Alibi V.13 No.19 • May 6-12, 2004 

Ortiz y Pino

The Tar Baby Syndrome

The fog of war settles in Iraq

Every time I read statements by someone in the Bush administration or one of its Neocon apologists among the nation's political commentators who are strenuously denying any similarities between the American experience in Vietnam 35 years ago and what is taking shape in Iraq today, I find myself thinking about Uncle Remus.

You know the story that comes to mind, the Tar Baby. Brer Fox gives him a terrible beating when the Tar Baby refuses to be cooperative ... or even friendly. But the more that Brer Fox whomps that Tar Baby, the more messed-up Brer Fox gets, getting stuck increasingly in the soft, yielding sticky tar. Eventually he can't even move, becoming so wrapped up in the mushy, nonresistant goo.

A friend who served in Vietnam tells me that our soldiers never lost a battle there. Our military won every firefight, captured every objective and invariably inflicted more casualties than we took. And yet, after a dozen years of that kind of battlefield success, we scrambled out, barely managing to leave before the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong overran our last bases of operation.

We won every battle but we lost the war. And then we kept on suffering Vietnam casualties for 30 years as the pain of that experience, both the personal and the national suffering, continued to play out. The scars won't vanish for generations.

Now we've trapped ourselves in another example of the Tar Baby Syndrome, the ill-conceived and potentially catastrophic adventure in Iraq which grows more ominous and less likely to be quickly resolved.

Predictably, the chicken hawks within and outside the Bush team are adamant in refusing to admit how slippery this Iraqi slope is getting. Yet when I watched the riveting documentary The Fog of War a couple of weeks ago, the explanations put forth by Robert McNamara for how we got drawn into the quagmire in Southeast Asia sounded eerily parallel to the Bush-Rumsfeld-Cheney rationales for what we are doing in Iraq.

And while there are definitely tremendous differences in the circumstances and the players involved in our two greatest misadventures, the underlying dynamics are distressingly alike.

McNamara says now (ah, blessed hindsight!) that our most crucial error in Vietnam was to view the struggle there as a battle between Communism and Democracy. Once it was framed that way, the Cold War mindset required us to interpret it as a matter of holding the bridge against the Red Menace, our troops commissioned to protect our way of life somehow in a tiny global backwater 12,000 miles from our shores. It became important, a line in the sand; a statement.

Fog of War shows several sequences in which long lines of dominos topple across a map of Asia. That was our fear. That was our rationale.

But in fact, McNamara admits in the film, he sees now that Vietnam was actually a civil war. The complete collapse of the Soviet empire a dozen years after Vietnam shows just how weak a boogeyman International Communism actually was. There was no domino effect. And the million lives lost during the war, 54,000 of them Americans, the violence done by the war to our national psyche, the economic cost—none of that was necessary.

In short, we scared ourselves into the darkest chapter in our history. Exactly what we seem to have done again in the Persian Gulf.

Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, USAF (retired) spent the final 10 months of her 20-year military career working on the staff of the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans (OSP), helping to prepare for the Iraq war.

Her narrative about that experience is fascinating and disturbing. It can be read in full on the Internet, at I recommend it, but be prepared to take notes, as the implications of what she says are very scary.

What she describes is a process in which the struggle of the Iraqi people for freedom from a cruel tyrant was cynically and very deliberately reframed. In the hands of the neoconservative ideologues within the Bush administration, it was twisted into something apocalyptic: a skirmish in the cosmic struggle between good and evil; the have-nots and us; Islam and Christianity; terrorism and democracy; and never forget the bedrock question: Who will control the region's incredible oil wealth?

Smells like Tar Baby. "War is generally crafted and pursued for political reasons" the colonel notes, "but the reasons given to the Congress and to the American people for this one were inaccurate and so misleading as to be false. Moreover, they were false by design ... the real reasons for the occupation of Iraq (are) more bases from which to flex U.S. muscle with Syria and Iran and better positioning for the inevitable fall of the regional ruling sheikdoms. Maintaining OPEC on a dollar tack and not on the Euro and fulfilling a half-baked imperial vision also played a role..."

So we are fighting for regional and global dominance while the Iraqis (like the Vietnamese in the last generation) are fighting for survival against an invader. I can't help believing that once again our military superiority means we are going to win every battle in Iraq ... for years and years to come.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.