Monday, May 25, 2009

Vietnam and Iraq

History is vanished and forgotten. Sometimes intentionally, by ourselves (because we don't want to remember) or by the press (because they don't want us to), and sometimes unintentionally as a normal part of life. To be absorbed with every detail of yesterday is to not be living in today.

Vietnam is not Iraq, Iraq is not Vietnam. There are, however, similarities that can be illuminating both in terms of what has happened and might happen and in terms of how events are portrayed.

Thomas E. Ricks is a curious starting point for today and, as I grab the link, I see he wrote about Vietnam Friday. How appropriate. To make the comparisons and contrasts here, I told myself last night I was going to review Vietnam before I went to sleep and did just that throughout non-stop dreams (and Ricks popped up repeatedly). I then reviewed the basic points this morning with friends who reported on and in Vietnam back in the day to make sure the remembrances were correct.

Ricks is the author of The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq 2006-2008. And he was a journalist and he's now at a point that will determine his fate. Ricks is like those early US reporters sent to Vietnam -- he's against the Iraq War . . . as he sees it, its poorly fought and directed. Like that first wave, he's convinced he can tell them how to do it better. The first wave (in Vietnam) thought that as well. Some slowly grew out of that, some never did. But Ricks has now gone off to a think tank and promotes counter-insurgency because?

Is it helpful to Iraq, the country he claims to love? Hell no. He's not being a journalist. He's accepted goals defined by the US as goals for Iraq. Iraq is not one of the fifty states in the US. Iraq is not to be defined or determined by another nation.

Ricks offers that the choices are between counter-insurgency or a return to a hugely violent period which he wrongly labels as a "sectarian war" -- it's also wrongly labeled as a "civil war." The US had a civil war sometime ago. It was the North against the South and both sides were evenly matched and the North won.

Iraq didn't have a civil war or a sectarian war. Iraq had a cleansing. To call it a civil war or sectarian is to equate the government backed by the US with the US military and the US money as equal to Iraqis living in poverty.

Yes, the US backed the Shi'ites and, yes, the period was largely Shi'ite versus Sunni. But that wasn't a civil war at all. Nouri al-Maliki was installed by the US and he installed his cronies into posts. It's no surprise that the cleansing begins with his ascension to power. That's not an additional point, that is the starting point.

al-Maliki encouraged and ordered the cleansing. The Sunnis were under attack -- which is why some would team up with the US and why some now feel betrayed by the US -- and they responded. To call an effort to cleanse them of their country (and many became external refugees) a "civil war" is ridiculous. It would be the equivalent of rewriting Nazi Germany's history and saying there was a civil war between Nazis and Jews.

al-Maliki controlled everything. He had the power, he had the money, he had the police, he had the military. He installed one Shi'ite thug after another and gave everyone the green light to pursue Sunnis. His hostilities to all things Sunni is personal and psychological and he will pursue their demise as long as he is in power.

Ricks misunderstands what went down and terms it a civil war as if both sides were on equal footing and neither was the government. The US military brass also termed it a civil war. Of course, they would. If both sides were equal, the US could -- as it did -- stand on the sidelines. If a slaughter was taking place -- as it was -- the US was required, as the occupying power, to stop it.

Ricks maintains that Iraq War is far from over and you can find many examples in Vietnam that back him up. (I agree with Ricks that the illegal war is far from over.) What's most interesting in that regard is to listen to al-Maliki and his talk of conspiracies against him and to hear him and the US military brass bemoan that there's not better publicity. Ngo Dinh Diem was whining about the lack of good publicity early in Vietnam. He also regularly attacked the press. Often fueled by his buddy Joseph Kennedy and other US Catholics who backed Diem. He was always screaming for this Newsweek reporter or that New York Times reporter to be sent back to the States.

And JFK agreed with him -- and JFK wasn't ending Vietnam. As late as summer of 1963, he was ordering those working for him to convey to US reporters in Vietnam that their reporting could hurt his 1964 re-election efforts. As late as October 22, 1963, JFK was attempting to get Arthur Ochs Sulzberger to pull David Halberstam out of Vietnam and suggesting that Halberstam's reporting suffered from the reporter being "too involved" in the story. If that's news to you, you've ingested too much hagiography from Oliver Stone and The Nation magazine who both needed an omniscient and benevolent Daddy to believe in. Reality was noted somewhat by Pierre Salinger (after he left the administration) and you can also review JFK's dispatch of Joseph Alsop to Vietnam in the summer and fall of 1963 and Alsop's repeatedly attacking the press on those trips -- "young crusaders," he sneered dismissively at one point. And of course, where the government wanted an attack, propagandist Marguerite Higgins launched the missiles so you can check her snide attacks on the US press in Vietnam from her perch at the New York Herald Tribune. (Higgins, like others, would later do a turn around. While at the Herald Tribune, she saw herself in service of the government.)

