Thursday, May 10, 2007
Then, as Now--One Year Later
Editor's Note: Exactly one year ago on May 12, 2006, Postscripts was launched with a combination of high hopes and trepidation. The most pressing question at that time was the miasmic Iraq War, begun, we were told, to retaliate for the 9/11 attack. To mark the first anniversary of the inception of Postscripts, we are republishing this very first posting, originally titled "Then, as Now: The Grim Parallelism of Two Wars." The text has been revised only by the addition of one year to each pertinent date statistic. We regret to record that during the intervening 365 days, more than 900 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have died, senselessly sacrificed on the altar of vainglory. Like an immature adolescent, our stubborn and willful president has dug in his heels, determined to expend still more blood and treasure to leave this unnecessary war as his legacy to his successor. Sadly, his name is already stained beyond redemption. Here now is the text of that first piece, as meaningful today as it was one year ago:
We are now in the fifth year of our misadventure in Iraq. A major campaign in our so-called "global war on terror," it has had a singular lack of success. Instead of pursuing and capturing Osama bin Laden, the criminal who had everything to do with the terror that befell this nation on Sept. 11, 2001, we attacked Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with that foul deed.
We are again bogged down in a never-ending war for which we have neither a plan for victory nor a plan for extricating ourselves. Torn between support for our brave troops and a growing conviction the game is not worth the candle, public opinion in favor of the war in Iraq has dwindled. Military leaders, sensing an American military presence there lasting at least until 2010, now privately refer to it as "the long war," a name that brings back memories of our bitter involvement in Vietnam.
Then, as now, a supine Congress was seduced into authorizing a war through presidential deception. Forty-three years ago it was a trumped-up attack on two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Four years ago it was Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction plus a trumped-up conspiracy between fundamentalist Osama bin Laden and a secular Saddam Hussein that did the trick.
Then, as now, the administration defended its policies in spite of increasing evidence that nothing was going according to plan, that strategy was being improvised as we went along. Then, as now, we were told there was "light at the end of the tunnel." We must "stay the course." We cannot "cut and run." We would be dishonoring those who had died if we did not stay and take additional casualties.
Then, as now, thousands of fighting men and women were sacrificed because leaders who had never served in a shooting war or had even made an effort to serve in the military, were proclaiming that victory was just over the horizon. To suggest exploring any other course of action was unpatriotic, if not treasonable,
Then, as now, advisors were only too ready to pronounce our mission as accomplished. Walt Rostow, a professor from MIT serving as head of the National Security Council, repeatedly predicted the imminent collapse of the Vietcong insurgency. Two years ago, Vice President Cheney speaking of the violence in Iraq, told the American people, "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."
In Vietnam, American divisions trained and equipped to throw back Warsaw Pact armies pouring westward through the Fulda Gap in central Germany found themselves facing wily guerrilla fighters in an impenetrable tropical jungle. In Iraq, the small, highly mobile attack force we fielded to defeat Saddam's tenth-rate army in an arid desert found itself undermanned and unable to cope with a fierce insurgency armed with apparently limitless improvised weapons.
Then, as now, it was impossible for military leaders to speak frankly about the ill-defined policy our unprepared forces were valiantly trying to carry out. In 1966, retired Gen. David M. Shoup, former Marine Corps Commandant, who was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for valor in World War II, called the Vietnam war a mistake and was criticized for questioning the leadership and military decisions of commander in chief Lyndon B. Johnson, and defense secretary Robert S. McNamara, while our troops were fighting and dying there.
Testifying before Congress, he said that the government's contention that Vietnam was vital to American interests was "poppycock"; in his view, the whole of Southeast Asia "was not worth a single American life." General Shoup expressed the growing feeling of many Americans when he said, "I believe that if we keep our dirty, bloody, dollar-soaked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed, exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own." He added, "If unfortunately their revolution must be of the violent type, because the 'haves' refuse to share with the 'have-nots' by any peaceful method, at least what they get will be their own, and not the American style, which they don't want and above all don't want crammed down their throat by Americans."
Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, hero of Korea, braved the same fate in a 1971 article in the authoritative journal Foreign Affairs. He wrote, "It should not have taken great vision to perceive that no truly vital United States interest was present and that the commitment to a major effort was a monumental blunder." Recently, a handful of retired military officers of flag rank spoke out against the conduct of the war in Iraq and the lack of clear-cut goals. They were met with a barrage of criticism for not having spoken up when wearing a uniform and quickly silenced.
Then, as now, we proclaimed that our aim was solely to bring the almost magical curative powers of democracy to a part of the world that had never known it and to restore a nation of longtime antagonistic elements. In Vietnam, our announced aim was to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, only to discover this could not be accomplished if we were at the same time killing innocent civilians, destroying their villages and despoiling the countryside.
In Iraq, our vaunted reconstruction program to repair and reconstruct what we have damaged has stalled because of poor planning and widespread corruption. We have discovered that an occupying power cannot prevail over a sullen population if entire neighborhoods or even whole cities must be destroyed to root out insurgents who see us not as saviors but as invaders and occupiers.
It took 58,000 American deaths and 150,000 wounded in Vietnam before we concluded that our leaders did not have a clue about their goals nor the courage to extricate themselves from the morass into which they had plunged us. Although undefeated in battle after battle, in the end, we did indeed ignominiously cut and run under the pressure of public opinion.
Future historians will see many parallels between Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush: An immoderate yet insecure ego, a limitless capacity to wield the power of their office without inhibition and a stubborn aversion to altering a course of action once it was decided upon. Lacking their predecessors' ambivalence, which sprang from their keen sense of history, both also lacked their predecessors' capacity for reflective thinking, especially about the consequences of their decisions.
Three decades ago Robert McNamara, a genius at statistical analysis and architect of the Vietnam debacle, was forced to admit defeat and give up the post of defense secretary. Paul Wolfowitz, university professor and author of our failed Iraq policy, similarly gave up his post as deputy secretary of defense when the promised happy throngs of welcoming Iraqis never materialized, replaced by shadowy, vengeful insurgents. Interestingly, as if to reinforce the parallelism of Vietnam and Iraq, both McNamara and Wolfowitz were rewarded with the same new post: the presidency of the World Bank.
Our folly in Vietnam had many sources. Chief among them was the illusion of American omnipotence--a conviction that America could impose its will anywhere in the world. Senator J. William Fulbright properly called it "the arrogance of power," a term eerily echoed today by our actions in the Middle East.
What we failed to understand then was that the problems and conflicts affecting other nations could not be solved simply by the application of American force. Nor could a solution be achieved with American know-how or America's good intentions and by imposing our unique brand of democracy, the latter painfully shaped from the Anglo-Saxon tradition over more than two centuries. Ironically, these very same delusions are now responsible for our entanglement with the tar baby that is Iraq.
Government exists for the benefit of its citizens. We should not be spending blood and treasure in a vain attempt to instill democracy elsewhere if, at the same time, we diminish it here at home. Human casualties are bearable only when they serve a purpose. They become a bitter price to pay when it turns out they were sacrificed for nothing.