More troops: echoes of Vietnam

March 2, 2005

Pip Hinman

US President George Bush has been desperately doing the rounds in Europe in a bid to shore up a shrinking multinational occupation force in Iraq. So many countries have pulled out — the Netherlands being the latest to declare its withdrawal — that heavy pressure is on the coalition partners to cough up more troops to fill the gaps.

Bush's super-loyal ally Australian Prime Minister John Howard announced on February 22 that his government would double the number of Australian troops in Iraq by sending an extra 450. Howard denied that Washington had requested his help. The request came from Japan and Britain, motivated by the need to compensate for the 1400 troops the Netherlands is pulling out after considerable domestic opposition.

On February 24, the National Council of Churches in Australia criticised the troop increase, describing it as a "backward step". "It sends the wrong signal to the Iraqi people and to many others in the Middle East and wider world, and compounds the many errors perpetrated by the so-called 'coalition of the willing' in Iraq", said NCC spokesperson Dr Jon Inkpin.

Telephone and website polls also show majorities oppose the troop increase. A Channel Ten telephone poll of 17,000 people on February 23 showed 71% were opposed, as did a Sydney Morning Herald online poll of 20,000 on February 25. A survey by Sky television found 69% of people believed the government was pushed by the United States to send the extra troops.

A chief of staff commander of Australian troops in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, retired Major-General Alan Stretton warned that Australia risked being bogged down in another long and costly war. Interviewed by right-wing shock-jock John Laws on February 24, Stretton said Australia should not have been involved in Iraq in the first place as there were no weapons of mass destruction there and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had no links with al Qaeda.

"All we are doing is reinforcing disaster. I just cannot understand it", he told Laws. "You would have noticed the prime minister use a new word ... tilting. That is the same as the graduated response in Vietnam. In other words you just put a bit more in to stop it tilting the wrong way. It will end up exactly the same way. The whole thing is flawed strategy."

The 450 cavalry, infantry and training troops are to provide protection for Japanese engineers working in southern Iraq. They will be there in nine weeks.

Howard said that the troops were needed "to help reconstruct Iraq" and to "support democracy" there. However, Howard's description of Iraq as being at "tilting point" is a disingenuous way of describing the quagmire that the US-led occupation forces are in.

Currently, most of Australia's 950 troops in and around Iraq are in non-combat positions: they were protecting diplomatic staff (who have since moved into the heavily fortified Green Zone); or are stationed on naval vessels in the Persian Gulf; or are involved in training Iraqi police and security. To date, only one Australian soldier has been killed in Iraq.

Howard indicated on the ABC's February 23 Lateline program that he had started to reconsider the question of Australia's troop numbers after the "overwhelming success" of Iraqi elections. Others have pointed out that his own re-election victory, in which the debate over the Iraq war was sidelined, would also have influenced his decision.

Anti-war movement

Australians were overwhelmingly opposed to the invasion of the Iraq, but, when the huge February 14-16, 2003, demonstrations failed to stop the invasion, a big section of the anti-war movement retreated.

A Quantum Market Research poll conducted on February 22-23 found that most Australians aren't happy with involvement in the Iraq war, although they were "pragmatic" about it.

Apart from the fact that only one Australian soldier has been killed in Iraq (in the US and Britain the mounting death toll is one factor galvinising the anti-war movement), one reason for the anti-war movement's retreat in Australia is the reluctance of the movement's traditional institutional components — the trade unions and churches — to generate the necessary pressure on the government, and opposition.

The Greens have been the only parliamentary party to maintain the call for all Australian troops to come home. Greens Senator Bob Brown criticised the extra troop announcement on February 22, and referred to the real intent of the Iraqi vote: "The winning coalition in the January Iraq elections campaigned strongly on a platform of getting occupation forces out of Iraq."

ALP role

The big pressure to retreat comes from the Australian Labor Party leadership, which, while it opposed the war before the invasion, has an ambiguous position on the occupation. Former Labor leader Mark Latham's March 2004 call for the troops be brought home by Christmas 2004 seemed to catch most of his party by surprise. In the end, the ALP didn't seriously campaign to bring the troops home during the federal election campaign, preferring to downplay the whole question of Iraq.

While the current ALP leader, Kim Beazley, has criticised the extra troop deployment, he still believes there is a role for Australian troops in Iraq.

On February 20, Beazley told ABC Radio: "We say the sailors and airmen stay. We say in Iraq itself the soldiers who are protecting our diplomats — they should stay.

"We say that the soldiers who are currently doing logistics, planning and the like for the coalition perhaps should do that for the United Nations to encourage them to stay and make a contribution.

"The rest the government ought to be pulling out."

On February 22, Beazley said that Australia should have rejected requests from Japan and Britain to boost Australia's military presence in Iraq, and that Howard hadn't been honest with the Australian public. He also said that he understood why other countries were withdrawing troops from Iraq.

Beazley also criticised the Coalition government for not having an "exit strategy". "The future of Iraq now needs to be resolved by Iraqis", he said, adding that other countries "involved in the occupation effort are arriving at the same conclusion".

Beazley went on to argue that priorities for Australian defence are in the South East Asian region and, in relation to the so-called war on terror, "we have unique contributions to make in that struggle in the region around us".

Another Vietnam?

A Gallup poll published on January 12 showed that 50% of the US public believes it was a mistake to send US troops to Iraq. The poll also showed that 56% disapprove of the way Bush is handling the war, up from 51% last November.

Interestingly, Gallup also provided results of past polls showing how the public viewed the Vietnam War while it was still underway, and contrasting this with the recent poll on Iraq.

It showed that the share of US citizens who believed it was a mistake to send troops to Vietnam did not reach 50% until August 1968, three years into the heavy US troop involvement in Vietnam. By contrast, the same level of criticism of the deployment of troops to Iraq has come one year earlier.

This sort of data is important to revisit because it shows that the massive dissent to the war in Iraq has built up more quickly than did opposition to the Vietnam War. This indicates that people are concerned, and angry, and that the movement to stop the war has huge potential.

Turning this widespread dissent from being largely passive into something the "coalition of the willing" governments cannot afford to ignore is something the anti-war movement is grappling with now. In Australia, the situation is difficult. But the prospect of more Australians being killed in combat in Iraq is likely to change things.

International protests are being organised for March 18-20, the second anniversary of the invasion. Across Australia, anti-war coalitions, local peace groups and students are organising "troops out" rallies and actions to mark this day, and send a clear message to the Howard government that it doesn't speak for us.

Now's the time for the movement to do what it can to convert the large passive opposition to the Iraq war to active opposition, making it a "tilting point" in favour of peace.

[Pip Hinman is an activist in the Sydney Stop the War Coalition and is a national co-convenor of Socialist Alliance's anti-war working group.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 2, 2005.
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