It was inevitable, after the long, grinding quagmire of the post-9/11 Iraq War, that it would be compared to the quagmire of Vietnam. Of course, there are many differences: one occurred in Indochina, the other in the Mid-East; they occurred in different generations and under different political circumstances; one involved use of the draft, the other did not, with resulting differences in the scale and depth of public resistance; the access to information by the public was substantially different, as the Internet obviously did not exist in the Vietnam era; and, most notably, the fact that the planners of the Iraq War had something that the planners of the Vietnam conflict did not: the example of the Vietnam War. Yet, for all their differences, the most important comparisons are where they are remarkably the same: specifically, the disturbing degree to which propaganda and doctrine served to almost completely remove the decision makers from reality, with predictable results.
If we construct our comparisons of Vietnam and Iraq along these lines, then what do we find? First, unlike nearly all of the other conflicts in which the U.S. has previously engaged, these two were deliberate wars of prestige: to wit, the prestige of those in the government with the power to take us there. With Vietnam, it was the concept that America, after having successfully risen to the enormous military challenge of world war on two fronts, was somehow omnipotent and, thus, the leader in world affairs and thereafter, with a self-imposed mandate to shape the world according to the American concept of freedom. With Iraq, it was the prestige of the son and his entourage, following in the footsteps of the father’s successful campaign in the Persian Gulf, and in response to the post 9/11 belief that America, as the world’s solitary superpower, had the self-imposed right use its overwhelming military might to defend “freedom” from terrorism, on the battlefield of its choosing.
Second, both wars were initiated by administrations with little regard for the congressional oversight of war as defined by the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, the growing disdain for the contract through which the executive branch derives its legitimacy to govern is particularly troubling, as it is through this system of “checks and balances” that the hypnotic spell of adherence to doctrine without regard to reality is dispelled. In both cases, the decision to go to war had already been made, with the corresponding information campaigns merely fig leaves to provide the appearance of the legality to declare war where none, indeed, existed. Thus, in both cases, wars were simultaneously fought on two fronts: the physical war on the ground for territory, and the propaganda war for the minds of the people. And while the overwhelming strength of American military might was decisive in both physical wars, it was the duplicity behind the propaganda wars that ultimately decided the outcomes.
As was noted in the previous chapter of this essay, people have a fundamental need for any description of reality to reconcile with their world view. Because a person’s conceptualization of reality is like a house of cards, constructed on observations, experiences, and hardened assumptions derived over the course of a lifetime, that person will naturally resist accepting that which involves a significant readjustment of how he or she understands the world to work. Thus, why propaganda that fits a particular world view is often selected over a truth that does not.
Although groups are made up of people with different backgrounds and world views, they tend to have a similar collective need for reconciliation of reality; the house of cards in this case being that core set of shared beliefs and ideas accepted by the group as the truth – otherwise known as doctrine. Thus, just like with individuals, reality that conflicts with a group’s doctrine may be filtered out in favor of propaganda that aligns with those beliefs, and propaganda that aligns with the group’s beliefs may become accepted as the truth, often with disastrous consequences. Indeed, it would seem that groups have a higher propensity towards self-delusion than the individuals that make them up.
Hence, a third parallel: the level to which propaganda took on the force of truth in defining reality for the respective administrations’ pursuit of war. With each administration, the perpetuation of their relative doctrines became more important than the reality of their situations: for neither wanted to go back the American people and admit failure for fear of exposing their houses of cards for what they were – blatant manipulation of the truth for the sake of achieving political ends. Iraq was not about “fighting terrorists over there” or helping Halliburton improve its bottom line, any more than Vietnam was about the “domino theory” or the selling of more helicopters by the military industrial complex. What they were about was preserving the meme of American exceptionalism, and the fact that they both failed miserably in that respect should be a warning against such ventures in the future. For the end result of both wars was not an America made stronger by success, but an America vastly weakened in treasure, world standing, and spirit.
However, despite these similarities, there is a fundamental difference between the two wars that may well have the most lasting impact, and that is the lack of deep self-analysis conducted after conclusion of Iraq. For there has been no public committee to examine the errors, no Pentagon Papers to leak to the press, and, subsequently, no public airing of dirty laundry and owning up to the errors that caused the situation. Indeed, by relentlessly pursuing any and all government leaks and earning a reputation of being the harshest administration with respect to whistle-blowing in modern history, the Obama administration has precluded any true self-examination and evaluation that may occur in the public eye.
Thus, our reputation remains tarnished because we have done nothing to untarnish it, and the propaganda and adherence to doctrine continues unabated in Afghanistan, to be perpetuated again, no doubt, in some future conflict in Iran, Syria, North Korea, or wherever else our leaders decide to take us in the name of national pride and prestige. For while we may eventually run out of treasure, the capacity for self-deception by our leadership appears limitless.