In defence of ‘Iraq syndrome’ — intervention is only ever in our interests

David Wearing writes: Every so often, a memorable phrase enters the discourse, providing a telling insight into some of the deeper assumptions held in our political culture. One such term, now mostly forgotten, is the “Vietnam syndrome.”

The Vietnam war claimed the lives of 58,000 US soldiers, seriously damaged Washington’s prestige as an imperial power and caused untold hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Indochina, which had been subjected by America’s forces of liberation to levels of aerial bombing last seen in the second world war.

Over subsequent years, those keen to see the US again exert its military might in the world lamented the stubborn persistence of a “Vietnam syndrome” among the public and many policymakers. The latter were increasingly unconvinced of the practical feasibility of military action, while the former saw the potential human costs as intolerable and, in many cases, were resolved to actively oppose a repeat of the Vietnam experience.

It is worth reflecting on the fact that a widespread popular aversion to the horrors of war – something one might regard as quite healthy – should come to be repeatedly described as a “syndrome”; a collective psychological defect that would hopefully be overcome at some future date. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that state violence has long been a highly valued policy tool, as indicated by the vast resources devoted to it, out of all proportion to genuine needs of “defence.”

After the comprehensive defeat of a disobedient former ally, Saddam Hussein, in the 1991 Gulf war, George HW Bush declared euphorically, “by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!” Many senior Republicans spent the next few years cultivating various fantasies about what could be achieved the next time an opportunity arose to let US forces off the leash. Such an opportunity was presented to them on 11 September 2001.

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1 thought on “In defence of ‘Iraq syndrome’ — intervention is only ever in our interests

  1. Clif Brown

    What you describe is the essence of empire, a need to assert authority worldwide even when the results are counterproductive to the nation. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran are all countries that have not posed any threat to the continental United States.

    But those at the top are always concerned with the use of power and when that power is humiliated the desire for re-assertion of it is great. This is not something unique to the United States. Israel behaves the same way on a more limited area. It is the curse of great military might.

    What brings forth world domination is the ability to make a try for it. Most countries are not in a position to challenge the U.S. and would not even try, knowing that it would not succeed. Our great wealth (up until now) and the ability to produce the technologies that allow planet-wide deployment of forces makes it inevitable that we will do so.

    What the U.S. does on the world stage is ever more removed from any connection to national security. A major assault on Afghanistan primarily in pursuit of one man and at most a few thousand of his followers at a cost of tens of billions of dollars tells more about the imagery of national greatness existing in the minds of our leaders than any rational pursuit of the interest of the people of the United States.

    This psychological bent of the powerful exhibited by such opposites as Dick Cheney and Barack Obama, excused by things like “the domino theory” of Vietnam days or “our friends will not trust us” (a perennial) cannot be cured by any disaster, but will continue until it is eclipsed by the same psychology taking hold elsewhere, most likely China.

    Just as the royalty of Europe were obsessed with position and prestige among themselves, so can the leadership of a democracy be obsessed with world standing and it is just as likely to end in tears as it disregards the price paid in lives and treasure. Each empire keeps on keeping on until it can’t.

    Imagine a rational act of national power: the conversion of an aircraft carrier battle group to a hospital aid group; an aircraft carrier as a hospital ship that could be deployed anywhere in the world and stationed indefinitely off of Bangladesh, for example, when not needed for a natural disaster elsewhere. The cost would be peanuts compared to war fighting. It won’t happen.

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