History Repeating Itself? Not Exactly By William Bowles

3 November 2003

Nobody can gloat over the US soldiers who are dying in increasing numbers (officially 27 in the past week) but I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam War and the press releases and statements coming out of the US administration back then and those of today have a real feeling of deja vu about them.

Back in the 60s attacks on US occupation forces in the south of Vietnam were always made by ‘infiltrators from the North’. Now they’re coming from ‘outside’. But even assuming it’s true, as a spokesperson from the Syrian government put it over the weekend, what kind of difference can 150 or so people make?

Even more ominous is the reemergence of the ‘strategic hamlet’ concept that was also used in Vietnam. Strategic hamlets effectively turn villages into prisons (or concentration camps) by sealing the village with barbed wire and soldiers, issuing ID cards to the inhabitants in a (futile) effort to cut off people from the guerrillas fighting the occupation. And if it didn’t work 35 years ago, what makes them think it’s going to work now? Just as they were in Vietnam, these are the signs of the increasing desperation of the US elite, who will be forced to use even more extreme measures to hold on to their ill-gotten gains and in doing so, will further alienate the population. Do they realise it’s a no-win situation?

Perhaps just as it was in Vietnam, it’s the idea, deeply entrenched in the imperialist mindset, that technology will make the difference. The irony of the situation surely can’t be lost on the Bush administration that the technology pioneered by them, especially the hand-held ground-to-air missile that they shipped in their thousands to Afghanistan in the 1980s, has come back to haunt them in Iraq in 2003. As the resistance gets organised which it most surely is, the bodybags will increase in numbers and banning coverage of military bases in the US, where they land them, won’t alter the reality of the funerals taking place across America.

The one lesson they did learn from the Vietnam War was to make damn sure that the government controlled the news. No more journos romping around exposing the reality of death, especially American deaths. Following the downing of the Chinook, the US military went around confiscating film and video of the event and further confusing the public by putting out a series of contradictory press releases about what had actually caused the shootdown.

And whose idea was it to disband the 400,000-strong Iraqi army following the invasion, who no doubt melted away – along with their weapons – into the general population. The more one looks at the cabal of people behind the imperial project, the more one realises that these people are rank amateurs, besotted with their own self-importance and delusions of omnipotence. A scary thought given the immense power they have at their disposal even if they don’t have a clue how to use it. But in spite of the attempts at total media control, it just ain’t working out according to the ‘plan’.

But the editors of the Independent have gotten the message though, when in their editorial today (03/11/03) they warned Blair that:

“Now is surely the time at which a prudent British leader would start to put just a little polite distance between Downing Street and the White house, and to build a few discreet bridges with the Democratic candidates.

“Mr Bush’s troubles with his own electorate are of course for him to solve. What is disappointing from a British point of view is that our Prime Minister should have continued to tie himself so closely and so unnecessarily to a faltering and unpopular President.”

I love it, “polite distance”. No rats leaving a sinking ship with this mouthpiece of the ruling elite. What is so despicable about this kind of cynical opinion is that only a few short weeks ago the same newspaper was advocating that it was time to move on and focus on the really ‘important issues’, like the economy and Europe. The occupation was a done deal, for better or worse, but as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated from the bad to the disastrous, the Independent is now having second thoughts, and not only about ‘moving on’. Anxious to hang on to its political party of choice, the Independent is warning the Blair government that it’s time to bail out before it’s too late.

And what of the 20,000 or so British troops in Iraq? Are they advocating that the Blair government put a little ‘polite distance’ between Blair and the troops as well? Well I’ve got news for the Independent; reportage on the British occupation of Iraq has dropped to almost zero over these past few weeks, aside from the occasional propaganda piece on the BBC. We’ve suddenly acquired an invisible army of occupation (although far from invisible to the Iraqis). So much for supporting ‘our boys over there’.

What a craven bunch of cowards the managers of capitalism really are. Lacking any kind of ethics, all they’ve got is pure opportunism, they get blown from one position to another depending on the fortunes (or otherwise) of their masters. Always anxious to lay down the ‘moral law’ for others, they conveniently dump them when it gets in the way of their own hypocrisy. Who needs enemies when you’ve got ‘friends’ like these?

Chile 2003 style?
The BBC has been repeating a series from its World Service broadcast, “Pipeline Politics” about the US and oil. This past weekend the programme focused on yet another US balls-up, the failed coup in Venezuela earlier this year, where it botched the attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Chavez by not fully committing itself to supporting the coup.

As one US pundit put it on the programme, either the US should have committed itself fully to backing the coup or it should have stayed out of it (he felt that the US should have ‘gone for the jugular’). A failure of nerve perhaps? And if so, why?

A comparison with Chile in 1973 is worthwhile, where yet another democratically elected government was overthrown with the assistance of the US and large corporations, most notably ITT and of course, the dead hand of Henry Kissinger and the CIA. In Chile, the coup was preceded using the same tactics: the use of strikes to cripple the economy, enlisting the middle classes, a massive propaganda campaign through the corporately-owned media and importantly, a devastating trade embargo which finally brought the Chilean economy to its knees. The right-wing Chilean military delivered the final coup de grace.

So what went wrong in Venezuela? In the first place, the US were caught in a dilemma of their own making which largely contributed to their ‘failure of nerve’. Having made a great play of their commitment to ‘democracy’ and their opposition to dictators, it wouldn’t have gone down well to be seen publicly supporting a military coup. Second, they badly under-estimated Chavez’s support amongst the masses and thirdly and perhaps most important, Chavez didn’t lose his nerve unlike Allende in Chile, who in spite of being warned by loyal supporters in the military of an impending coup, failed to act against them.

So is history repeating itself? Not exactly. The comparisons are instructive, for in spite of the control both the US and the UK ruling elites have tried to exert over the flow of information, coverage is now global in scope. In Vietnam, it was only the US and the UK who had access to satellites, now everybody has. Second, we haven’t forgotten Vietnam or Chile, every comparison is an embarrassment to the imperium. Wary of committing the same mistakes all over again puts a serious brake on imperialist strategies. The US were waging a covert war in Vietnam from the middle of the 1950s but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that serious domestic opposition emerged.

This time around, in spite of (or perhaps because of) a massive propaganda campaign preceding the war (whereas the Vietnam debacle was effectively hidden from the public), the imperium has been forced to try and justify its actions every step of the way. For those of us engaged in actively opposing the imperium, there are serious lessons to be learned from the past. The imperium, far from operating from a position of strength, is paradoxically in spite of its immense military power, far weaker and more constrained in its actions. Bringing the past to bear on the present pays dividends in spades.

As the song says, “The whole world is watching”.

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