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Searching for history

By Jackson Murphy
web posted April 19, 2004

The situation in Iraq, particularly during this deadly month, again finds commentators searching for the ideal analogy, the definitive historical talking point. What is striking is just how quick and how completely the media can view current events through such an all purpose cookie cutter prism.

Since the beginning of the Battle of Fallujah, just as in the early days of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, the buzz analogy was, again, Vietnam and quagmire. Sen. Ted Kennedy, the old lion of the Senate, was quick to pronounce Iraq as "George Bush's Vietnam" at the first sign of difficulty. National Review's Rich Lowry sums up the analogy nicely by writing, "In the syndrome-addled brains of the press and liberal politicians, the U.S. military is caught in a Groundhog Day, forever refighting the same war. We were told that the first Gulf War, the Afghan War, and the initial invasion of Iraq were all doomed to collapse into repeats of Vietnam."

When the insurgent forces of Muqtada al-Sadr started striking back against the coalition in cities across Iraq, the particular event of the Vietnam narrative that was splashed in opinion pieces, cable news stories, and speeches by politicians was the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Forget that most assumptions of Tet itself are probably wrong anyway. "It's no Magadishu, it's no Tet," writes Austin Bay at Strategypage.com. "In fact, the ugly, baiting murders in Fallujah and Muqtada al-Sadr's made-for-TV rebellion may be an extraordinary opportunity for the United States and Iraqi democrats, if the military operations and politics are handled with finesse."

The trap for reporters, commentators, and politicians alike is to search for an easily understandable template that can tell the story of what is happening on the ground in a place like Fallujah. But scanning the major media you would think that the only analogy – and an all purpose one at that – seems to be Vietnam. It is as if the entire media and elite class studied only one thing in International Relations 101- when in doubt it is all Vietnam, all of the time. Everyone knows the key words to this conflict, so Iraq becomes Vietnam, Fallujah becomes Tet, and Brig. Gen. Kimmitt becomes Westmoreland. The news practically writes itself.

In their defense, making sense of what is happening in this complex and multi-fronted war is a daunting task made worse by the collective attention deficit disorder of the CNN society. But it is made more so when every single event must be simplified, explained, and compared to the seminal event of the boomer generation. It is find-and-replace journalism at its worse. That should be no excuse for not placing the Vietnam analogy in its proper historical place. Vietnam, like man, as John Donne or Jon Bon Jovi have noted, is not an island. Bringing up Vietnam without placing it in its Cold War context is unfortunate.

"It's too hard to separate the transient noise from the long-run trend, and the long run is what matters," wrote Virginia Postrel recently on her website. Things are bad in Iraq right now, but is this a last-gasp effort by our enemies, the beginning of a quagmire, or, most likely, something in between whose conclusion depends largely on our response? Rushing to judgment, especially from afar, is a prescription for foolish conclusions and bad policies."

Even when some try to find a new decoder ring to the situation, they fall back on something else. Take Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times this weekend. Since Rich now writes in the Arts section he often searches for some pop culture analogies and talks to former Clinton Ambassador the U.N. Richard Holbrooke who agrees that it is better to think of David Lean's 1962 epic film "Lawrence of Arabia". "That's the image everyone I've talked to who saw the movie has in his head right now," says Holbrooke.

Rich sums up the argument, "What Mr. Holbrooke is referring to is the story's mordant conclusion. The Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire, abetted by the heroic British liaison officer T. E. Lawrence and guerrilla tactics, has succeeded."

Rich makes it sound like he is on to something entirely new, but there are many historical situations to employ when trying to understand today's Iraq. Niall Ferguson, also in the New York Times, likes to point to the 1920 anti-British revolt in Iraq. While he is quick to assume that U.S. troops are as equally unable to study other lessons of history as the media hoping that, "Maybe, just maybe, some younger Americans are realizing that the United States has lessons to learn from something other than its own supposedly exceptional history."

We can only hope. But there are serious problems of limiting analysis to simply one or the other. Ferguson is just as guilty of pushing 1920 British Imperialism tactics as the media is with Vietnam. The truth is they could both be right.

Unfortunately it does all come back to Vietnam. Combining the ceaseless analogies of Vietnam and especially Tet with the current situation in Iraq remains problematic. As Victor Davis Hanson writes in his book Carnage and Culture, "Journalists did not snatch political defeat from military victory. Rather, they only contributed to the collapse of American power and resistance, by accentuating frequent American blunders and South Vietnamese corruption, without commensurate attention paid to North Vietnamese atrocities."

It is par for the course for western media to hold our leaders to account, and has been the case for 2,500 years. Hanson asks what is to be made of the "habit of subjecting military operations to constant and often self-destructive political audit and public scrutiny?" His conclusion is simple. That while this process, while often messy in the short term, actually works to the advantage of the military in the long run by correcting serious flaws in military tactics and strategy.

While the constant bombardment of analogies to Vietnam or Mogadishu might seem misplaced, they might help indirectly to help correct a flawed strategy. It is clear that by raising the stakes of the situation, and painting it as equally dire as Vietnam, the military must readjust and react to overcome that. In that way it is a positive. It's far from an ideal situation, especially considering that with thousands of years of history we are limited to, slaves really, viewing things through the historically short timeframe of Vietnam.

The situation in Iraq today is not much different than it was in March or February. The difference is that a real picture of the situation is emerging, one where much hard work remains. And for the first time the offensive strategy response to 9/11, The War on Terror, is finally looking and feeling like a real war. A war that analogies, or history aside, must still be won.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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