Issue 231 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1999 Copyright © Socialist Review
'By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,' George Bush declared after the swift US victory over Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. Bush predicted that the Gulf War proved that the military superiority of the US would give it unlimited global dominance in the post Cold War era, as the world's sole remaining superpower. But now, eight years later, the Vietnam syndrome is very much alive--and the fear of significant US casualties has been one major reason why Clinton has been reluctant to escalate Nato's war against Serbia.
The Pentagon stated as much in mid-May, when it refused to allow its force of 24 US army Apache helicopters to enter into combat, despite repeated requests by Nato commander General Wesley Clark. A Pentagon official was asked why the Apaches--which were sent to Albania weeks earlier--had yet to be deployed. The Pentagon official responded, 'The army's concern is that this is a very dangerous mission... In an age when the American people believe we're in a zero-defects war, there's real apprehension we're going to bring soldiers back in body bags.' The US will not even allow its pilots to fly at an altitude lower than 15,000 feet--virtually guaranteeing civilian casualties.
Nato's threat of ground troops--in which the Apache helicopters played no small part-dominated the mass media in April. Nato even dropped leaflets over Kosovo showing a picture of an Apache helicopter swooping down on a tank, with the caption, 'Don't wait for me.' By May, however, the threat of ground troops had not yet materialised. Instead the news was dominated by a series of Nato mishaps, including the CIA's 'wrong address' which led to the bombing of the Chinese embassy on 7 May and the killing of up to 100 Albanian refugees when Nato bombs blasted a Kosovo village apart on 14 May. The sheer incompetence of the embassy bombing prompted even those in the pro-Nato camp to ridicule the CIA and the US military. The Chicago Tribune, for example, called the CIA in its editorial 'the gang that couldn't spy straight'.
News photos of outraged Chinese student demonstrators protesting at the embassy bombing were followed a week later by the sight of Albanian refugees mourning their dead--including small children--killed by Nato bombs. The result has been a hardening of the two sides, between those who support the war and are now denouncing the US for not sending in ground troops, and those who have concluded that Nato's bombing is wrong.
The US left as a whole has been slow to take a stand against the war, but in the wake of the embassy bombing more have begun to call for protest on a national level. The 26 May issue of the liberal Nation magazine argued, 'The anti-war campaign has so far been smaller than in the early days of the Gulf War, owing to many constituencies' revulsion at the Milosevic government's atrocities. But with 50 days of Nato bombing increasing Balkan suffering, it is clear that a ceasefire and international peacekeeping efforts are the only realistic option... The Kosovo war exceeds defensible limits daily.' Anti-war activists have organised a national protest in Washington, DC on 5 June.
Nato's defenders are shouting for ground troops louder than ever. New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis argued, 'So if Nato leaders are committed to defeating Mr Milosevic they have to start moving now toward the use of ground forces. And the leader who matters is President Clinton.'
But Clinton has been reluctant to do so, openly fearful of the domestic consequences of a prolonged war: 25 years after the humiliating defeat of US imperialism in the Vietnam War, the Vietnam syndrome is not just a nightmarish memory of a bloody and unjust war but a continued unwillingness of the US population to accept the possibility of its repeat. The mere mention of 'body bags' brings forth images and memories of the 58,000 US troops whose mission was to slaughter 1.3 million Vietnamese civilians.
The scale of atrocities committed by US troops against Vietnamese civilians over more than a decade makes a joke out of Clinton's feigned outrage over ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. US troops conducted countless massacres of unarmed Vietnamese villagers; many of the troops earned the nickname 'double veterans', army slang for both raping and murdering Vietnamese women. Mass rapes preceded mass executions. At My Lai, Lieutenant William Calley and his platoon slaughtered the entire village population. Families huddling together were blown apart with grenades or massacred with automatic weapons. Calley was the only soldier convicted of murder. He served one third of his ten year sentence.
The My Lai massacre was not the aberration--it was the rule in hundreds of villages. Soldiers who tortured and murdered civilians were in no danger of being tried for war crimes. They could expect to be promoted to the 'Phoenix Programme', which tortured and killed more than 20,000 'suspects' between 1968 and 1971. In its years long bombing campaign, US aircraft dropped nearly 700,000 tons of explosives on North Vietnam, and this does not include bombs dropped on Laos and Cambodia. The US dropped more bombs on Laos alone than fell on all of Western Europe during the Second World War. To this day, Laos has more unexploded bombs than any other country, still killing Laotian civilians every week. The US sprayed millions of acres of land in South Vietnam with chemical defoliants such as Agent Orange, causing generations of Vietnamese to be born with birth defects.
The Vietnam War exposed the barbarism of US imperialism and showed that it could be defeated at the hands of a determined liberation movement from a poor country fighting for its freedom.
The atrocities committed by the US military, and the price ultimately paid in the blood of working class soldiers and Vietnamese peasants, played a large part in the period of intensive political upheaval of the late 1960s which exposed the racism and hypocrisy of US society--and forced the government, among other things, to abandon the draft in favour of a volunteer military. The US ruling class fears not only a rerun of an unpopular war abroad, but the war at home to which it inevitably leads.