So you think you’ve heard all the analogies between Iraq and Vietnam. I know I thought I had – that is until the other night, when I watched Apocalypse Now Redux, the enhanced version of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic Vietnam horror film.
In the key restored segment, Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) tortures Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), not with needles, cigarettes or branding irons, but with upbeat war propaganda manufactured by Time magazine on behalf of Lyndon Johnson’s White House. Having turned the tables on Willard, his would-be executioner, the crazed Kurtz seats himself in front of his nearly comatose captive and reads to him from a Sept. 22, 1967, article assembled in the never-never land created by Henry Luce, who had died the previous March, high above Sixth Avenue in Manhattan.
Kurtz’s dissociated voice relays the momentous news that “one of the most exhaustive inquiries into the status of the (Vietnam) conflict” offers “considerable evidence that the weight of U.S. power, two and a half years after the big build-up began, is beginning to make itself felt,” and that “White House officials maintain (that) the impact of that strength may bring the enemy to the point where he could simply be unable to continue fighting.”
After another paragraph or so, Kurtz looks up from the dog-eared magazine and inquires of the dazed and sweating Willard, “Is this familiar?”
I asked myself the very same question when I picked up The New York Times on March 24 and read the front-page headline “Backed by U.S., Iraqis Raid Camp and Report Killing 80 Insurgents.” The accompanying “news” story – which depicted a “fierce battle” on the shores of Lake Tharthar – was based entirely on uncorroborated statements by Iraqi and American spokesmen that suggested two highly improbable developments: first, that the so-called Iraqi army had suddenly gotten its act together and was taking the initiative without U.S. prompting; and second, that the Iraqi rebels had just as suddenly abandoned their very successful hit-and-run tactics and started camping in big bunches out in the open, where anyone could see them.
Is this familiar?
For anyone who was raised on the press-release war waged by the Johnson and Nixon administrations, this was very familiar indeed. As a kid, I woke up almost daily to optimistic war headlines in the Chicago papers – large numbers of “Reds” were constantly being wiped out in surprise “raids” by a highly competent South Vietnamese army, “backed” by the super-powerful U.S. war machine. Like the Times’s narrative of the raid at Lake Tharthar, the U.S.-Vietnamese forces were frequently “responding to (tips) from villagers nearby” devoted to the cause of freedom.
We now know that many of those stories were fabricated, in part or whole, and that the enemy casualties – a/k/a “the body count” – were vastly overstated for domestic political profit. We know that the South Vietnamese army was incompetent and demoralized, riddled with Viet Cong spies, and that it rarely took the initiative in battle. And we know that the American government was fully aware of the sorry state of its Vietnamese subsidiary, even as it publicly insisted that the war could be won with just a little more help from the Pentagon.
But today’s newspaper editors, mostly old enough to remember the government’s lies during Vietnam, seem to have learned nothing from recent history. President Bush, mindful of his brother Jeb’s ambition to succeed him in the White House, needs to show military progress in Iraq, lest he face a rebellion within his own party. Borrowing from President Nixon’s “Vietnamization” program (during which more than half of American war deaths occurred), he aims to invent an effective and successful Iraqi military where none exists.
With Iraqization comes the implied promise of U.S. troop withdrawal that never quite happens but calms discontent back home. Already last week, just after the big “raid,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Lance Smith was touting Iraqization: “(If) the elections go OK, violence stays down, then we ought to be able make some recommendations _ for us to be able to bring our forces home.”
Not bloody likely. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has concluded that the administration does “not report reliable data on the extent to which Iraqi security forces are trained and equipped,” and has been inflating the actual number on duty. Iraqi “democracy,” so far, is a figment of Paul Wolfowitz’s fevered imagination; its only corroboration comes from journalists like the Times’s Todd Purdum, who last month took his place among the ranks of the great government rewrite men: “Mr. Bush is feeling the glow of the recent flurry of impulses toward democracy in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and even Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where events have put him on a bit of a roll and some of his sharpest critics on the defensive.”
Meanwhile, even pro-war pundits like Boris Johnson, the British Tory politician and Spectator editor, describe Iraq in rather less optimistic terms. “Life in Iraq is in some respects so bad that it gives the insurgents and recusants the perfect rallying cry for terror: look at what a world the Americans have brought you! … Here in Baghdad I am writing next to a table sliced in two by a falling pane of glass, and am told by the seraphic ambassador that we could be shelled again at any time.”
For fun, I had someone call the Pentagon for more evidence of the smashing victory at Lake Tharthar. First a spokesman said that an ABC reporter had gone to the scene, but ABC denies this; the next day another spokesman instructed my researcher to call the Coalition Press Information Center, in Baghdad, which in turn directed her to the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior.
Around the same time, I discovered an Agence France Presse dispatch that told a very different story from the New York Times-Pentagon version. The AFP correspondent, who said he had traveled to the camp, quoted a rebel “fighter named Amer” who claimed that only 11 of his comrades had been killed in the attack. Amer furthermore insisted that the camp had never been abandoned, as claimed by the government, and that the victims were killed exclusively by air strikes, not by Iraqi commandos.
Two days after its page-one sensation, the Times quoted an Iraqi major, Sarmut Hussein, who confirmed Amer’s and the AFP’s story, saying that “most of the insurgents were killed by the American helicopter gunships,” not by Iraqi troops. So why was this fascinating information buried near the bottom of a story on page A-5? Why is the Pentagon referring press questions to the Iraqis, as if U.S. forces had merely assisted the main Iraqi assault?
It’s Iraqization, stupid.
And what of the camp itself? Western reporters are rightly terrified of traveling anywhere outside the Green Zone. So for all we know, the rebel “terror” factory on the banks of Lake Tharthar is back in business. And since the good guys say they took no prisoners, there’s no one to interrogate about the alleged cohort of dead foreign fighters, which supposedly included foreign Arabs, a Filipino and, for good measure, an Algerian. (The war against terrorism, like the one against communism, must be portrayed as a worldwide struggle.)
Back in the Heart of Darkness, Marlon Brando’s character isn’t quite finished torturing Martin Sheen’s. Tightening the screws, he reads from another Time magazine bromide, dated Dec. 12, 1969: “Sir Robert Thompson, who led the victory over communist guerrillas in Malaya and is now a Rand Corp. consultant, recently returned to Vietnam to sound out the situation for President Nixon. He told the president last week … ‘that things felt much better, and smelled much better over there.’ ”
Of the half-dead Willard, Kurtz asks, “How do they smell to you, soldier?”
(John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine.)