The Reason Why
We hear much talk these days, as we did during the Vietnam War, of "supporting our troops." Like most Americans, I have always supported our troops, and I have always believed we had the best fighting forces in the world--with the possible exception of the Vietnamese, who were fortified by their hunger for national independence, whereas we placed our troops in the impossible position of opposing an independent Vietnam, albeit a Communist one. But I believed then as I do now that the best way to support our troops is to avoid sending them on mistaken military campaigns that needlessly endanger their lives and limbs. That is what went on in Vietnam for nearly thirty years--first as we financed the French in their failing effort to regain control of their colonial empire in Southeast Asia, 1946-54, and then for the next twenty years as we sought unsuccessfully to stop the Vietnamese independence struggle led by Ho Chi Minh and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap--two great men whom we should have accepted as the legitimate leaders of Vietnam at the end of World War II. I should add that Ho and his men were our allies against the Japanese in World War II. Some of my fellow pilots who were shot down by Japanese gunners over Vietnam were brought safely back to American lines by Ho's guerrilla forces.
During the long years of my opposition to that war, including a presidential campaign dedicated to ending the American involvement, I said in a moment of disgust: "I'm sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars in which young men do the dying." That terrible American blunder, in which 58,000 of our bravest young men died, and many times that number were crippled physically or psychologically, also cost the lives of some 2 million Vietnamese as well as a similar number of Cambodians and Laotians, in addition to laying waste most of Indochina--its villages, fields, trees and waterways; its schools, churches, markets and hospitals.
I had thought after that horrible tragedy--sold to the American people by our policy-makers as a mission of freedom and mercy--that we never again would carry out a needless, ill-conceived invasion of another country that had done us no harm and posed no threat to our security. I was wrong in that assumption.
The President and his team, building on the trauma of 9/11, have falsely linked Saddam Hussein's Iraq to that tragedy and then falsely built him up as a deadly threat to America and to world peace. These falsehoods are rejected by the UN and nearly all of the world's people. We will, of course, win the war with Iraq. But what of the question raised in the Bible that both George Bush and I read: "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul," or the soul of his nation?
It has been argued that the Iraqi leader is hiding a few weapons of mass destruction, which we and eight other countries have long held. But can it be assumed that he would insure his incineration by attacking the United States? Can it be assumed that if we are to save ourselves we must strike Iraq before Iraq strikes us? This same reasoning was frequently employed during the half-century of cold war by hotheads recommending that we atomize the Soviet Union and China before they atomize us. Courtesy of The New Yorker, we are reminded of Tolstoy's observation: "What an immense mass of evil must result...from allowing men to assume the right of anticipating what may happen." Or again, consider the words of Lord Stanmore, who concluded after the suicidal charge of the Light Brigade that it was "undertaken to resist an attack that was never threatened and probably never contemplated." The symphony of falsehood orchestrated by the Bush team has been de-vised to defeat an Iraqi onslaught that "was never threatened and probably never comtemplated."
I'm grateful to The Nation, as I was to Harper's, for giving me opportunities to write about these matters. Major newspapers, especially the Washington Post, haven't been nearly as receptive.
The destruction of Baghdad has a special poignancy for many of us. In my fourth-grade geography class under a superb teacher, Miss Wagner, I was first introduced to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the palm trees and dates, the kayaks plying the rivers, camel caravans and desert oases, the Arabian Nights, Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (my first movie), the ancient city of Baghdad, Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent. This was the first class in elementary school that fired my imagination. Those wondrous images have stayed with me for more than seventy years. And it now troubles me to hear of America's bombs, missiles and military machines ravishing the cradle of civilization.
But in God's good time, perhaps this most ancient of civilizations can be redeemed. My prayer is that most of our soldiers and most of the long-suffering people of Iraq will survive this war after it has joined the historical march of folly that is man's inhumanity to man.