The most important comparison and contrast between then and now is the "suicide bombers" in Iraq. When they're male, no one blinks an eye. When they're female, it's time to get in a tizzy and pathologize gender. One's considered, by press reaction, normal, the other beyond the pale and/or a perverse sexual thrill for those writing copy.

Thich Quang Duc famously took his own life on June 9, 1963. Two monks assisted him by pouring gasoline on him. He lit the match and burned himself alive. The monks and the nuns prevented authorities from coming forward to extinguish the fire.

The reporters were informed something was going to happen June 9th. They were encouraged to attend. Some blew it off because there had been several such promises in the lead up to the 9th and nothing happened.

His planned death could be seen as an act of violence. It certainly took place to send a message (hence the heads up to the press and to doing it in public). He did it primarily for religious reasons -- religious freedom. Buddhists were already being persecuted and then Diem decided that Buddhists would not be allowed to publicly celebrate the birth of Gautama Buddha despite Diem's having just flown Roman Catholic flags throughout Saigon. This sparked the Buddhist protests. The US military and press corps understimated religious conflicts in Vietnam and refused to see them as fueling any opposition. The same mistake has been repeatedly made with regards to Iraq.

Diem made a point to staff key positions with Catholics. Diem publicly stated Buddhists weren't to be trusted. Catholic Churches were allowed and encouraged to have militias. Change it to Shi'ite and Sunni and you see many similarities. There are more. Like al-Maliki, Diem was an exile. Like al-Maliki, Diem was US installed (by Eisenhower). Like al-Maliki, Diem's thugs used torture. Like al-Maliki, Diem's reign was marked by non-stop corruption.

But the strong comparison is the press. First, the top, then, the reporters.

The Status Of Forces Agreement was not binding. That is not something new. As soon as the White House published their version of it (Thanksgiving Day, 2008), it was no longer debatable. But the publishers and editors knew Barack, the incoming president, wanted more war in Afghanistan and they needed to redeploy resources. Which they did. And they refused to examine to examine the SOFA (one newspaper allowed one story to tell the realities of the SOFA, we noted that report in real time when it ran). The SOFA was used to give them the end credit to an ongoing movie. The US broadcast networks did the same.

They repeatedly LIED to the American people.

The fact that the SOFA is non-binding is no longer news or difficult to determine even in the media. But it was the justification in November to beging drawing down and withdrawing the press corps -- though not the military, never the military.

Publishers (and editors following publisher's dictates) and executives (in TV) made the decision that Iraq wasn't going to be a story anymore and they grabbed some ribbon, tied a bow and moved on.

But Iraq, like Vietnam, refuses to go away, refuses to play the role of the spurned mistress fading into the background.

Yet the media, at the top, continues to work overtime to ensure that Iraq receives little attention. "We just can't cover it," a news exec at ____ explained last week when I again pressed on the Green trial. Why not? Because they weren't supposed to emphasize Iraq on the evening news. The shooting in Baghdad a few weeks back? Yeah, they had to cover that, had to. Couldn't avoid it. But it was thought the Green case could be avoided.

And they got away with it.

They got away with it because the online world didn't give a damn. Didn't give a f**k. That was hilarious, watching the PUMA strand with their "We care about women!" nonsense ignore the story (after the verdict one noted it as "murders" because gang-rape isn't a PUMA issue) and watching the Cult of St. Barack ignore anything that didn't reflect well on Barry. There was no pressure on the networks which was why they could get away with it.

And forget our FAILED feminist 'leadership.' Kim Gandy's not doing s**t to put pressure on anybody. Her mission is to worship Barack.

Real pressure, real criticism, coming from all over the net might have forced them to cover news. Instead, the decision makers were done with Iraq and eager to enlist in Barack's Afghanistan 'surge'.

That's at the top.


First credit to reporters like Elisabeth Bumiller. She wasn't the unnamed reporter above. But Bumiller did follow that early lead and report some reality about Iraq 'withdrawal' in December (and after). It is amazing how Bumiller's reporting was ignored in real time and the same people who chose to ignore it now want to point to it and act like they were steering people to it back in December.

