The same mistakes

August 27, 2004|By Larry Starkey

A DEEP American wound has been reopened, one so painful that many who long ago felt its jab have kept silent ever since that day in late April, 1975 when the last helicopter full of refugees lifted off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Eleven years of death and destruction in Vietnam had torn America apart as nothing else had since the Civil War, and many hoped those times would simply melt away into the cold pages of history books.

But the debates swirling about Sen. John Kerry's actions as a soldier and later as an antiwar protester has injected new life into an old controversy. The Swift boat issue seems as if it won't go away, just as President Bush's National Guard record won't disappear, because of the times in which both men, and many voters, were young.

It's the conflict in Iraq, of course, that has reprised Vietnam memories. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which authorized the use of U.S. military force in Vietnam, was premised on a claim that North Vietnamese warships had attacked the destroyer USS Maddox. Like the claims that Iraq possessed and would find a way to use weapons of mass destruction, that resolution was only later discovered to be a figment of Washington's imagination.

For standing tough while promising peace and security in that earlier election year, not to mention offering a Great Society of wealth, health and happiness for all Americans, incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson won a landslide victory. Shortly after Inauguration Day, however, 125,000 combat troops were ordered into Southeast Asian jungles, and Selective Service began inducting young men into the military at a rate that would reach more than 30,000 each month at its peak.

Iraq is certainly no Vietnam, but the similarities seem to mount with each passing month as policy-makers show little evidence of having learned anything in the last 40 years but to keep the media from filming body bags. As Vietnam escalated, its cost rising inexorably to 58,000 American lives and nearly three times that many wounded, the inertia of predetermined policy interfered with the need to re-evaluate that policy.

War, once begun, is a human activity that is particularly resistant to rational control. Thus Britain, though driven out of Massachusetts even before the Declaration of Independence was signed, persisted for seven costly years. Thus Robert E. Lee, overwhelmingly outnumbered on the last morning at Appomattox, ordered a charge. Thus Napoleon challenged the Russian winter. Each saw a light at the end of the tunnel.

Such official self-delusion in Iraq is vastly more dangerous than it ever was in Vietnam. Regional instability created by the conflict in Southeast Asia was localized, and the horrors inflicted by such petty warlords as Cambodia's Pol Pot did not extend far beyond that suffering country's own borders. Regional instability in the Middle East carries a much greater risk.

Vietnam provided no essential natural resources. Instability in Iraq involves 11 percent of the world's known oil reserves, and violence in Saudi Arabia endangers another 25 percent. Access to oil is far more vital to U.S. national interests than toppling Saddam Hussein, and any threat to its continuing flow will require an immediate, prolonged and immense escalation of current military commitments in the region.

The war on terror, which Mr. Bush has said may last for a generation, also differs from the Vietnam experience. U.S. forces did not enter Vietnam expecting to be there for a decade. Superpower weaponry was supposed to make fast work of a technologically backward opposition. The imprecise term "communism" led to an assumption that a monolithic fanaticism was the enemy, though a disastrous agricultural "reform" in North Vietnam had left the regime with neither the means nor an interest in assisting a Buddhist revolt against the corrupt minority government of Saigon in the South. By assuming they were fighting one enemy, American planners had created two.

For many Americans, the initial attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq seemed to offer a righteous opportunity to settle the Vietnam-era issues that Americans shouldn't have been there in the first place and shouldn't have lost. "United We Stand" bumper stickers suggested a cause around which the Vietnam schism could be healed. It wasn't, and that is the reason why the presidential candidates' old Vietnam War records are assuming such importance.

Nearly 1,000 Americans have died in Iraq, and 6,500 have been maimed. A vastly larger number of Iraqis have died, but, as in Vietnam, it is increasingly difficult to tell the difference between combatants and bystanders. Only a bit larger than New Mexico, Vietnam absorbed 500,000 U.S. soldiers at the peak of the war, and cost $5.1 billion, in current dollars, each month.

Iraq is not Vietnam. It is one-fourth larger.

Larry Starkey is completing a book about the American Revolution. He teaches at the Massachusetts School of Law.

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