A history lesson as missiles hit

Dan Rodricks

January 18, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

"How was Vietnam different from this one?" the young man asked.

They were sitting in front of a panel of three television sets, each of them blaring with anchormen and war experts. It was prime-time, Day Two of the Persian Gulf War, just an hour after the missiles struck Israel.

"Cruise missiles," the older man said. "I don't remember cruise missiles in Vietnam. But I'm no expert. There might have been missiles. Jets fired a lot of missiles. But there are other ways it was different . . ."

"Like what?" the young man asked. He was 23, born the year of the Tet Offensive.

"Well, it wasn't like this," the older man said. He was 37, born the year the Korean War ended. He was a father now, had a little boy born the year Operation Desert Storm began.

"Vietnam was a slow build-up over years," the older man said. "It didn't really have a predetermined starting date, like this one. It started slowly. By the time people were really paying attention, we had hundreds of thousands of troops over there."

"But it was on TV."

"Yeah," the older man said. "But in bits and pieces. And Bob Hope specials. Not like this, with 'round-the-clock coverage. For years, Vietnam was reported in my hometown paper with a daily news story running down the left-hand side of the page -- same spot every day -- accompanied by a map of Southeast Asia, with all sorts of strange names. People didn't pay attention until the casualties mounted."

"When did you start paying attention?" the young man asked.

"Some people will say they started paying attention back in '64 when Congress gave L.B.J. the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. I didn't pay much attention until '67. That was when the first guy from my hometown came home in a casket. He was a lance corporal in the Marines, son of the town's police chief. I'll never forget that. His name was Peter Moskos. He had two younger brothers my age. His father was a friend of my father's; they used to play poker. Anyway, I'll never forget the funeral. We all went to the mass. It was terrible. The war went on for years after that."

"There were protests, right?"

"Yeah, especially after '67 or '68. A lot of protests. The colleges constantly had protests. It was constantly in the news. Kent State was in '70. The country was ripped apart. My uncles would sit around the dinner table at family gatherings, telling us stories from World War II, and my draft-age cousins would argue about the differences. The uncles couldn't understand why they went against the country. The arguments were ferocious. In World War II, everyone was united because they understood what was at stake. In Vietnam, after a while, we couldn't say for certain why guys were dying."

"What other differences?"

"Well, we dropped a lot of bombs on North Vietnam, all the way up in Hanoi. We bombed the North's supply lines, but I'm not sure we ever found the supply lines because they were covered by jungle. We lost a lot of pilots over North Vietnam. That's a big difference so far. The gulf war is high on high-tech. It's like some stratospheric video game."

On one of the TV screens in the room, a correspondent in Tel Aviv donned a gas mask. An anchorman said three SCUD missiles had hit Israel. At the time, no one knew if any Israelis had been killed. No one knew where this ominous development would take us. There were a lot of things we didn't know. In the skies over Iraq, U.S. warplanes were flying bombing missions. People were probably being killed somewhere. Live and in color: The World's New War, brought to you by the New World Order.

And here was a 37-year-old man giving a clumsy, impromptu history lesson about America's last war to someone who only knew Vietnam from history books, or from people who had lived through the darkness of the 1960s. He'd missed out. Now, with the Persian Gulf exploding, he was sure to have a war to tell his kids about.

"There are some similarities between the Vietnam War and this war," the older man said.

"Like what?" the young man asked.

"Well, they both occurred far from our shores, with a lot of people wondering what the national security interest was. In both cases, the decisions leading up to war were made by a president and a handful of advisers in the White House. Congress got into the act later. Then came the people."

The history lesson ended. We all turned our attention back to the TV screens, to the new war.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.