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Are We Bound to Forget How the Iraq War Really Happened?

If history is any indicator, it'll only be a few decades before Americans won't be able to recall the timeline of the war in Iraq.

| Wed Feb. 19, 2014 7:00 AM EST

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

It's 2053—20 years since you needed a computer, tablet, or smart phone to go online. At least, that's true in the developed world: you know, China, India, Brazil, and even some parts of the United States. Cybernetic eye implants allow you to see everything with a digital overlay. And once facial recognition software was linked to high-speed records searches, you had the lowdown on every person standing around you. Of course, in polite society you still introduce yourself as if you don't instantly know another person's net worth, arrest record, and Amazooglebook search history. (Yes, the fading old-tech firms Amazon, Google, and Facebook merged in 2033.) You also get a tax break these days if you log into one of the government's immersive propaganda portals. (Nope, "propaganda" doesn't have negative connotations anymore.) So you choose the Iraq War 50th Anniversary Commemoration Experience and take a stroll through the virtual interactive timeline.

Look to your right, and you see happy Iraqis pulling down Saddam's statueand showering US Marines with flowers and candy. Was that exactly how it happened? Who really remembers? Now, you're walking on the flight deck of what they used to call an aircraft carrier behind a flight-suit-clad President George W. Bush. He turns and shoots you a thumbs-up under a "mission accomplished" banner. A voice beamed into your head says that Bush proclaimed victory that day, but that for years afterward, valiant US troops would have to re-win the war again and again. Sounds a little strange, but okay.

A few more paces down the digital road and you encounter a sullen looking woman holding a dog leash, the collar attached to a man lying nude on the floor of a prison. Your digital tour guide explains: "An unfortunate picture was taken. Luckily, the bad apple was punished and military honor was restored." Fair enough. Soon, a digital General David Petraeus strides forward and shoots you another thumbs-up. (It looks as if they just put a new cyber-skin over the President Bush avatar to save money.) "He surged his way to victory and the mission was accomplished again," you hear over strains of the National Anthem and a chorus of "hooahs."

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Past is Prologue

Admittedly, we humans are lousy at predicting the future, so don't count on any of this coming to pass: no eye implants, no voices beamed into your head, no Amazooglebook. None of it. Except, maybe, that Iraq War timeline. If the present is any guide, government-sanctioned, counterfeit history is in your future.

Let me explain…

In 2012, the Pentagon kicked off a 13-year program to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, complete with a sprawling website that includes a "history and education" component. Billed as a "public service" provided by the Department of Defense, the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration site boasts of its "resources for teachers and students in the grades 7-12" and includes a selection of official government documents, all of them produced from 1943-1954; that is, only during the earliest stages of modern US involvement in what was then called Indochina.

The Vietnam War Commemoration's educational aspirations, however, extend beyond students. "The goal of the History and Education effort," according to the site, "is to provide the American public with historically accurate materials and interactive experiences that will help Americans better understand and appreciate the service of our Vietnam War veterans and the history of US involvement in the Vietnam War." To that end, the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration offers an interactive historical timeline.

By far the largest and most impressive offering on the site, the timeline spans 70 interactive pages with 830 individual entries that take a viewer from 1833 to 1976. The entries run the gamut from tales of daring and sacrifice from the official citations of Medal of Honor recipients to short offerings about changes of command. There are even couple-of-sentence accounts of relatively minor operations—like a December 20, 1969, sweep in Binh Duong Province by elements of the 1st Infantry Division, which captured 12 of 18 members of a North Vietnamese intelligence unit and 2,000 documents that "proved how much information the enemy had about American operations."

It's an eclectic mix, but give credit where it's due: the digital chronology does mention casualties from the oft-forgotten first US attack on Vietnam (an 1845 naval shelling of the city we now know as Danang). For the next 131 years, however, mention of Vietnamese dead and wounded is, to put the matter as politely as possible, in short supply. Flawed history, though, isn't.

History is Bunk

Take the August 2, 1964, "Gulf of Tonkin Incident." It was a key moment of American escalation and, by the looks of the Pentagon's historical timeline, just what President Lyndon Johnson made it out to be when he went on television to inform the American people of "open aggression" on the part of North Vietnam. "The USS Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese gunboats in the Gulf of Tonkin," reads the entry. A later one mentions "US Naval Vessels being fired upon by North Vietnamese on two separate occassions [sic]." Case closed. Or is it?

Click here to see a larger version

The official story, the one that kicked off a cycle of US military escalations that led to millions of casualties in Indochina, went like this: the USS Maddox, a destroyer, was innocently sailing through the Gulf of Tonkin when it was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats on August 2, 1964. President Lyndon Johnson, showing great restraint, refused to respond militarily. Two nights later, the North Vietnamese attacked again, targeting the Maddox and the USS Turner Joy and prompting the president to take to the airways to announce that "renewed hostile actions against United States ships on the high seas in the Gulf of Tonkin have today required me to order the military forces of the United States to take action in reply." Johnson sought and Congress quickly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution—giving the president carte blanche to repeatedly intensify the war in the years to come.

But as it turned out, there was nothing innocent about those US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin (as the President had implied). A claim of two separate attacks on US Navy ships turned out to be untrue and the congressional resolution had not been drafted in the wake of the supposed attacks, but had been written months before, in anticipation of an opportune incident. In addition, the single attack by those torpedo boats occurred in the wake of a maritime raid on the North Vietnamese coast—part of a covert program of attacks that Johnson had approved months earlier.

After reviewing the history of the incident, it seemed to me that the timeline was on distinctly shaky ground, but I decided to get a second opinion and went to the man who wrote the book on the subject, Edwin Moïse, author of Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. He did me not one, but two better. He also pointed out apparent errors in the July 11, 1964, entry, "Joint Chiefs of Staff Unveiled '94 Target List,'" and criticized the August 4, 1964, entry, which offers nothing more than a title: "Two US Aircraft Downed."

"I think this is simply false," he told me by email. "I am not aware of any US aircraft downed that day and I think I would know." These planes, he suspected, were actually lost the following day while flying missions "in retaliation for the (imaginary) second Tonkin Gulf Incident on August 4th." The August 2nd Tonkin Gulf entry, he added, was "not quite accurate" either and was only "marginally useful" insofar as it was "close enough to the truth to allow readers to go looking for more information."

With that in mind, I turned to Fredrik Logevall, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book Embers of War:The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam and author of Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam, a landmark study of American policymaking on Vietnam from 1963 to 1965. When it came to the Commemoration's take on the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, he told me that "some context for this entry is sorely needed."

"There's little doubt in my mind that the administration entered the month of August [1964] looking for a pretext to flex a little muscle in Vietnam," he added. "Finally, it should be said the administration misrepresented what occurred in the Gulf, particularly with respect to the alleged second attack on August 4th, which evidence even at the time showed almost certainly never happened."

None of this essential context can, of course, be found anywhere in the timeline. Still, everyone makes mistakes, so I meandered through the Pentagon's chronology looking at other key entries.

Soon, I found the one dealing with My Lai.

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