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News and Opinion 

Will We Suffer from the Iraq Syndrome?

-- Ira Chernus

The Iraq syndrome is headed our way. Perhaps it’s already here.

A clear and growing majority of Americans now tell pollsters that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake, that it’s a bad idea to “surge” more troops into Baghdad, that we need a definite timeline for removing all our troops.

The nation seems to be remembering a lesson of the Vietnam War: We can’t get security by sending military power abroad. Every time we try to control another country by force of arms, we only end up more troubled and less secure.

But the Iraq syndrome is a two-edged sword, and there is no telling which way it will cut in the end.

Remember the “Vietnam syndrome,” which made its appearance soon after the actual war ended in defeat. It did restrain our appetite for military interventions overseas - but only briefly. By the late 1970s, it had already begun to boomerang. Conservatives denounced the syndrome as evidence of a paralyzing, Vietnam-induced surrender to national weakness. Their cries of alarm stimulated broad public support for an endless military build-up and, of course, yet more imperial interventions.

The very idea of such a “syndrome” implied that what the Vietnam War had devastated was not so much the Vietnamese or their ruined land as the traumatized American psyche. As a concept, it served to mask, if not obliterate, many of the realities of the actual war. It also suggested that there was something pathological in a post-war fear of taking our arms and aims abroad, that America had indeed become (in Richard Nixon’s famous phrase) a “pitiful, helpless giant,” a basket case.

Ronald Reagan played all these notes skillfully enough to become president. The desire to “cure” the Vietnam syndrome became a springboard to unabashed, militant nationalism and a broad rightward turn in the nation’s life.

Iraq - both the war and the “syndrome” to come - could easily evoke a similar set of urges: to evade a painful reality and ignore the lessons it should teach us. The thought that Americans are simply a collective neurotic head-case when it comes to the use of force could help sow similar seeds of insecurity that might - after a pause - again push our politics and culture back to a glorification of military power and imperial intervention as instruments of choice for seeking “security.”

Ambivalence in the Land

In current polling data about the war in Iraq, there are obvious reasons for hope, but also less noticed warning signs. In a PIPA poll of December 2006, for instance, three-quarters of the public favored “withdrawing almost all U.S. troops by early 2008,” and fully 62% of Republicans agreed. Even in the south, 64% of Americans now disapprove of Bush’s “handling” of the war. A recent USA Today poll finds 60% against sending more troops to Iraq. But the exact same number wants Congress to fund those new troops they don’t approve of dispatching Iraq-wards.

In that USA Today poll, a remarkable 63% of Americans favor “a time-table for withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of next year,” putting them way ahead of the Democratic Party Washington consensus on what to do. Yet in a Washington Post/ABC poll released this week, while 64% say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, only 45% want to set a deadline of all U.S. troops out within a year, and only the same minority number would move to reduce funding for the war. The latest CBS News poll reveals that over 70% of Americans believe the situation is now going “badly.” But fully half say the U.S. is still “likely to succeed in Iraq,” and 43% do not want U.S. troops in Iraq removed or even reduced now. A new AP/Ipsos poll asks people what words they’d use for their feelings about the war. While 81% are “worried,” 51% remain “hopeful.” (That poll also asks how many Iraqi civilians have died in nearly four years of war. The median “best guess” is a woefully uninformed 9,890.)

Beneath the ever shifting polling figures, the only constant is an ambivalence which haunts the land. Politicians, legendary for leading from the rear, are waiting to see which way any coming gale might blow. While many now follow their constituents and speak out against the war, most of them are carefully positioning themselves to go with the flow of a militaristic backlash, should it emerge.

And history tells us a backlash is a real possibility. Just as in the early stages of the Vietnam War, a large majority of Americans were not opposed to the Iraqi intervention or the occupation that followed. When Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown, some three-quarters of the U.S. public approved George W. Bush’s war.

With Iraq, as with Vietnam, the nation did not go sour on the venture until it became frustratingly clear that the United States could not win - and American deaths began to rise. Bush’s ratings have fallen steadily not because he took us into war under false pretenses, but because he failed to deliver the expected triumph. Going to war without winning just doesn’t fit our national self-image, what Tom Engelhardt has called our “victory culture.”

Victory culture assumes that the United States is bound to win in the end - that, in fact, we deserve to win because our motives are less self-interested than those of other nations. We may sometimes fight a war ineptly or incompetently, but we always mean well at heart. We want democracy, prosperity, peace, and stability - not just for ourselves but for everyone.

And in victory culture, we kill only because others are out to ambush and kill us. We are by definition the victims, the innocents, never the perpetrators. That whitewashes our motives, whatever they may actually be.

To go on believing that we are virtuous, we must go on seeing ourselves as profoundly insecure, as beset by enemies, as invariably simply defending ourselves out there on the planetary frontiers of an aggressive, dangerous world; out there on what the President - referring to remote regions of Pakistan - called “wild country; this is wilder than the Wild West.”

