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Published in the 1-15 Jan 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Iraq: ghost of Vietnam

By Corey Habbas

The bustling Tan Son Nhat International airport in Vietnam hides any appearance of American military presence. Only an echo of a helicopter's rough flutter may still be audible to the combat-scarred civilians passing by duty-free shops on any given day.

Although this April will mark the 30 year anniversary of the American War in Vietnam, a closer look will reveal more than just faint echoes and ghostly apparitions. The war that ended 30 years ago continues to affect the quality of life for Vietnam's third generation and heckle at the American collective psyche.

Land mines and UXO (unexploded ordnance) have killed or maimed more than 100,000 Vietnamese between 1975 and 1998 (the last year for which statistics are available). Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant dropped by the U.S. military to strip all plant life from the landscape, is still claiming victims. Born blind, deaf, limbless or destined to contract childhood cancers, the Vietnamese family has been broken down again in the form of a sustained; the legacy of over 20 million gallons of herbicides thrown at the land and the people. 

Collective Psychology
In 2003, hundreds of thousands of antiwar Americans took to the streets in protest of the Iraq War. Outrage rippled into academic and political discourse just loud enough for the peace movement to earn the role of nagging subconscious-mind of the American collective.

However, America's pro-peace minority was not loud or powerful enough to impact the decision to invade Iraq. Add the pressures of the Vietnam War past. Hippies, the breakdown of the traditional family, drugs, and 58,000 American military casualties is what the American collective remembers of the Vietnam war, courtesy of the mass media machine. In the end, it's a recipe to avenge a bruised national ego.

Too much is at steak for the American psyche. "We can't lose this. It is too important," says Republican Senator, Chuck Hagel and Vietnam War Veteran, in a CBS "Face the Nation" interview. 

So, the air strikes come first, dropping 500 pound bombs that melt through residential homes in the city of Falluja. Places of prayer evaporate in the settling dust. Air attacks destroy more than half of the cities mosques.

In what seems to be a post-election show of muscle by the newly re-elected Bush administration, the American collective attacks the ghost of Vietnam. Communism shifts to terrorism. 

A banner erected by American troops over a camp adjacent to Quang Ngai thirty years ago read, "We thank you for liberating us from Communist terror". The camp was to house 12,000 refugees forced from their homes at American gunpoint. 

Now the slogan reads- Operation Iraqi Freedom. Like all templates, the template for war sounds familiar to those who have been twisted through its gears. "There was no North Vietnamese attack on a U.S. destroyer in the Tonkin Gulf. There were no Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. Both times we went to war on the basis of misinformation", says one Vietnam Veteran, Don Lucas, in a newspaper interview.

It would take no less than another Tet Offensive and more American casualties to sway the American public support for the war against Iraq. Although, according to a recent report from The Lancet, 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a result of U.S. invasion and occupation, these numbers fail to ignite widespread American condemnation. The approximately 3 million casualties sustained by Vietnam together with its neighbors, most American's are unaware of even now.

Reconstructing Diplomacy
Roughly 2.5 billion dollars designated for Iraq's reconstruction has vanished, according to a recent New York Times report. The United Nations audit released by Democrats on the Government Reform Committee found numerous process flaws related to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority and U.S. occupation official's mishandling of funds that were set aside to rebuild Iraq. 

"The Bush administration cannot account for how billions of dollars of Iraqi oil proceeds were spent," said Congressman Henry Waxman, Senior Democrat on the committee according to an Associated Press report. "The mismanagement, lack of transparency, and potential corruption will seriously undermine our efforts in Iraq."

The audit team found numerous problems: funds were used for prohibited purposes, lack of records on file, no invoices, no competitive bidding process, no payment vouchers, double bookkeeping with major discrepancies, checks written to officials and administrators rather than to the intended suppliers. All in all, no proof whatsoever that any of the funds went into rebuilding Iraq.

Meanwhile civilians wait for circumstances to brighten, for hospitals and schools to re-open in the place of rubble. They wait for medical care that never arrives. They wait for jobs and rebuilt infrastructure. 

Hope for Iraq

Depleted Uranium (DU) is to Iraq what Agent Orange is to Vietnam. First used in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War, this toxic and radioactive heavy metal has caused 130,000 American troops and an unknown amount of Iraqi civilians to contract cancers, and a barrage of other life-threatening conditions including the emergence of birth defects in their new born children. 

DU can be found in "smart bombs", cruise missiles, tank shells and A10 aircraft Gatling gun bullets. When DU is fired, it burns and particles of metal vaporize into uranium oxide aerosol that can blow from location to location on the wind and even penetrate chemical masks to be inhaled. 

The dangers of cleanup are prohibitive. As of 2003, half of the DU cleanup crew for the Gulf War had died. Currently, the United Nations receives reports from Great Britain listing coordinates where their troops have used depleted uranium, however, the United States does not provide such information.

In the Gulf war alone, American and British troops left Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia with an estimated 600,000 pounds of DU. The DU half-life is 4.5 billion years, which means the effects of radioactivity are indefinite by all practical terms.

The effortless destruction waged against Vietnam and Iraq by the superpower war-machine marks a new time in history. The days when people once hoped of recovering from war are over.

Corey Habbas can be reached at

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