Iraq Fiasco Erases Memory of Vietnam

Iraq Fiasco Erases Memory of Vietnam

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Some years ago in a New York subway train I witnessed a scene that will always serve, for me, as an important marker of sorts about the fate of this nation.

A man in ruffled clothes walked up and down the aisle and panhandled in a loud voice. "Can you help a Vietnam Vet? I've got issues and I've been out of work. Folks, can you help?" A young man who had been watching suddenly stood up and exploded. "Want to know issues? I've got issues. I just came back from Iraq."

There was a collective hush. Some people fled to another car.

Famed psychologist Carl Jung, who made great inroads into man's collective psyche, once observed that it is the fate of successive generations “to complete, or perhaps continue, things which previous ages had left unfinished.” The same could be said of nations.

Two and a half years after the United States pulled out of Iraq, that country has imploded, becoming a bona-fide failed state, with Baghdad under siege by jihadist militants seeking to create an Islamic caliphate in the heart of the region. Some analysts now worry that ISIS, as the Sunni group is known, will commit mass genocide against Iraq's minority Shi'a population if Baghdad falls.

Here are some facts: Iraq claimed 4,487 American lives, and left 32,226 Americans wounded, according to Pentagon statistics. According to Iraqbodycount.org, the number of Iraqis who died from violence during the U.S. occupation ranges between 103,000 and 114,000. Though the Congressional Research Service has estimated the cost of Operation Iraqi Freedom at around $806 billion dollars, President Obama has said the cost of the war is in fact well over $1 trillion.

Yet despite these sacrifices, going back into Iraq is an option unimaginable to most of the American public, and suicidal for any sitting president. Still, what will we do if the war between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims engulfs the Middle East? How do we reconcile with the lives imperiled by our direct intervention? What moral obligations do we have toward nations that went up in flames due to our own meddling? And what of the 2 million refugees displaced throughout the Middle East and the 1.5 million internally displaced inside Iraq?

For a long time after the Vietnam War ended, the conflict functioned as a benchmark for spectacular American failure. It remained a deep, searing wound. It took nearly a decade after the war’s end before movies were made and books sold on the topic. It became a series of lessons from which America attempted to learn about itself.

Then it sought to forget. Talk of the “Vietnam Syndrome” emerged within conservative circles as a means of explaining America’s defeat and the national shame that loss had incurred, a shame that had to be overcome, even erased. Uncle Sam began his ventures abroad anew.

Bush senior claimed that the Vietnam Syndrome had been “kicked” when the United States drove the occupying Iraqi army out of Kuwait during the first Persian Gulf War. He declared that the “the ghosts of Vietnam had been laid to rest beneath the sands of the Arabian desert."


But Vietnam’s ghost continued to haunt when his son, George W. Bush, sent troops into Iraq after 9/11 on faulty intelligence.

Ironically, it is only after two more disastrous wars that the memories of Vietnam may finally have been expunged – only to be replaced by the ghost of Iraq.

New traumas have taken over old traumas. The photo of the Iraqi prisoner standing on a box wearing rags and a hood over his head with his arms outstretched, fingers tied to electric wires has replaced the black and white image of the burnt, naked Vietnamese girl framed by a forest of napalm. “Operation Hearts and Minds” has replaced “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Oxymorons all, in retrospect.

In the final analysis, the Vietnam Syndrome, it seems, cannot be "kicked" by winning, but by losing. For it forces us to face our collective grief and guilt anew. A war is waged, followed by a period of reckoning. But like clockwork, amnesia settles in. And a new generation comes along wanting to “kick Iraq Syndrome,” as it were. Another war is waged, and new tragedies unfold.

A country unable to confront and reconcile with its own heart of darkness – to confront “things which previous ages had left unfinished” – is a country fated to repeat acts of barbarism. America stands for freedom. But the real freedom hasn’t been attained until we take up the challenging task of bearing witness and owning up to past atrocities, and forge a collective will to break the cycle of violence.

Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and author of the "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora," and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres." His latest book is "Birds of Paradise Lost," a short story collection, was published in 2013 and won a Pen/Josephine Miles Literary Award in 2014 and a finalist for the California Book Award and shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.