BACK IN THE MID-1960s, the redoubtable Gen. Curtis LeMay advocated ending the Vietnam war quickly by bombing the Asian country "back to the Stone Age." Although Sen. Barry Goldwater never used those precise words when he was running for president, General LeMay's remark seemed to capture Mr. Goldwater's secret sentiments. Most Americans thought such talk was too extreme, so they overwhelmingly elected Lyndon B. Johnson, who proceeded to bomb Vietnam "back to the Stone Age" -- only a little more stealthily than Mr. Goldwater would have done.
As years passed there came to be a widespread perception that Vietnam was "lost" because the war was waged too timidly. Mindful of this sentiment, President Bush, as he went to war against Iraq, lost no time in reassuring an apprehensive nation this would be not be "another Vietnam" -- meaning, not another war fought according to Marquis of Queensbury rules.
Whatever else you may think of the war, you have to grant that Mr. Bush has made good this promise so far. Iraq has become one vast firing range on which military planners battle-test the awesome and spectacular weaponry in America's "high tech" military arsenal.
What has this unprecedented delivery of firepower accomplished? Well, one thing it has not accomplished is to put so much as a scratch on Saddam Hussein -- the man who, if President Bush is to be believed, is the sole and exclusive cause of the trouble in the Middle East. What has been accomplished is massive destruction, not just of military installations but also, if 11 King Hussein of Jordan is to be believed, of roads and bridges and power plants and oil refineries -- the whole panoply of the infrastructure of Iraq. This doesn't even count "collateral damage" done to homes, hospitals, schools, factories and the like.
Administration spokesmen frequently are at pains to make clear that we have no quarrel with "the people of Iraq," whom we routinely portray as being "oppressed victims" of the thug Saddam Hussein.
The fervently pro-war Washington Post foreign affairs columnist, Jim Hoagland, suggested this week that it is "vital" for America to persuade surviving Iraqis in the future that their grief was brought upon them not by American missiles and bombs, but rather by the fiend Saddam Hussein. The Wall Street Journal, ever ready to go to war at the drop of the Dow Jones Average, weighed in the next day with an editorial supporting Mr. Hoagland's "well-argued" position, all but sounding the trumpet for a ground war to begin so that the Army and the Marines would have a chance to show their muscle now that the Air Force and the Navy have had their turn.
Perhaps our first effort in the post-war -- or should we say, post-Saddam -- era should be to dispatch Mr. Hoagland and Wall Street Journal Editor Robert Bartley to Iraq to sell their "well-reasoned" ideas to the humbled Iraqis.
So the upshot is simply this: Tens of billions of dollars worth of weapons are now being used to destroy a war machine everyone knows is dangerous (as is any war machine in the Middle East), but also to destroy tens of billions of dollars worth of vital non-military facilities which happened to lie "in harm's way," to use the military euphemism. Even if Saddam Hussein were strung up today by his own countrymen it would take the rest of the century to restore Iraq's infrastructure -- forget about the military machine.
Whatever else you may say about the Vietnam war, by failing to win it we at least left without an obligation to repair the damage. We let the victorious Communist regime stew in its own juices for 17 years; only now are we beginning to make tentative overtures about restoring normal relations with Vietnam. But you can bet your last tax dollar that sooner or later, American aid in some form will begin to flow to Vietnam -- as well it must if stability is ever to be restored to Southeast Asia.
When Saddam Hussein is dispatched to his deserved fate, either by his own people or by the American-led coalition at some incalculable cost in money and lives, what will be the responsibility of the United States to relieve the misery of the Iraqi people, with whom we "have no quarrel"? At least theoretically a post-war Iraq would have the potential for a flowering of a democracy, which would not be the case with the hereditary monarchy we propose to restore to its "legitimate" place in Kuwait.
For the first time, Secretary of State James A. Baker III indicated this week that he recognizes the United States will have some obligation to rebuild Iraq once we have "won." That is remarkably at odds with the position taken by Mr. Baker's predecessor, George Shultz, who said on the MacNeil/Lehrer news program that he favors what amounts to total defeat of Iraq, unconditional surrender and war crimes trials for Saddam Hussein and his top henchmen.
Whichever of these positions we take, the question becomes: Do we undertake, after the war is over, the kind of recovery program that was extended to the Germans and the Japanese after World War II?
Or do we instead use increasingly scarce resources to replenish our military arsenal for target-practice on some yet unknown Third World country in the future?
Don't bet the farm on which way we will go.