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Online Chapter: Peace Symbols: Posters in Movements against the Wars in Vietnam and Iraq

Part 2. The Movement(s) against the War in Iraq

The period between the Vietnam War and the two wars in the Persian Gulf was hardly free of military action on the part of the United States. But it was largely dominated by what became known as the “Vietnam syndrome”: an unwillingness of the United States to use direct military force in the form of armed intervention into another country. Coined by Richard Nixon, who saw it in negative terms as fear to intervene militarily, the syndrome was seen by many as a sign of wisdom and perhaps even the beginning of international justice. However, interventions, such as President Ronald Reagan’s attempts to control the governments of El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s, continued,the intervening years between Vietnam and Iraq were in fact intervention years. although they were conducted more covertly, and without acknowledged direct U.S. military action. After these efforts chipped away at it, the Vietnam syndrome was declared officially dead by President George Bush in 1991 with the Persian Gulf War. However, because that war was short, and had wide support at home and abroad, so it was not a real test of the Vietnam syndrome. The syndrome was not really laid to rest, or so the administration thought, until the invasion of Iraq led by Bush’s son George W. From the point of view of right-wing U.S. policy makers, the economic and political stakes in the Middle East were too high, and the desire for control too total, to allow the Vietnam syndrome to stand. From the point of view of peace activists, however, all this looked like “déjà vu all over again,” calling up not just memories of Vietnam but the massive energies of that antiwar movement.

As with Vietnam, a long colonial legacy is part of any story of the war in Iraq. The country was invented by British colonialism in the early twentieth century. With a long and proud history going back to ancient Mesopotamia, the territory now called Iraq was set up as part of the spoils of war by the British after World War I. After World War II a series of unstable governments in Iraq eventually led to the emergence of a military junta backed by the United States and headed by Saddam Hussein. Over the years Saddam solidified his power and emerged as the dictatorial leader of his country. U.S. policy toward Iraq and the Middle East region generally has been erratic in the extreme, leaving a legacy of extreme distrust. For example, despite Saddam’s well-known torture, abuse, and murder of his own citizens, the United States backed him and provided him weapons in his war in the 1980s with regional rival Iran. The United States provided this support because it viewed fundamentalist Iran as a greater threat than secular Iraq. The weapons and technology the United States gave Saddam are among those being used today against U.S. forces.

One of the most highly educated populations in the Middle East, Iraqis are well aware that self-interest, not an altruistic desire to “spread democracy,” is at the heart of current U.S. policy in their country. The erratic history mentioned above, the vast oil reserves, the commercial possibilities, and the strategic position of Iraq at the heart of the Persian Gulf region are widely understood there as to be the reasons for the invasion and occupation. Gratitude for the ouster of Saddam dissipated quickly when it became clear that the invasion was to be followed by a long occupation. Unlike in Vietnam, the insurgents are not widely popular, because most citizens do not share the religious extremism motivating the anti-U.S. forces. But the insurgents are seen, as in Vietnam, as fighting in part for the country’s independence. That has helped make the occupation a recruitment force for terrorists who previously had little hold in Iraq, given Saddam’s secularism and fear of overthrow by these very forces, partly backed by Saddam’s Iranian enemies (a sentiment represented in yet another parody of the Uncle Sam poster, Figure 25).

Figure 25. No author, 2002. Courtesy of Tom Paine.com and the Florence Fund.

As in Vietnam, the U.S. presence created a civil war where before there had not been one. But the sides in the Iraq internal conflict are far more complicated than in Vietnam. Apart from a few members of the business elite, there is very little backing for the U.S. occupation, but there is considerable fear of an Iranian-style Islamic fundamentalism that could emerge were the insurgents to gain power.

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