Monday, November 28, 2005

Iraq a "Reverse Vietnam"

Glenn Reynolds first offered that the Valerie Plame affair may actually be a reverse-Watergate "with the press, not the White House, keeping the important secrets about what happened" in comments he made on CNN's Reliable Sources. Reviewing the transcript, he then thought it possible that the Iraq war may be a reverse-Vietnam. In particular, this exchange struck him:

Pam Hess, during Vietnam U.S. officials were often accused of distorting or even lying to the press to try to make it look like the war effort was going better than it was. When you were in Iraq did you feel like you were getting the straight story?

HESS: Certainly from the militarily I did. They have no interest in cooking the books, as it were, they -- they understand that they were blamed for Vietnam and what happened, and they don't want that blame again.

They want people to understand the kind of enemy that they are facing and how long it's going to take. And frankly, most of them said to me, "Please go back and tell them not to pull us out because we are finally at a point where we have enough people here now on the ground between soldiers and Iraqis that we can actually start doing some good and start turning things around. And if you pull us out, we're just going to be back here three years from now."

KURTZ: More optimistic, at least than some of the journalists.

HESS: Yes.
He received feedback, including this corrective from one of his colleagues, Tom Plank.
I saw your post on Reverse Vietnam. I am deeply skeptical of the claim that the military misled the press or the American people about the Vietnam War. It may be that the top political leaders downplayed the costs of the war, and perhaps senior military officers went along with this, but I thought the reporting on the war was nevertheless much more negative than what was actually going on. The idea of the press reporting objectively on the war is I think another urban myth.

Two classic examples: the 1968 Tet Offensive, reported as a great defeat for the US, but which was a victory for the US and which was a devastating loss for the Viet Cong and NVA (essentially resulted in the destruction of the indigenous South Vietnamese Viet Cong).

The second example is the seige at Khe San. This was reported as a defeat for the US, with lots of comparisons to Dien Bien Phu, but the several month long seige at Khe San resulted in the destruction of several NVA divisions at the cost of several hundred US troops. By 1970, the US had defeated the NVA (the indigenous Viet Cong had long been pretty much out of the picture).

The real failure in Vietnam was not to invest in the development of a truly representative democratic government in the south and commit to protect that government from invasion from the north. Of course, then we were primarily interested in fighting communism instead of developing democracy and self determination. In Iraq, I think we have learned to foster self determination, local style.
It's an interesting theory. I wonder if many historians have remarked upon the gap between the events as understood by those closest to the action and how those same events were interpreted and passed along to the public at large by journalists. To tie to the practice of history, it also points to the hazards of over-reliance on journalistic accounts for historical sourcing. Private accounts need to be considered as well. To conclude, it seems that there is a similarity between Vietnam and Iraq: the willingness of many people, including historians, to take journalistic accounts at face value and to give short shrift to other accounts, especially postive ones, from the military and others.

No comments: