Dusk settles over the twin black slabs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which nestles in a Washington hillside like an enormous tomb. A few visitors linger along the pathway, gazing at the polished granite that bears the names of 58,175 dead or missing servicemen and women. Some people have left tiny American flags or yellow ribbons at the base, although one note says-. “Peace now, no more memorials”—the only visible sign of protest against the nation’s current war in the Persian Gulf. One visitor, Bob Giddings, a 43-year-old architect from Grassy Creek, N.C., says that although he opposed the Vietnam War, he supports the one against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. “The things he’s doing, it gets my dander up,” Giddings says. But, glancing back at the wall, he adds: “I keep wondering if there’ll be another wall for the Gulf War, and how big it will be. ”
To Americans, Vietnam is not just a place, not just a war. It is a national trauma, a nightmare of death and divisiveness that only nominally ended when the last U.S. helicopters fled from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975. The countless Vietnam books and movies since have not ended it. Nor did Ronald Reagan’s stand-tall-America rhetoric, nor the minor military triumphs in Grenada and Panama. The legacy, and the pain, live on. “No more Vietnams,” chant protesters against the Gulf War. And President George Bush repeatedly, almost obsessively, declares: “This will not be another Vietnam”—after deploying massive forces to seek a swift and sure victory. Even Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has conjured up the spectre of Vietnam, arguing that America cannot stand the blood of a long and brutal conflict. With the two sides fighting their first deadly ground battle last week, the question is indeed a haunting one: Will Americans, and their coalition allies, still support the war as the casualty count inexorably climbs?
Administration officials are clearly worried that they will not. Although recent U.S. polls show that between 75 and 85 per cent of respondents support the war, American political and military leaders have been trying to stem the public gush of optimism that followed the Jan. 16 announcement of the initial bombing of Iraq. The war, they say, may take several months and cost many American lives—particularly against a well-dug-in dictator who was willing to sustain 500,000 deaths in the eightyear, no-win war with Iran. As the vocal antiwar minority continued its protests, VicePresident Dan Quayle warned: “If we get
bogged down like Vietnam in a long, protracted campaign against Iraq, public support for the President will begin to dissipate.” Experts say that Quayle may well be right, especially if rising American casualties are not accompanied by rousing military victories. If they are not, said Atlanta-based' pollster Claiboume Darden, “then Bush better hire an architect to build his
library, because he’ll be out of office soon.” For other members of the 31-nation allied coalition, the war effort has won general public support—but also carries enormous risks. In Canada, an Angus Reid/Southam poll taken immediately after the war started showed that three-quarters of respondents backed the Canadian military presence in the Gulf. But less than half supported Ottawa’s decision to allow the country’s 24 CF-18 fighter planes to escort allied bombers attacking Iraq. And although the nation’s 1,850 air and naval personnel in the Gulf are overshadowed by the massive, 500,000-strong American force—
and the Canadians have no ground troops—the possibility of casualties among Canadian airmen clearly worries federal officials. Among the European allies, only Britain and France have fielded ground troops; despite strong support for the war in both countries—and soaring popularity for their leaders—they could be vulnerable to the negative impact of a
high death toll. The coalition’s Arab allies, meanwhile, face different strains—not primarily from the prospect of casualties, but from public pressure against fighting fellow Arabs.
From the start, the White House and the Pentagon set out to minimize American casual'*• ties in the Gulf—and to minimize public exposure to them. Many defence officials openly blame media coverage for losing the Vietnam War by fuelling antiwar sentiment that eventually led to the American pullout. However, a 1989 U.S.-army study by historian William Hammond attributed the military failure and t ultimate withdrawal to the government’s re-
fusai to prosecute the war more vigorously. “What alienated the American public in both the Korean and Vietnam wars was not news coverage, but casualties,” Hammond wrote.
Defences: That is at least part of the reason that coalition forces have been bombing massively to soften up the Iraqi defences before beginning a gruelling ground war. But despite Hammond’s not-guilty verdict on the media, the U.S. administration has also been waging a concerted public relations war—a war, to use the Vietnam-era phrase, for the hearts and minds of the American people. The Pentagon has severely limited media access to the fighting, allowing only small, tightly controlled socalled pools of reporters to visit selected areas ^ of the front. g
As a result, most war news comes from § military briefings in Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian ° capital, and in Washington. At those, U.S. gen' erais emphasize the high-tech wizardry and so-called precision bombing of American strikes, often § accompanied by impressive film footage. The officers provide no estimates of civilian casualties, which they call “collateral damage.” The Pentagon line, said retired rear admiral Eugene Carroll, who commanded an aircraft carrier in Vietnam and who is now deputy director of the liberal, Washington-based Center for Defense Information, is that “we’re fighting a very clean war, with clean hands—we don’t hit people, we just hit targets.”
Pentagon officials are also limiting public exposure to American deaths—called KlAs, for “killed in action.” They have abandoned the tradition of public honors for returning war dead at Delaware’s Dover Air Force Base, clearly fearing that the repeated TV images of flag-draped coffins would undermine public support. The cameras began recording the first home-town funerals for Gulf War dead last week. The relatives of some of the slain servicemen have, s along with their grief, expressed con| tinued backing for the war effort. “He 2 knew what he was there for,” said § Teresa Snyder of Kenmore, N.Y., u mother of 21-year-old Lance-Cpl. David Snyder, one of 11 Americans killed in the ground battle at Khafji, Saudi Arabia. “I don’t feel my son died for nothing.”
Still, some experts say that the general public’s tolerance for such casualties may not be high. “The memory of Vietnam has not faded,” said Gary Orren, a professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. “The U.S. psyche is still troubled.” And John Mueller, political science professor at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, declared: “If we get several thousand dead, Bush is going to be in big trouble.”
