The Lessons of 1968

The Vietnam War proves there are no good arguments for the United States to delay withdrawal from Iraq. Withdrawal is already overdue.

I, too, am a 1968 model. I admit it. I’m not as proud of that as I am of being German. Just as it is coincidence that I was born in Germany and grew up in its western part, I also come from one of those random vintages called the 68ers. Because they, like me, started their twenties in 1968.

Unfortunately, I suspect my readers aren’t in the least disappointed that I don’t appear in news clips in which youth gaily hop, hop, hop in their attempt to fit into post-Nazi society. I also didn’t belong to that group who, like Bavaria’s Minister-President Gunther Beckstein, was first provoked by his contemporaries to make a commitment, first to the Young Union, and then later to the Old. I was a member of the more passive part of the 1968ers.

Completely without irony, I now find that I learned a lot from my more active peers of that time. The most important thing I’ve discovered is that the Vietnam War, waged by the United States, was wrong and evil. That was an incredibly important and radical realization. It grew in our society the longer the war lasted. It grew up in the societies of Western Europe and North America with the pictures from Vietnam that flickered across our black and white television screens. It continued to grow with every GI who returned from Vietnam, whether healthy, dead, or wounded. The 68ers, especially in the United States, grew from those opposed the Vietnam War. They recognized that the United States had no business being in Vietnam.

War against communism

Before 1968 the majority of citizens in West Germany, including me, believed that America was fighting a legitimate war in Vietnam to halt the spread of communism. In the years after 1968, fewer and fewer people believed that. In 1976, when US troops were driven out of Vietnam, history had clearly erased any such ideological justification for everyone.

Today, as the 1968 movement’s 40th birthday is celebrated and often damned in sociological and political articles in Sunday supplements, it struck me that the most important lesson to be learned from those activists is being ignored, because now it has unfortunately become quite relevant once again. Germany is fighting a war of skirmishes under American command in distant Afghanistan. And the United States wages war with massive troop deployments in Iraq.

The American war in Iraq shows amazing parallels with the Vietnam War. Both wars were started under false pretenses. For both wars, there is not a trace of international legal justification. In both wars, US troops serve as an occupying power. Both wars exact from America enormous costs and a significant number of dead and wounded. Far worse are the consequences of this war on the occupied countries themselves. There are millions of refugees. Recently, Pope Benedict XVI lamented that many Iraqi Christian victims have fled to the neighboring countries of Iran, Syria, and Jordan as well as to Europe.

Nevertheless, there is a major difference between Vietnam and Iraq. US forces in Vietnam were opposed by an organized enemy the Americans disparagingly called the Vietcong. It was the national liberation movement which functioned under the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party. They took over national power when the United States retreated, and it was with the Communist Party that Henry Kissinger negotiated the Paris Agreement that heralded America’s withdrawl. The certainty that withdrawal would lead to a Communist takeover had served until then as a justification for a continuation of the war.

Implausible predictions

The uncertain balance of power in Iraq today serves as a justification for the notion that that the Americans cannot “let them down,” as it is euphemistically put. In fact, no one can predict what would happen if US troops were withdrawn. We know only that the predictions of the war party lack credibility. The forecasts of the U.S. government and the intelligence services on Iraqi reaction to the invasion of foreign troops were indeed at best wishful thinking, perhaps even deliberate lies. It is possible that war between different Iraqi political factions after a US withdrawal could intensify. But it is at least as likely that those forces, both those within the government and also those outside opposing them, may come relatively rapidly together in compromise.

The lines of conflict in Iraq do not run primarily along the religious divide between Sunnis and Shiites. The struggles between the government forces and the predominantly Shiite militias in the last few days have clearly shown that. They also show that resistance to the occupying forces is larger than they are willing to acknowledge. The desire most Iraqis have in common is the rapid withdrawal of American forces. There is no argument in favor of their continued presence.

The U.S. government has suppressed the lessons of the Vietnam war ever since Ronald Reagan. The American electorate will – perhaps – take note of the lessons learned in Iraq next November. The German government, whether red-green or black-red, (Trans. note: a reference to a possible Socialist – Green Party coalition and the current coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists) believes it is wise to neither occupy nor disregard foreign countries. The government has avoided direct participation in the war against Iraq. And the war in Afghanistan, where Germany is participating, still looks comparatively harmless. But signs of a major defeat are already beginning to show there, as well.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply