End of the Vietnam syndrome?

March 20, 1991

Editorial: End of the Vietnam syndrome?

"It is my hope that when this is over, we will have kicked once and for all the so-called Vietnam syndrome", said George Bush as he strolled along a Maine beach just before the land war against Iraq began. He'd just come from a church service which had been interrupted by a lone but vocal antiwar protester. His security guards took care of the protester, but the political force he symbolised continued to irritate the president.

The rapid military victory and Bush's high approval ratings in opinion polls have led to claims that the Vietnam syndrome is dead. The people of the US are again happy to accept participation in foreign wars, it's said.

Professor Robert Dallek of the University of California described the Gulf War as "Vietnam revisited as it should have been — Vietnam, the Movie, Part II, and this time it comes out right".

Undoubtedly, the antiwar movements which rose in the US and other countries with an unprecedented rapidity and brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets did suffer a shock when the war ended so suddenly and decisively. But the two main antiwar coalitions in the US persevered with organising a joint national protest on March 16 to "Bring the troops home" and for no US bases in the Middle East. There is a similar willingness to carry on in most cities in Australia.

But a warning that it may be too early to pronounce the Vietnam syndrome dead and buried comes from an unusual source — an editorial of the rampantly pro-imperialist British Economist.

First, the editorial noted, very few of the US's potential opponents in war will wear hats as black as Saddam Hussein's, or so obviously break international laws and standards of humanity. Many US allies fit that label, but the Economist didn't mention that.

Second, the US is unlikely to find a war better suited to its fighting capabilities: one on a desert plain offering no refuge to the enemy and against feeble air defences. In order to gain its quick victory, it had to use 75% of its tactical aircraft, 42% of its modern battle tanks, 46% of its Marines, 37% of its army and 46% of its carrier fleet. In addition, it had the support of the armed forces of several other nations. All this to defeat a nation with the GNP of Portugal, weakened by a six-month-long total economic blockade. With higher US casualties, the war would have provoked a very different reaction at home.

Third, not every war is going to be bankrolled by the world's most oil-rich nation state and the two other leading industrial nations, Japan and Germany. With serious economic problems at home, an expensive war is a political liability.

Fourth, the US enjoyed an unusual degree of international cooperation as a result of Saddam's repugnant human rights record and his legally unacceptable invasion of Kuwait. Likely challengers to US might will learn from Saddam's reckless adventurism. US response in the lead-up to war was also a major factor. After Bush's rejection of the later Soviet peace initiatives, such cooperation may not be so easily obtained in future wars.

All these are good reasons to presume that the antiwar movement still poses a major problem for the biggest imperialist state. There is mounting evidence that Bush pressed ahead with the land war even when it became clear that Iraq was prepared to abide by every demand made by the UN because he knew that here was an exceptionally easy victory. Really defeating the Vietnam syndrome may prove another matter.

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