“Tourists in Vietnam and dilettantes at war”, wrote the haunting Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando in the 1976 movie Apocalypse Now, about American soldiers on one-year duty in Vietnam. As B-52s boomed overhead, trying to pound the VietCong into submission, these young soldiers seduced the Vietnamese on the ground with America’s irresistible popular culture.
Rock and roll, sex and drugs quickly spread throughout southeast Asia and to Singapore. Even earlier during World War II, German women were easy prey for American soldiers distributing panty hose. As conquerors, Americans have been far better received than the forces of history’s earlier empires. Even in Japan, the feared street fightings which were expected to take American lives never materialized.
As the United States of America prepares to send a new crop of soldiers on one-year tours to another war zone, the question arises: will they too be bedevilled by the fate of their predecessors' More important, will they succeed in their mission' The answer to the latter is a resounding “Yes”. Iraq is nothing like Vietnam.
The dissimilarities are obvious. For one, Iraq is under US control to an extent Vietnam never was. Another is that Baghdad capitulated after hardly putting up a fight. Clearly, Iraqis do not share the VietCong’s visceral hatred of Americans. The feared Republican Guard collapsed not because it did not have the stomach to fight, but because Saddam Hussein was not worth fighting for.
Yet, Iraq is not proving to be a walkover. Pockets of opposition remain. As the barrage of fire surrounding the deaths of Uday and Qusay, and the recent blast in the United Nations headquarters confirmed, Iraqis are armed to the teeth. If they wanted to, they could make life jittery for patrolling GIs. The resistance is made up of die-hard Saddam loyalists and is therefore small scale. There is no chance of them acquiring heavy weapons — Iraq’s borders are not porous like Vietnam’s, and there are no sympathetic neighbours.
So, while it is assured that America will succeed, the first question remains. Will young GIs become tourists in Iraq and dilettantes at war' The answer is they most probably will. Strict regulations on fraternizing with beautiful Iraqi women will not stop normal human urges on both sides. The fact that US soldiers are the ones in control, wielding power, makes them even more attractive. Already the “strong element of prudence among a large part of the population,” that Charles Tripp at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies predicted is falling away.
Take me home
“Over-paid, over-sexed and over here”, grumbled the British during World War II of the bright and fresh young American soldiers sent to save their blitzed and battered country. One can expect similar sentiments from Iraqis who have suffered under Baathist dictatorship and 12 years of sanctions. In any case, as today’s global culture shows, Americanization is inevitable. In early modern Europe, the Christian Madonna inspired great works of art that remain prized collectibles. In the modern world it is America’s Madonna that inspires a great swathe of the world population.
With 140,000 troops already in Iraq and two more brigades earmarked for deployment, Iraqis will bump into an American GI at just about every streetcorner. With them will come all the mod cons of American life. Iraqis are bound to be impressed as the British and Germans were more than half a century ago.
Tourism will bring wealth to a weary and poor people long before the oil wells start pumping again. With the rise of GI tourism, one can expect that even the piecemeal resistance will peter out. Iraq would not be Arab and Asian if anti-Americanism did not linger, but it will be of the variety that was best summed up by the slogan, “Yankee go home, but take me with you!”