnam, the most appalling excesses were committed by U.S. forces. … The worst atrocities--free-fire zones, carpet-bombing, forced relocation, and chemical defoliation--were committed as a direct consequence of orders from above. In Iraq, the crimes of mass killing, aerial bombardment, ethnic deportation, and scorched earth had already been committed by the ruling Baath Party, everywhere from northern Kurdistan to the drained and burned-out wetlands of the southern marshes. Coalition forces in Iraq have done what they can to repair some of this state-sponsored vandalism.

10,000-20,000 civilian deaths. Don’t they count? Massive damage to infrastructure caused by US bombings. Doesn’t that count? Or is that considered "repair"? Fallujah was subject to very rigorous bombing - or would that be "state-sponsored vandalism"?

In Vietnam, the United States relied too much on a pre-existing military caste that often changed the local administration by means of a few tanks around the presidential palace. In the instance of Iraq, the provisional government was criticized, perhaps more than for any other decision, for disbanding the armed forces of the ancien regime, and for declining to use a proxy army as the United States had previously done in Indonesia, Chile, El Salvador, and Greece. Unlike the South Vietnamese, the Iraqi forces are being recruited from scratch.

Yeah – and look how well it’s going. All 7,000 of them.

In Vietnam, the policy of the United States was--especially during the Kennedy years--a sectarian one that favored the Roman Catholic minority. In Iraq, it is obvious even to the coldest eye that the administration is if anything too anxious to compose religious differences without any reference to confessional bias.

Although an election without much Sunni participation is just fine, apparently. One should exclude “confessional bias” when composing a government, but it’s apparently acceptable to form one based on a difference in doctrine regarding the infallibility of the martyred Caliph Ali.

I suppose it's obvious that I was not a supporter of the Vietnam War. Indeed, the principles of the antiwar movement of that epoch still mean a good deal to me. That's why I retch every time I hear these principles recycled, by narrow minds or in a shallow manner, in order to pass off third-rate excuses for Baathism or jihadism.

I was not a supporter of the Vietnam War either. That’s why I “retch” every time I hear both decency and logic distorted into such topological shapes by someone who – obscenity of obscenities – tries to equate opposition of this war with “third-rate excuses for Baathism or jihadism.” Chris, despite the fact that your pal Wolfowitz and his group won’t intervene in Darfur, I don’t consider them apologists for raping women after their children are murdered before their eyes. So don’t make morally equivalent statements about me or those who agree with me about Iraq.

A friendly suggestion from a fellow Vietnam War opponent: Lose the vicious and hysterical rhetoric, pal – it’s beneath even you. Otherwise, it would be more apt for me to say that this piece is a fourth-rate excuse for the death of innocent civilians and the further degradation of US security in the Mideast and at home.

But one must also be capable of being offended objectively. The Vietnam/Iraq babble is, from any point of view, a busted flush. It's no good. It's a stiff. It's passed on. It has ceased to be.

Yeah, yeah, we get it. It is no more. It hath joined the choir invisible. We know it's a Monty Python reference. The rest of the paragraph is unclear, though, Chris. You say "one must be capable of being offended objectively": Are you offended, or not? If not, why not? Tighten up here. One’s writing must be capable of being comprehended - objectively.

In closing, Chris, even the "dead parrot" quotes don’t excuse this vituperative, illogical chicanery. A better Python analogue for this piece would be the “how to defend yourself against fresh fruit” routine. Remember? “But we’re not being attacked by fresh fruit,” the baffled students would reply when John Cleese brought out the banana, or apple, or orange. They would try to make him understand what the real dangers were, but he wouldn’t listen. Instead he’d attack them with increasing shrillness for their simple and reasonable act of objection. He kept getting more and more vicious, until in the end he was left alone in a room full of corpses.

But, Chris, that was just a comedy routine.

Best wishes for the New Year,

RJ Eskow