The stories the Bush administration has been spinning in these years to justify its war, and possibly a future assault on Iran as well, are built on the twin pillars of virtue and insecurity. While the war in Iraq itself is, by now, widely rejected, the basic plot outline embedded in the President’s stories remains largely intact. In the mainstream media, and around the country, questions about Iraq are still framed within the narrative of a grand, though badly executed, project to bring democracy and stability to a benighted land (and of the Iraqis’ inability to grasp our gift of democracy or an American naiveté in believing an Arab land could possibly be ready for such a gift). The news stories and political debate in Washington are still all about the U.S. somehow being responsible for protecting the Iraqis from chaos (even if it’s chaos we’ve in fact created). They’re about fulfilling a responsibility, finishing what we started, not to speak of the unquestioned need to go to distant places to protect our own homeland from the ever-present threat of terrorism.

There’s good reason to see this whole line of thinking as bogus, but thoughtful analysts who explain why can barely get their voices heard, much less be taken seriously.

Identity Crisis in a Losing War

By now, in the midst of policy and military disaster, victory culture has narrowed to “supporting our troops.” Congress cannot defund the war because lawmakers fear the ultimate charge of betrayal, a Congressional “stab in the back” for failing to “support our troops.” The obvious logical response - “The best way to support our troops is to bring them home to their loved ones” - doesn’t cut it in today’s political climate. With not a shred of victory in sight, “our troops” have become the prime symbol of both American virtue and insecurity, the prime reason to stay in Iraq now that every other publicly ballyhooed reason has disappeared.

That’s an old story. Ever since the Minutemen, soldiers have often been iconic emblems of everything that was imagined as pure, innocent, and vulnerable about America. There’s even a history of portraying the American fighting man as a Christ-figure - a staple of Vietnam movies from Sgt. Elias in Platoon to Rambo.

Now, who can deny that our “kids” in Iraq are, by and large, decent and well-meaning or that they face terrible risks daily? They are the constant heroes in stories of virtue, innocence, and insecurity that fill the media, stories usually detached from any political context, as if Iraq were merely a stage without much scenery and lacking all plot on which “our troops” continuously perform their heroic, sometimes almost mythic, deeds. And those media stories make the image of a virtuous, innocent, and insecure America eminently believable - but only so long as our troops are deployed in harm’s way.

For the broad center of the American public, “supporting our troops” also means supporting some version, however attenuated, of victory culture. By now, vast numbers of Americans realize that we’ll surely win no real victory in Iraq. Who is even sure what winning there might mean? But whatever our stumbles, our war stories are supposed to have some kind of happy ending. Every generation sent to war is supposed to be “the greatest.”

The ambivalence lurking in the polls suggests that many Americans want it both ways. The war should end quickly, but somehow with victory culture if not still burning brightly, at least flickering, as our birthright as Americans demands.

Awash in all this ambiguity, the broad political center is in a terrible bind when it comes to policy choices. A prompt phased withdrawal offers the promise of something like the formula that Richard Nixon offered in the 1968 election campaign (but never intended to deliver): “peace with honor” - in other words, something, anything, that might be packaged as less than a defeat.

It would, however, be hard to avoid seeing any kind of withdrawal from Iraq as a retreat under fire, as a quitting of the field of battle, as an admission that the U.S. cannot always save faraway people in faraway places. That, too, would call into question all the traditional stories that are still so widely seen as the bulwark of American identity.

When a whole nation has to cope with an identity crisis, when it has to struggle to believe in narratives that were once self-evidently meaningful, there is no telling what might happen.

There’s already a hot debate - a blame game - brewing about “who lost Iraq?” The public may well put the blame on the Bush administration, or even on the whole idea of aggressive war as the royal path to domestic security, especially since Iraq can’t be easily written off as a one-time disaster. It is the second massive U.S. failure in war in a generation. And it’s a lot harder to put two failures behind you. So there is real reason to hope that Americans won’t be fooled again, that this fiasco will breed a deep and enduring resistance to the use of military force abroad.

On the other hand, the very fact that Iraq is a second humiliation may make it all the more urgent for many Americans to put it behind them, to deny the painful reality. The frustration over not getting the ending we deserve remains palpable. And it’s only likely to rise as the situation worsens. So the public could in the post-war years just as easily put the blame where Ronald Reagan put it after Vietnam - on “the purveyors of weakness” (oppositional, incompetent, or micromanaging politicians and bureaucrats, the media, the antiwar movement) - and turn back to the Reaganite (and neoconservative) mantra of “peace and security through strength.”

Then we’ll be told that Iraq, too, was just an aberration, a well-intentioned war handled with a staggering level of incompetence that simply got out of control. Those who don’t want to repeat the experience, who prefer to try other paths to global security, will be told they are infected with the Iraq syndrome. And the prescription for a cure will inevitably be military buildup, imperial war, and, of course, the possibility of both “kicking” the Iraq syndrome and welcoming our troops home in the sort of triumph they so richly deserve.

Put the history of the Vietnam syndrome together with the enduring appeal of America’s victory culture, and it’s easy to see how the Iraq syndrome could boomerang, too. Boomerangs can easily catch you unaware and give you quite a smack. When one might be coming up behind you, it pays to stay very alert.

Copyright 2007 Ira Chernus. Reprinted courtesy of TomDispatch.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin. He can be contacted at chernus@colorado.edu.

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