Second, reporters reporting from a war zone for the mainstream media are rarely uncensored. In Vietnam, US reporters were monitored by the Vietnamese and US authorites and today US reporters are monitored in Iraq by the US and Iraqi authorities. So they work in bits of truth more often than not. And when they do, I will applaud it because I do grasp that they're up against many obstacles.

A New York Times article recently noted once such gem, a single sentence of the daily bloodshed during the period wrongly termed 'civil war.' During the actual period, nothing that telling appeared in the Times.

Thomas E. Ricks, in long curls and playing viriginal, Mary Pickford at the end of her film career, showed up decrying "conspiracy theories" and that appearence in the dream was in relation to some blog post he had that community members e-mailed on, complaining about what a fool he was making of himself. He was making a fool of himself but I didn't have time to read it again (I believe it was his attack on, excuse me, his latest attack on Like Little Mary Pickford at the end (well over thirty), he was playing the fool in public. Of course, things are kept from the public and everyone knows that. Everyone knows that because it happens in every war. You have to be an ahistorical idiot to expect otherwise. Or Thomas with long ringlets running down his back.

Thomas is actually the next group of reporters. Very talented ones. Ones who managed to get a little truth into their reporting. Ones willing to fight for that. Ones who observed the mess that the illegal war is.

And that's how he's like many of the early US reporters in Vietnam. And that's why his choices in the immediate future will determine his future. If you see someone struggling with opening a jar, your impulse is to reach over and open it for them. The impulse is a natural response. It's not at all surprising that reporters on the ground in Iraq would have that impulse. It's not surprising that they might write about it.

But there's a difference between that and enlisting in the US government. Thomas E. Ricks has repeatedly and rightly noted that it is not his job to report what others want, it's his job to report what happens.

But how likely is that to happen when he's now enlisted in promoting counter-insurgency?

Ricks doesn't understand the first thing about counter-insurgency. He knows nothing of either its ethical roots or its historical ones. He thinks he knows that it "works" and he thinks he knows that its better than the violence (and response) caused by al-Maliki's terrorization of the public. In fact, Ricks' endorsement of counter-insurgency, whether he grasps it or not, is the best proof that there was not a civil war in Iraq. Counter-insurgency is an attack on the people by the powerful. And that is what the phase in Iraq wrongly termed a civil war was as well.

But its what his friends at his security foundation endorse and its what he endorses. At some point in the near future, he's going to have to determine whether he's a journalist or not. A journalist doesn't do p.r. or government work. The first wave of US reporters in Vietnam were wrongly caught up in thinking the answer to the mistakes was for the US to improve tactics, not for the US to withdrawal. What would happen, they wondered, if the US withdrew?

If it sounds familiar, you may be recalling Ricks making similar remarks.

If Ricks is correct (I believe he is) about the Iraq War being far from over, he's going to have to take accountability at some point for the deaths because he continues to argue against a US withdrawal.

In 1962 or 1963, the US could have withdrawn and should have withdrawn from Vietnam. As late as 1965 and 1966, some reporters were insisting there could be no withdrawal. They would regret that. Some would have time to fix their mistakes, some wouldn't. Vietnam was always imperial powers installing puppet goverments and never a civil war. The same is true of Iraq. It will likely be messy and bloody when the US leaves Iraq. That's a prediciton, but it's likely to happen. The US remaining will be messy and bloody. The US being in Iraq has been bloody.

If a country has a right to self-determination, and democracies are supposed to believe that they do, then the US had no business in Vietnam and has no business in Iraq.

Ricks has made the same repeated mistakes originally made by many US reporters in Vietnam, confusing US goals with their own, taking US goals as the measurement and tailoring their reporting to fit that. The are ethics, real ethics, real means of measurement, which do not change over time. And a reporter's job is to use those, a propagandist's job is to constantly put events through a governmental prism.

There were about thirty other main details but when I read the above to friends for input, they asked that one section or another be expanded (thanks for all the input). We'll close by noting reporters need to be very careful because their actions have not only immediate consequences but long lasting ones. Take another Washington Post reporter, Ward Just. Just's embarrassing To What End, Report from Vietnam was much loved by the son of one US officer stationed in Vietnam who grew up to work in the Pentagon and cited the book as he began the campaign (in late 2001) for the embed program to be used in Iraq. The sections on "eat C rations" was in the most of the recommendations forwarded up throught he chain. Just is a novelist today and it's no credit to his journalism career that he'll be forever be footnoted as an unknowing advocate of the embed program.

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thomas e. ricks
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