In December 2004, I got into an argument about the Iraq war with a strong Bush supporter. It was friendly: at least then, the man and I had a liking and respect for each other. Some time later, for various other reasons, I lost that respect. But at the time, we had this friendly argument. Needless to say, he wasn’t just a strong Bush supporter; he was, and remains, a vocal supporter of the Iraq war as well. (Is one possible without the other?)
My fear, I said to him, was that this war was going to be America’s new Vietnam—as a bumper sticker you will see in the States says, “Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam.” Having lived in the United States for years, having come to think of it as a second home, this possible quagmire troubled me deeply. Not just for the death and destruction caused by the war, but for the way it would inevitably wound and scar a nation and people for whom I have such abiding affection. I feared the return of the moral quicksand of the Vietnam era, the legacy of bitterness and anger even 30 years have been unable to wipe away.
When I said this to the Bush supporter, he scoffed genially. This was no Vietnam, he said. This was a quick and efficient war (even though it had already raged for over 18 months after Bush himself pronounced that the hostilities were over). In fact, this man said, “I think by next year this time they’ll have long left Iraq. Shall we plan a little celebration if that happens?”
“Next year this time,” was December 2005. No celebration in the works, of course, then or since. The Iraq war is no closer to an end than it was when we had this argument, and looks more like a quagmire every day. More like Vietnam every day. Does it give me any pleasure that I won this point in our argument? Not in the slightest. Iraqis and Americans are dying every day, and opinions are even more polarized than they were then. No, my overriding feeling is that I wish he had won the point. I wish the United States had indeed long left Iraq, that the war had come to an end.
When will the United States leave Iraq? Will it be a decade and more, hundreds of thousands dead, a shamefaced helicopter withdrawal from a besieged embassy building in Baghdad? Will it be a presidency tainted, a nation sliced down the middle, another nation war-ravaged and left to lick wounds for a generation? All that happened with Vietnam. Will it happen with Iraq?
I don’t know. But to me, it seems headed that way.
You might ask, why should I care about that here in India, apart from my personal connection to the United States?
Well, the Iraq war rouses passions in India too, to a much greater degree than Vietnam ever did. This is because of the old Islamic terrorism bogeyman that many Indians fear. Osama, Dawood, Memon, Saddam—these are names etched into our consciousness now, the high priests of the worldwide terror we believe we suffer greatly from. We do indeed suffer, and these are indeed great criminals. If a strong nation reaches out to smack one or two of them hard, we applaud that because we have not been able to do it. (Though with that, of course, we are resentful that that same strong nation actually counts as an ally one more of those names: Musharraf.)
But what concerns me is the form this passion takes in India. Inevitably, it turns into mistrust and hatred of the Indian Muslim. Inevitably, it gets tangled with our memory and experience of a bloody Partition, of war in Kargil and bloodletting in Kashmir, of the killings in Godhra.
And inevitably—and this is what really worries me—it allows us to overlook our own homegrown terrorists. Such as the killers in Delhi in 1984, or Bombay in 1992-93, or in Gujarat after Godhra, 2002. None of this bloodshed was any less appalling than the crimes of Osama and Dawood; yet rare is the Indian who will admit that. It gets worse: there are even enough Indians who will rationalize our homegrown terror; they will say it had to happen and was a good thing.
To me, this is the reality that the Iraq war manages to obscure in India. For I truly believe that unless we find the will to punish our homegrown terrorists—Indian men who slaughtered other Indians in 1984, 1992-93 and 2002, and at plenty of other times too—we will never defeat terrorism, Islamic or otherwise.
Yet the way we shy away from such punishment, the way we sometimes even applaud these terrorists, carries faint echoes of that moral quagmire of Vietnam. Because it divides India just as surely and profoundly as Vietnam, and now Iraq, divide the United States.
After all, where’s the meeting ground when a man is a terrorist to some people, but a life-saving hero and patriot to some other people?
So here’s the final reason I yearn for an end to the war in Iraq. Because as long as the United States is trapped in the fighting there, there will be people in India who offer learned discourses on the threat from Islamic terrorism. That helps turn our attention firmly away from the great criminals in our own midst. Not that I really believe that if the war ends, we will focus on punishing those criminals, not at all. But at least one excuse to sidestep that focus—the Iraq war as the fight against global Islamic terror that we had all better join—will be gone.
The way things stand, it seems I will have to wait a decade and more—perhaps until a helicopter takes off from the top of a Baghdad embassy, perhaps until that country I consider a second home is convulsed in bitterness—yes, it seems I will have to wait that long for my yearning to bear fruit. Not one year for a war to end, but a generation.
Please let me lose that point.
A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.