April 29, 2004
Iraq Situation: It’s Vietnam Deja Vu
Determination is a virtue. Remember how determined we were in Vietnam?
No bunch of barefoot peasants was going to force the United States of America to cut and run. No sir. Through eight long years and 58,000 dead soldiers we demonstrated our refusal to be cowed.
We were in Vietnam to protect the freedom of the South Vietnamese people against the godless communists who were out to enslave them. Unfortunately, the fact that the enemy was ethnically identical to the citizens we were protecting made it a little hard at times to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys.
Some of the troops got so fed up with the effort that they stopped trying to tell them apart. On their helmets they had a catchy solution: "Kill 'em all. Let God sort 'em out."
Then, as now, we had persuasive reasons for persisting, even after it became apparent that we couldn't win. There was the infamous "domino effect" of collapsing Asian countries if we left. And of course, the ever-popular "bloodbath" that would follow if the communists took over the South. Naturally, we had to keep fighting so as not to abandon our POW's, who, it turned out, were repatriated immediately after we left.
Then there was the knotty problem of how to leave. We needed to "save face," to ensure our continued credibility among the nations of the world (most of whom thought we were crazy to be there). We finally left the way we came -- on boats and planes.
During our prolonged adventure in Southeast Asia, we heard constantly that we were engaged in a struggle for the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese people. Sound familiar?
We tried to win them over with crop assistance and relocation to "strategic hamlets." We built schools and clinics. When that didn't work, we established "free-fire zones," where we shot anything that moved, including water buffalo.
And we were always making progress. Maps showing steady increases in territory "pacified" were popular backdrops for briefing senior administration officials when they visited. But the people doing the killing and dying had a slightly more cynical view. On a restroom wall in Long Binh I read, "Would the last person out of the tunnel please turn out the light."
In the end, we lost because we didn't belong. We were foreigners pursuing what we considered our own self-interest at the expense of a people we saw as "underdeveloped."
They sent us packing, because, in the end, they were more willing to die than we were to kill them. It was, after all, their country. Vietnam should have taught us this: Determination in the pursuit of folly is the indulgence of fools.
Now we seek to disengage from Iraq, that ungrateful tar baby of a country, wondering all the while at the absence of the flower petals with which the inhabitants were supposed to greet us, their liberators. Instead it appears that many of them hate us so much that it is not enough to kill us. They want to dismember our burned bodies and hang us from the nearest bridge.
Can't they see that we only want for them the freedom and democracy that is the natural condition for all people?
All right, we tell ourselves, the resistance to what is best for them is the work of a few "insurgents" or "Saddam loyalists" or "outside terrorists." Surely, most of the Iraqis like us and appreciate what we're trying to do for them.
Meanwhile, in a related story, our own country is in the hands of the most arrogant, secretive, ill-informed administration in memory. These are people for whom the lesson of Vietnam was that we didn't try hard enough, didn't give the military free rein. Sure we dropped more bombs on the place than were used by all parties to World War II, but, by gosh, if Washington hadn't micromanaged that war, if we had really taken the gloves off, we could have won.
As with Vietnam, we were wrong to go to Iraq, and we are wrong to stay. The action-oriented neoconservatives currently controlling our government are convinced that our proper place in the world is as an imperial power, disdaining the opinions of other nations, attacking preemptively whomever we feel threatened by. Do we imagine that the skewed intelligence and downright deceptions used to justify this war are irrelevant to its outcome?
And now, once again, standing on the ash heap of lies and miscalculations that have characterized this disastrous and unilateral aggression, the gang in charge looks at the rest of us smugly and speaks of a need to "stay the course" in an effort to sell this misbegotten invasion as an example of determined leadership in the war on terrorism.
If we are stupid enough to buy this approach for another four years, we deserve the whirlwind that awaits us.
Gordon Livingston is a West Point graduate who served as an Army doctor in Vietnam. He became an antiwar activist, and is now a psychiatrist in Columbia, Md.