Reversal of rhetoric

John Wheeler

December 16, 1992|By John Wheeler

HAS anyone noticed that the reasons for the Somalia expedition reverse the rhetoric of the protest against the Vietnam War?

The 1960s rhetoric was rooted in two basic themes: America should not impose its will on Third World countries, and America should not act as world policeman. Two collateral but much less widely accepted arguments were that the North's operations in the South were an indigenous liberation movement, and a Communist South was acceptable since Vietnamese communism would not spread.

By 1968, it was clear to many of us young West Pointers that the war was poorly commanded: Gen. William Westmoreland's plan was to keep feeding us into a war of attrition. Later, we would learn that Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and others had lied to the American public about the size of the buildup, and as part of the lie kept slipping U.S. forces into Vietnam piecemeal, trapping us in the strategy of attrition.

But despite the misbegotten strategy, most of us young soldiers in Vietnam found the sacrifice worthwhile. We knew that we were trying, however ineptly and in spite of injuries wrought by our own forces, to stop a pattern in South Vietnam where millions of innocent rural citizens were victims of atrocities that had been systematically carried out for 20 years by regular and irregular troops led by Ho Chi Minh.

One atrocity in particular made up my mind: Ho's men disemboweling a pregnant woman in a South Vietnamese paddy to terrify poor villagers into submission. I saw the pictures. Ho was doing this all the time.

So I nearly fell out of my chair last week as I watched former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young and other panelists on the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour explain that it is right for America to send soldiers to Somalia to save millions of innocent rural citizens from atrocities, including starvation, being inflicted by regular and irregular forces.

I was surprised by my anger. Here was a protege of antiwar and civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. saying we must go into a Third World country to impose our will, to be the police.

I was caught by unthinking bitterness: Yeah, safe by age, people can pontificate about where soldiers should fight and die. And the race thing: Somalis are black, Vietnamese are yellow, Bosnians are white. It's OK to let the innocent yellow and white die? We vets -- black, white, Asian and Native American -- damn well knew what's worth dying for, and now a lot of us are on the wall in Washington. And where the hell was Andrew Young in 1968, and why wasn't he saying that the sacrifices being made by young soldiers were as profound as Martin's? The essence of soldiering is sacrifice.

Then my anger settled on the appropriate target: the old men who lied in 1965.

I am not saying that the political and military circumstances in Somalia are the same as those in Vietnam. They are very different: The perpetrators of atrocities in Vietnam had been organized for decades and were heavily armed, and China and the Soviet Union were their allies. And there was no overwhelming United Nations consensus that we intervene.

But the antiwar rhetoric, the philosophy, was not based on a military calculus. It was a theory of the limits to interference in other countries' affairs. In Desert Storm, it was military experts saying it was right to send troops to stop Iraqi atrocities. Now it is Andrew Young, and the debate is about feasibility, not principle. This is a sea change in American opinion about the use of our military forces.

Does it mean that those who mocked us vets when we came home now feel the value of the sacrifices we made? If so, it means a new take on Serbs or any other group that terrorizes the innocent.

The change in thinking about where to use our soldiers also is an indication that Americans are recovering their appreciation of sacrifice for the common good at home. This comes not a moment too soon, given the crises we face together.

John Wheeler was chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund from 1979-89; he is now fund-raising chairman of Beyond the Wall, which supports the Smithsonian exhibit of items left at the wall.

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