EVEN as the ground war to liberate Kuwait grinds ahead, American and allied forces continue their devastating air assaults on Iraqi military targets. The visual aspect of this aerial ``War in the Gulf'' has borne striking resemblance to video arcade games - it's clean, it's controlled, and death seems far away. But more importantly, the image of America successfully waging high-technology warfare against a dictator like Saddam Hussein creates a world that makes sense to many people. In this world, the issue at stake is good versus evil, and the problem evil poses is being solved by technology.
Some Americans have always blamed United States defeat in Vietnam on liberal politicians who impeded the war effort. Both President Bush and Vice-President Quayle, like President Reagan before them, have said that the US lost the Vietnam war because we fought ``with one hand tied behind our back.''
In reality, the US escalated its warfare against Vietnam several times, each time predicting that intensified, high-technology warfare would bring victory. US political and military leaders took their approach toward war from modern economics and the large corporation. The American war machine would ultimately ``produce'' so many wounded and dead enemies that the Vietnamese would not be able to replace casualties. General Westmoreland and the Joint Chiefs of Staff called this moment of military insolven cy the ``cross-over point.''
On the ground, US forces conducted search and destroy operations to generate high Vietnamese body counts. Air Force and Navy planes dropped more than 8 million tons of bombs on Southeast Asia, four times the amount the US dropped in World War II.
Yet ``technowar'' did not produce the victory that seemed so logical. Many senior officers also lost sight of what they were doing to their own troops. The constant falsification of body counts and other lies in official reports heightened the troops' disillusionment. Beginning in 1968-69, this disillusionment led to what one analyst called the ``quasi-mutiny'' of American forces. Many soldiers concluded that they were being asked to kill and die just to make their officers look good.
Nor did the US ever reach the ``cross-over point.'' After the Tet offensive in February 1968, intelligence analysts recalculated the military's ``production'' equations. One group found that even by accepting the highly inflated American estimates of Vietnamese military losses, North Vietnam could supply men for another 12 to 20 years.
Lyndon Johnson resigned after hearing about these studies. Years later, in December 1972, President Nixon ordered B-52 attacks over Hanoi. Fifty-five thousand tons of bombs later, he and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger claimed victory. However, there were no significant differences between the October 1972 draft of the US treaty with North Vietnam and the version finally signed in January 1973. The truth is, despite the technological superiority and years of war effort by the US, we lost the Vietnam war. Our failure to come to terms with this defeat has left us stunted. Even the end of the cold war in 1989 did not fully efface the disgrace in Vietnam.
Winning the war against Iraq holds forth, more than just military victory, the mythical promise of making America well.
But what will victory mean beyond giving us additional videotapes of bombs and missiles hitting their targets? If Iraq is destroyed and tens of thousands of its soldiers and civilians killed, what will this do to generations of Iraqis and other Arabs? If the US tries to completely control the Middle East oil supply, how will this be interpreted by third-world countries already suspicious of Western ``imperialism''? The ``new world order'' promised by President Bush does not appear to be one of lasting p eace, but instead another era of protracted conflicts abroad requiring frequent US military intervention.
Moreover, this war meant to ``heal'' America will instead be a further wounding: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Japan, and Germany will finance only a fraction of the war's immediate costs. The American people will pay most, both in blood and money. Already the US is headed toward at least a $300 billion deficit this fiscal year. There will be no new money to deal with social problems at home; the deterioration of our society will continue unabated. Thus, despite the prospect of ``victory'' in the Gulf war, it i s a tragedy that will neither bring lasting peace to the Middle East, nor solve America's problems.