However, Michael Robinson, associate professor of government at Washington’s George-
town University, argued that the government is “over-concerned about American public opinion—politicians always underestimate how that will take care of itself if the victories are there.” To date, America has been awash in yellowribboned, flag-waving displays of support for the war effort. In the naval base city of San Diego last week, 3,600 people, wearing red, white or blue T-shirts, formed a giant American flag that was then photographed from a blimp, with the resulting poster to be sent to U.S. troops in the Gulf.
Vote: Not all Americans are so supportive. Although Congress passed a unanimous resolution backing U.S. troops in the Gulf two weeks ago, the initial Senate vote approving the use of military force was only 52 to 47. Cliff Newsome, 31, a stylist at Little Willie’s Hair Salon in Detroit, said that although “Hussein is totally wrong,” the American government “is always stepping in a lot of places they have no business—you have to clean up your own backyard first.”
There have been sizable antiwar protests across the country, including a 75,000strong showing in Washington as the war began. But although those numbers could well multiply in the coming weeks, the peace movement could only have suffered when, in an interview with CNN’s Peter Arnett last week, Hussein thanked the “noble” demonstrators in the West.
Hussein has made a concerted effort to influence Western opinion. For nearly two weeks, Arnett was the only major Western journalist allowed to remain in Iraq. The gov-
ernment has subjected all his reports to censorship, while showing him bomb-damaged civilian areas—an attempt to counter American claims of pinpoint bombing of strategic targets. By week’s end, Baghdad had admitted 25 more foreign journalists and taken them on a tour of a hospital, where they saw civilians being treated. But so far, most of Hussein’s moves—firing Scud missiles at Israeli cities, displaying battered POWs and, according to U.S. officials, emptying oil into the Persian Gulf—have only reinforced Bush’s characterization of him as a latter-day Adolf Hitler. And Harvard’s Orren said that, precisely because Hitler was so blatantly evil, the Second World War is the exception to the rule that high casualties create low support.
Reaction: In Canada, the reaction to the war has been generally supportive, although more muted than the gung-ho Americans. Two weeks ago, Parliament passed, by 217 to 47, a motion reaffirming Canada’s backing for the UN resolution demanding Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait—while not technically declaring war. That cautious approach reflects public ambivalence, especially with Canada’s offensive part in the air war, which seems to contradict the country’s traditional peacekeeping role. Canadians, said Brian Mandell, professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, “want to be counted tall among the allies, but also want to be seen as peacekeepers.”
Harriet Critchley, director of the University of Calgary’s strategic studies program, said that
because the country has not fought since the Korean conflict, most young Canadians have no experience with war. “That’s why there’s so much questioning,” she said. Even without the potential for high Canadian casualties, said John Wright, a vice-president of the Angus Reid polling firm, “when body bags begin to arrive home, there will be some downward impact” on public opinion. And Wright predicted that opinions will change from week to week.
“It’s a volatile issue,” he said.
“Canadian moods are going to swing on this sucker.”
Waste: Still, many Canadians seem firmly committed to their positions. “I think anybody’s involvement in the war is a waste of time,” said Melissa Defosse, a 25-yearold bartender on Quadra Island, B.C. There have been antiwar demonstrations from coast to coast, including a Vancouver rally two weeks ago attended by several thousand people. Lee Hitchins, president of Canadian Vietnam Veterans-Ottawa, who was one of 35,000 Canadians to serve in the U.S. military during the war, said that he has “real mixed reactions” when he sees the demonstrators. “They certainly have the right,” said Hitchins, now a 46-year-old bookstore owner in Smiths Falls, Ont. “But I don’t agree with it. I know the ramifications on the fighting man.” But Patricia Sharpe, a 43-year-old substitute teacher in Glenwood, P.E.I., said that although she supports the war, she has struggled with how she would react if the allies suffer high casualties: “I haven’t really come to a consensus.”
In Britain, which has 35,000 troops in the Gulf, polls show that 80 per cent of respondents support the war; more than 70 per cent said that they would remain steadfast even if 1,000 Britons were killed. However, Col. Andrew Duncan, an analyst at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, said that “perhaps people have no true idea of
what casualties mean—and won’t until the bodies start coming home.”
At the moment, polls show French support for the war at 80 per cent. But there are marked signs of discontent in President François Mitterrand’s Socialist party. Just hours after the allies began bombing Iraq, France’s dovish defence minister, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, announced that the country’s 12,000 troops would not fight inside Iraqi territory.
Mitterrand quickly reversed that decision and, last week, Chevènement resigned. About 20,000 French troops were killed in the bitter Algerian defeat of 1954 to 1961—in effect, France’s Vietnam. Predicted Marcel Godfroid, a French national living in Brussels: “The Algerian experience will weigh on French readiness to suffer losses in the Gulf, quickly removing France’s stomach to fight if things turn badly.”
But it is the United States that bears the brunt of the coalition’s offensive—and will doubtless suffer the brunt of its casualties. At the height of the Vietnam War, as protesters marched outside the White House, President Lyndon Johnson used to stare out the window and ask plaintively: “Why are they doing this to me?” That pressure eventually convinced Johnson not to run for re-election. Bush is plainly aware of the high stakes of the Gulf War and is determined to triumph before the casualty count begins to take a political toll. Last week, addressing flagwaving service families at Fort Stewart, Ga., he declared: “When we win, and we will, we will have taught a dangerous dictator that the United States has a new credibility, and what we say goes.” Clearly, U.S. officials hope not only to drive Hussein out of Kuwait—they hope, once and for all, to drive away the demons of Vietnam.
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