The 'Vietnam syndrome' is alive and well
By Barry Sheppard
The end of the air war against Yugoslavia was met by a subdued response from the US people. There was no feeling of celebration as there was when the 1991 Gulf War ended. The Gulf War was a ground war, but so brief and one-sided in its slaughter of Iraqis that there were very few US casualties. That was the reason for the public relief.
Clinton attempted to rouse some feelings of patriotism in a televised speech in which he claimed a "victory" in the US-led NATO destruction of much of the infrastructure of Yugoslavia and Kosova. A poll reported in the New York Times found that less than half agreed with him. I've seen very few letters to the editor in the press expressing opinions one way or the other, so the minority who agreed with Clinton isn't very charged up over the matter.
Another indication of the mood in the US was the fact that many pundits in the daily press rejected the claim of victory. What, exactly, was won?
Here are some of the factors I think are behind this response.
There was sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of Kosovars who were seen nightly on TV streaming out of the country, of course. But the bombing obviously didn't protect them. Probably, most people in the US feel positive about the fact that many refugees can now go back, but Kosova has been devastated, both by the NATO bombing of its roads, bridges, power stations, and so on, and by the Serbian attack.
It is also not at all clear how long NATO and US troops will be in Kosova. Far from winning self-determination for the Kosovars, the war has created a "United Nations" regime over them, which is just a cover for the occupation by NATO. It is not clear to the US people just where all this will lead.
Moreover, it became increasingly apparent as the NATO campaign progressed that it was aimed at the Serbian people. US television carried reports of the bombing of apartments, houses, hospitals and even Kosovar refugees. The smashing of Yugoslavia's water supply, electricity, TV stations, oil refineries, etc. put the lie to Clinton's assertion that he had no quarrel with the Serbian people. Most people in the US were not in favour of destroying Yugoslavia.
"Mistakes" like the bombing of the Chinese embassy, with the hard-to-believe excuse that the CIA used an old map, became routine. As well, tensions not only with China but with Russia have been exacerbated. Ordinary people in the US are not thrilled by these developments concerning the two nuclear powers.
Underneath these doubts lies a scepticism about the US waging war abroad, sometimes called the "Vietnam syndrome" because of the public reaction towards that war.
In this war, the scepticism didn't surface in large demonstrations. The two biggest actions were held in Washington and San Francisco on June 5. They drew thousands, but the turnout was dampened but the reaching of an agreement a few days before to end the bombing.
Another factor was that the broad left was divided about the war. There was a debate among writers for the left-liberal Nation magazine, for example. Some supported the war, comparing Slobodan Milosevic to Adolf Hitler and his ethnic cleansing campaigns to the Holocaust against European Jewry. But however despicable the national oppression the regime in Yugoslavia has inflicted, Yugoslavia is not a fascist state and the regime's campaigns cannot be equated with the Holocaust in either scale or intent. Hitler intended to destroy physically a whole people, not just drive them out of their countries.
Moreover, these left-liberals were taken in by the Clinton administration's propaganda about this war being waged solely for humanitarian purposes. Washington, London, Berlin, Paris and all the rest have not waged wars for humanitarian or progressive reasons for well over a century. The last time any one of them was involved in a progressive war was when the north fought the slavocracy in the American Civil War.
Some of the liberals writing for daily papers were the most vociferous supporters of the war, urging that ground troops be sent in and that an invasion and occupation of all of Yugoslavia be carried out.
As the bombing progressed and the "mistakes" multiplied, and as it became clearer that NATO was targeting the economic infrastructure of Yugoslavia, a majority on the Nation finally came out against the war. If the war had continued, we would likely have seen others begin to do the same.
In this war, the Vietnam syndrome was expressed in the way the war was conducted. Clinton and the Pentagon were in dread of using troops on the ground because they feared what the public reaction would be to US casualties, which would certainly have occurred in large numbers in a ground war. So they more and more targeted the civilian population of Yugoslavia, and literally beat much of the country flat so that Milosevic agreed to a NATO occupation of Kosova without a fight. That was the "victory" Clinton was talking about.
In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the then US president, George Bush, declared that the "Vietnam syndrome" was over. He was wrong. The celebratory mood then didn't signal that the US people were now ready to sacrifice their sons and daughters in wars like the Vietnam War — quite the opposite.
Bush knew this of course; that's why he stopped short of invading and occupying Iraq. If he had tried to do that, there would have been massive Iraqi resistance, many body bags returning home and a consequent growth of antiwar sentiment in the US.
But this time, there was no massing of US troops and no feeling among most US people that the lives of GIs were in danger, as there had been during the Gulf War. There was undoubtedly relief that the thing was over, but no up-swelling of patriotic pro-war sentiment.