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Issue #1710      November 11, 2015

Culture & Life

The new Vietnam War?

If you watched the TV news near the end of October, you could not have missed the coverage of the death of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, a US soldier and acknowledged member of the elite Delta Force who was allegedly killed during a raid on an ISIS facility in Iraq.

Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler.

We not only saw footage of the supposed raid, conveniently videotaped, but also of course the arrival of his body back in the USA. A colour studio portrait of his stern, shaven-headed visage accompanied every story. The coverage was surprisingly extensive given that Delta Force specialises in covert, ultra top secret operations “behind enemy lines” to extricate hostages or simply to “take out” (i.e. assassinate) people the US government or military regards as significant enemy personnel.

As former US State Department official Peter Van Buren wrote in his Washington-based blog, We Meant Well about the Middle East, “The United States does not formally acknowledge the existence of Delta Force, and rarely mentions the names of any of its members, even after they leave the service. … Most of the unit’s actions abroad are never mentioned publicly, and when an operator is killed in combat, often the death goes unmentioned in the press, or [is] attributed sometime later to a training accident.”

Van Buren found the extensive – and explicit – coverage given to Wheeler’s death to be most unusual. He should know: he spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer. He wrote about that in his book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books). In his blog he noted that “Wheeler was not only acknowledged as having fought with Delta, but his photo was widely published. That in itself is usually a no-no, for fear of linking him to others and outing active duty Delta.”

The US has supposedly withdrawn all its ground troops from Iraq, yet as Van Buren also noted, “[Wheeler’s] place of death, on the ground, deep inside Iraq, on a strike mission, was explicit, with only a little bullshit thrown in about how Delta was present to provide security for the Kurdish raiding forces seeking to free some hostages”. This Van Buren does not believe for a moment: “Nobody in their right mind believes America’s finest special forces are sent out to provide security for a bunch of gussied up militiamen.”

In fact, as you read Van Buren’s summation of the “mission” on which Sergeant Wheeler allegedly lost his life, the whole thing smells. “He was fighting the most evil enemy of America (for now), Islamic State. He was on a successful rescue mission; hostages were freed, prisoners released, some IS bad guys dispatched. And the whole thing was conveniently videotaped – a videotaped special-forces raid. How often do you see that? You don’t.”

Instead, Van Buren ponders the significance of all the public attention to Wheeler’s death. “The president of the United States has made it explicit that his war against Islamic State would not involve any American ‘boots on the ground’. Well, Sergeant Wheeler most definitely was an example of boots on the ground.” Van Buren, however, saw a much deeper and more worrying significance: “We, the public, are being readied for a larger US combat role in Iraq and Syria, one big enough that it will be hard to keep hidden.”

The US has been waging an undeclared war against Syria for several years now. At first they used the so-called Free Syrian Army, the proxy “rebel” army they cobbled together from disaffected Syrians, special forces from the US, UK, Turkey and Israel plus “volunteers” from Saudi Arabia. When the actual Syrian army defeated them, they were pulled out and sent to regroup in Jordan. With plentiful Saudi money, and under US supervision, they re-emerged as Islamic State and were sent into Iraq and back to northern Syria. The destruction they have wreaked in Syria has forced four million people to flee as refugees (giving former Prime Minister Tony Abbott – knifed by his own Party – the opportunity to lecture European leaders on how to deal with the refugee crisis by “turning them back”).

Less than 24 hours after Van Buren wrote his article, his prediction of how Washington would use the death of Sergeant Wheeler as a propaganda tool to enable the US to escalate its war against Syria, came true. US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter unveiled a “new strategy”, supposedly in the war against Islamic State. “For the first time, American military advisors will overtly be on the ground in Syria, some of the existing 3,200 advisors in Iraq will be moved closer to the front lines [i.e. closer to or even into Syria], and American special forces will be sent into direct combat in both locations.” – Common Dreams.

However, as Jon Rainwater of US group Peace Action pointed out, “With [Obama’s] ‘no boots on the ground’ promise broken there’s no telling how many US troops will ultimately be sent to Iraq and Syria.”

Although the immediate target of the latest escalation is clearly Syria, the USA’s main target remains Russia and China, its political, military and above all economic rivals. Russia has a naval base in Syria, and both Russia and China support Syria diplomatically as well as militarily.

The US has bombed targets in Syria since September 2014, spending over US$4.75 billion on more than 6,059 air-strikes in Iraq and Syria. They have not stopped ISIS, but then, despite the hype, they were never meant to. The US economy and foreign policy are now hitched to the strategy of continuous war as well as a ramped up Cold War. Unable to oust Syrian leader Assad and install instead a compliant strongman of its own choosing, the USA’s plans for the region now seem focused on turning the fighting in Syria into another Vietnam War. But the US leadership should remember, it lost that one.

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