Thursday, August 26, 2004

Why Vietnam Still Matters

The debate about John Kerry’s service in Vietnam and his anti-war activism as a veteran is a reminder that Vietnam is more than just a war the United States lost three decades ago. Vietnam is, in fact, a cautionary tale for the war the United States is fighting now in Iraq. Just as Vietnam was a campaign in the Cold War against Communism, Iraq is claimed to be part of the War on Terrorism. And just as Vietnam was a disaster for both America and Vietnam, the current war has all the makings of a similar disaster for America and Iraq. The difference is that this time, the consequences are likely to be far more significant.

The United States got into Vietnam with little real understanding of that nation or its history. All we could see was evil Communists about to take control of another country. So we ignored Vietnam’s long history of nationalist resistance to outside intervention and we ignored the lessons of the French defeat at the hands of their colonial subjects. We waded right in, first with advisors and military aid and, when that was insufficient, we brought in combat troops. In the end, however, America could not sustain the effort needed to support a weak, corrupt government against a far more determined foe. Our withdrawal in 1975 was a national embarrassment but did little to diminish America’s standing in the world.

Iraq is different in some respects–we dove right in with our troops rather than wading in–but the similarities are all too haunting. Now that the US has destabilized a brutal dictatorship, there is no indigenous leadership that can hold a fractious, tribal society together. Whatever good will Iraqis had toward us as liberators has long since been replaced by disappointment at our inability to restore basic services or order. This, in turn, fuels nationalist, tribal and religious conflicts that have now pinned the United States down in a far more hostile situation than the Bush Administration ever imagined.
Our invasion promised a flowering of democracy. What we have produced is mayhem and civil war that has taken American lives and resources beyond what Americans were led to expect.

Like Vietnam, we are now fighting to salvage some semblance of credibility. Bush cannot admit that his grand plan and vision were little more than wishful thinking, so American and Iraqi lives are now sacrificed so that the administration can maintain the fiction that it knows what it is doing. In fact, what America is doing is simply trying to stave off defeat.. Richard Nixon prolonged the agony of Vietnam so that he would not be the first president to lose a war. George Bush is doing the same in the hope that he can somehow validate his decision to invade Iraq.

Unlike Vietnam, however, Iraq is likely to have far more serious consequences for this nation. The fall of Saigon was clearly a defeat for America but it had little practical consequence for this nation. In contrast, our actions in Iraq have wholly dissipated the good will toward America shown by the rest of the world after the 9-11 attacks. America’s failure to find the much ballyhooed weapons of mass destruction has eroded our credibility at a time when we are more than ever dependent on the rest of the world to work with us in fighting terrorism.

The pernicious effects of America’s unilateral war are further amplified by the prisoner abuse scandal and our destruction of Iraqi neighborhoods as we fight the insurgency. The abuse of Iraqi prisoners borders on war crimes. The “collateral damage” caused by our military operations may not be war crimes but for those in the line of fire, it cannot be anything less than harrowing. Either way, these actions are taken by US forces in the name of America. And in that regard, we are all responsible.

Which brings me back to the issue of John Kerry’s anti-war statements in 1971 and the hostility of veterans those statements engendered. When Kerry spoke in 1971 he was stating an obvious fact, i.e, that American forces at times committed war crimes. Veterans claim that this statement falsely accused them of war crimes. What he did was speak the truth for which all Americans, veterans and civilians alike, share at least some responsibility. The same is true of Iraq. Specific actions may be perpetrated by a small number of “rogues” and ignored by responsible commanders but in the end, those actions are taken in our name. And they harm this nation. It was true in 1971. It is true in 2004.

So I guess there is some value in debating that long ago war. It has some very important lessons for our current war.


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