PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Retooled Myths from Viet Nam to Iraq by peaceprobe
March 31, 2008, 1:00 pm
Filed under: Blaming the Victim, Detainees, Iraq, Politics of Empire, Viet Nam

Five years ago US troops invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein.  The news this week is daunting and violent – hints of more divisions in Iraq.   There are an estimated 2.5 million Iraqi citizens who have fled their county and another 2.5 million internal refugees.  Almost twenty percent of Iraq’s population have become refugees.   Thirty-three years ago, April 30, 1975 the war in Viet Nam ended.  After the Viet Nam war approximately three million people fled Southeast Asia, Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos. 

Viet Nam, now largely conflict free, is a nation with one of the highest economic growth rates in the world,  three times as high as the United States.  Viet Nam also has a lower poverty rate than its neighbours including India, China, and the Philippines. None of us can predict how conflicts will have been resolved in Iraq by 2045.

While history never repeats itself there are myth like patterns that are recycled.    We rely upon myths to explain war, peace, politics and the heavens.  Myths are part of our collective story that become more visible in times of war.  The five myths about US involvement in Iraq I discuss below, were alive during the Viet Nam war 40 years ago.  

Myth I: Blame the Victim: Turn on your TV and you will hear Presidential candidates or one of their Senate colleagues announce another ringing critique of the Iraqi government for failing to bring all Iraqis together in unity to fight terror.  The Iraqis are regularly chastised for dithering over how the vast oil resources will to be apportioned.  And just like the Viet Nam war, opportunistic politicians and trickster columnists charge Iraqis, often correctly with reckless disregard for human rights.  It is a message of blame.   THE LACK OF  PROGRESS IS THE FAULT OF THE IRAQIS.    IF THEY JUST DID WHAT WE THINK SHOULD BE DONE EVERYTHING COULD BE FIXED.  


For ten years during the Viet Nam war we heard a steady cacophony of voices from liberals, conservatives and even critics of the war that the South Vietnamese government which was propped up by the US was not democratic and repressed its people.  Blaming language was used by war proponents and critics.  A long term strategy that emphasized negotiations, and humanity instead of war making may have moved the world community in positive ways that we can only dream of.  

Myth II: If We Believe we are Helping!  It must be OK.  In the early years of the Iraq war I spent many days seeking out military officials of the occupation.  As I waited with Iraqi family victims to solicit information about detainees, often with little result, I talked with young officers and soldiers about the US mission.  In those early days when US hope for success had not yet yielded to disenchantment I was often told, “We are just here to help the Iraqis help themselves and then we will go home.”  

My mind flashed back to Viet Nam where I first encountered these innocent statements of purpose, often combined with talk of “hearts and minds”.   In Viet Nam I thought this was a newly minted rallying cry just for that war.  Forty years later I realize that these sincere lines about helping and concern have been woven through war on aboriginal peoples, the Philippine war and other imperialist adventures.  So you will understand why I cringed when I heard those words in Iraq.  My Iraqi co-workers listened politely to the soldiers, like Vietnamese did many years ago, but sometimes grasped the patronizing implications of this deeply held myth. 

While in Iraq I imagined a busy neat office nestled in the bowels of the Pentagon equipped with the latest copy and fax machines with data base list readied, their mission to coordinate the teaching and believing in this myth.  Later I decided that it is probably a fairly lean office lying in wait to send out its words whenever, wherever they may be needed.  Even without the copy machines, myths like “We are just here to help the people.” are embedded deeply within us.  That is why preachers, generals, politicians, candidates and sincere soldiers use these words with such powerful effect.

Myth III: War Helps Human Rights: As I made my rounds to military offices in Baghdad I never found a military officer or soldier who spoke disparagingly about human rights.  In fact for some the elimination of Saddam and the Baathist rule, was one of the greatest contributions to humanity in this age.  Some at mid and lower levels were genuinely frustrated that more could not be done for those Iraqis who had disappeared in the detention system.  One sergeant hugged me as I left his squad.   He told me that I was doing important work and hinted that he would like to join the group that I was with.  Soldiers with so much good will were still unable to protect prisoners at Abu Ghraib  

Nor did the good will of the soldiers protect us from ethnic cleansing, suicide bombers, independent armies, and the other multiple forms of terror that swallowed up the tidy conversations about human rights in the years that followed. .  In Iraq the humanitarian rules of warfare have taken a step backwards.   The use of terror on both sides with bombs and assassination programs characterized the conflict in Viet Nam too, where both sides appealed to the temporary use of violence in the interest of a greater good. 

Myth IV Our Exit Brings Greater Violence: When I finish my speeches one of the first three predictable questions is, don’t we have to stay now because if we leave things will get worse?  Won’t our departure lead to balkanization, greater instability and a larger blood bath?  The language of the question is almost identical to what I heard 40 years ago during the Viet Nam war.   The myth says that US forces, aid and advice must continue in order to make things come out less violent, more orderly, and democratic.  

The presence of foreign military players misshapes people and institutions who would not under local mores seek redress with guns, assassinations, suicide killings for religious or nationalist reasons.  And that presence, in effect, puts off the day when the diverse components of society can evolve in their own way by negotiations and confrontation towards greater participation and democracy.  No military power or outside mediator can make things come out right. In their own time local processes will allow a new balance.   The unified Viet Nam 33 years after the war ended, though imperfect in its respect for diversity, may in fact help everyone see long term hope for Iraq if foreign troops and US policies get out of the way.  

Myth V: These People Have Always been at War:   History is often written to emphasize the epic wars.  But the myth that the history of other societies, be they aboriginal peoples or nations  unlike our own, are a continuous unfolding of war and violence is false.  The sub text of this myth is that unlike us, “those” people are wired for killing and war at a deep level.  I invite you to travel the world with me to visit the families of victims wherever they survive and you will be disabused of any temptation to this false prophecy.  As we travel we will find deeply rooted threads of peacemaking in every tradition if we train ourselves to listen.

As children of this enlightened age we have become conscious of the power of these myths.    The stories about our enemies are the way that we humans create justification for killing the enemy.  Over time these narratives root themselves deep in our psychic habits.  When we live off the power of these beliefs we weaken ourselves and make the world more dangerous.  Myths are part of us and it takes energy, work, and conscious effort not to become victims of the damage that they unleash in our minds and through us to our culture.  

Those of us who live by the convictions of love for friend and foe, the life of nonviolence, also are invited to remind ourselves that our myth that love can and will overcome, is only convincing when it is grounded in real life and actions.  Ours is a living story.  It is not yet complete. Words strike the opening chord, but the symphony is completed with action. Our vision of the peaceable world can become truncated and used as a club  for manipulation by preachers, generals, and politicians and sometimes even by ourselves.  I wish I could tell you that the world could be neatly separated between those who only embrace the good myths and those who only embrace the bad myths. But it is not that way.  The myths of epic battles, violence and separation have life in all of us. It takes generations to infuse ourselves and our institutions with the habits of love.


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