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Iraq has revived the ghosts of Vietnam

DISCUSSIONS | May 31, 2006

Nguyen Quang Dy, Vietnam

1993 Nieman fellow; now a senior adviser for the Fulbright School in Saigon and the Vietnam Program run by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

9/11 was indeed a critical turning point for America and the world. While it exposed America’s new vulnerability to terrorism attacks, it gave her a new global leadership and mandate to lead the world in a common fight against global terrorism. Most nations were forced to take sides one way or another. In fact, 9/11 gave America a good opportunity and legitimacy as the injured party coming under attack and fighting back the evil empire of global terrorism. At least for that reason, most Vietnamese concerned were sympathetic and supportive of America. The ghosts of the Vietnam War, therefore, seemed to be forgotten and “dead” for the first time.  

But Iraq changed all that. Iraq has revived the ghosts of Vietnam, making America increasingly unpopular across the world. Anti-Americanism has grown in many parts of the world to complicate globalization and weaken the leadership of the common fight against global terrorism and other global dangers. In a way, America’s new political fortune has been wasted over Iraq.

How did it go wrong? There’s nothing wrong for America to stand up to global terrorism and launch counterattacks at its source. But it went wrong when Washington adopted unilateralism (not multilateralism or internationalism) as its approach, and it went wrong when Washington decided to use hard power (instead of soft power or both) as the means to deal with global terrorism. It went wrong when Washington lied to the public about the reason why it decided to invade Iraq. The good guy now looks like a bad guy again.

It seems the lessons of Vietnam have not been learnt either: A major war adventure has been started without a clear vision, without being aware of the limits of hard power which may eventually fail to win the war or conquer the hearts and minds of local people. Iraq may divide America again if the war drags on with more losses and without a clear end in sight.

In a sense, the ghosts of Vietnam are being kept alive by Iraq and history may repeat itself. Once again, America is facing a dilemma that “Iraqization” of the war might not work for the American Army to withdraw soon enough to avoid a bigger controversy at home. It’s not the failure of the war machine or hardware. It’s the failure of a war philosophy and narrow vision based on unilateralism and hard power.

With hindsight, Vietnam was a classic case of hard power deployed to the maximum, only to fail eventually at the end of the day. It took McNamara nearly three decades to admit the fatal mistake of the war. The war was so destructive that it not only physically destroyed much of a poor farming country beyond easy reconstruction, but also politically divided America – as much as Vietnam – beyond easy reconciliation. That’s why 20 years after the war, McNamara’s book on Vietnam still reopened emotional wounds and scars of the war and resumed the debate on Vietnam.

Even three decades after the war, the ghosts of Vietnam still came back to haunt John Kerry and George Bush during the presidential race. And the ghosts of Vietnam continued to keep the two nations apart for over two decades after the war and make reconciliation between two Vietnamese communities so difficult. Why should we be kept prisoners of the past? If we cannot change the past, should we try to do something more creative and constructive about the future?

Vietnam and America have normalized relations, signed on as trading partners, and been conducting World Trade Organization negotiations. But the relationship can go sour any time, if not over POW/MIA as before, than over human rights or some other issue.

There seems to be a paradox in this love-hate relationship in which continue to be influenced by historical baggage, old mindset, misperceptions, gaps and myth. Until these underlying liabilities are resolved to give way to potential assets for new understanding and collaboration, the emotional wounds and scars are not really healed and a new vision cannot be found. This process is possible only if and when the relationship is built upon a new basis of “soft power” infrastructure in order to cultivate and maximize potential human interaction and networking, both as unintended consequences of the war and as new vision of the flat new world, which should play a larger role to shape our future.  

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