Those of us who grew up during the Vietnam War carry some distinct memories into our maturity 40 years later: The visual atrocities of the young, naked, napalm-burned girl screaming as she runs down the middle of a mud street; the Vietnamese general executing a bound prisoner with a pistol shot to the head; the final choppers with troops shoving away throngs of those seeking to escape as they lift off from the roof of a Saigon hotel while the city falls to the North Vietnamese. And then there were the logical atrocities, Americans being told that we “had to destroy the village to save it.” It seems impossible, but here we are, all these years later, come full circle back to atrocity after atrocity in another horrific, scarring episode of a nation gone mad.
Then, as now, America had an excuse for wreaking unbelievable violence on another country. Then, we were told that Vietnam had to be “saved” from the relentless onslaught of communism. If we didn’t “save” Vietnam from communism, the nation would topple and the domino effect (a visual invention of the red-handed warhawks of that era) would turn all of Southeast Asia into a communist stronghold.
Now, in our latest bloody mistake, we are told that we need to “democratize” Iraq. Having “saved” the country from Saddam Hussein, the next step in this theoretical conversion is to wipe out “pockets of resistance” so America’s brand of democracy can be transplanted like a mysterious gene-splice, rendering Islamic theocracies and monarchies into good old count-every-vote (what a joke!) democracies.
Fallujah is today’s version of the military’s twisted “destroy the village to save it” logic. Yesterday’s headlines read: “General praises Fallujah assault.” Today’s headlines read: “Extended fighting leaves city in ruins.” Keep in mind that, unlike a Vietnamese village, Fallujah was a city of 300,000 people—three times the size of Missoula. The quote from the Marine sergeant charged with determining where to start the reconstruction effort says it all: “It’s incredible, the destruction. It’s overwhelming.” Fallujah, at least in the Orwellian lexicon of the military mind, has been “saved.” For those who need to believe in fairy tales, “liberated” is the term preferred by the Bush administration.
A quick tour of the Internet will provide you with quite a different picture than you’re likely to get from the local newspaper’s military-censored and sanitized coverage. You can read of the female Iraqi doctor, pulled out of the hospital by Marines while in the process of delivering a baby, who said she “will never forgive” the Americans.
Or how about the doctors and emergency medical personnel from the Red Crescent, the Mideast’s version of the Red Cross, who tried to bring aid to civilians in the city after a week of bloody destruction? Despite the fact that residents of Fallujah were without food, water and electricity, American troops refused to let a convoy of trucks bringing those vital necessities enter the city.
Or how about the descriptions of the carnage? Mostly what we see are pictures of American soldiers pointing guns nervously in all directions or kicking in doors. But photos and stories from other sources reveal streets filled with dead bodies—men, women, children. In one telling account, a battlefield reporter for the UK Independent writes: “After six days of intense combat against the Fallujah insurgents, U.S. warplanes, tanks and mortars have left a shattered landscape of gutted buildings, crushed cars and charred bodies. A drive through the city revealed a picture of utter destruction, with concrete houses flattened, mosques in ruins, power and phone lines hanging slack and rubble and human remains littering the empty streets.” This account is backed up by an Associated Press photographer who described it this way: “Destruction was everywhere. I saw people lying dead in the streets, wounded were bleeding and there was no one to come and help them out.”
This same AP photographer, Bilal Hussein, tried to escape the city by swimming the Euphrates River but, in his own words, “changed my mind after seeing U.S. helicopters firing on and killing people who tried to cross the river”—including a family of five that he personally witnessed being gunned down. It’s no surprise that such descriptions may well stir grim memories of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, in which men, women and children were indiscriminately slaughtered and their village torched.
The infamous picture of the Vietnamese general executing the bound prisoner has its own full-circle counterpart in this week’s grim footage taken by an NBC cameraman of an American Marine shooting wounded prisoners point-blank. The wounded prisoners, who had been left behind by advance Marine units, were supposed to be picked up by those who followed. Instead, lying unarmed and helpless in a mosque, they were executed by an American Marine as he cursed them for “playing dead.” “Now they are,” he is reported to have said as he walked away. Full circle.
Just as the Viet Cong melted into the jungle, many of the “insurgent” fighters fled Fallujah prior to the massive American assault, melting into the desert. This is the nature of guerrilla warfare—strike, run and live to fight another day. While we have destroyed a city and killed thousands, we no more “control” Fallujah than we controlled Hue, or Saigon, or any of a thousand military objectives for which tens of thousands died for a fleeting “victory.”
But there is no victory here. If we were internationally reviled for our preemptive attack on Iraq, we have exponentially increased that revulsion with our barbaric slaughter in Fallujah. We have created far more enemies than we have killed, enemies who hate us now and will hate us forever. Enemies who will show us the same mercy the Marine showed the wounded prisoners in the mosque. For these are the memories that do not fade when the full circle of senseless, ceaseless slaughter comes round.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.