Here we go again. Only now it’s the “Iraqification” rather than the “Vietnamization” of a quagmire war in another distant and increasingly hostile land.
Washington’s puppets are once again said to be on the verge of getting their act together, and the American people are daily assured that we are about to turn the corner. Soon we will be able to give Iraq back to the Iraqis, and some distant day the United States will get out. In the meantime, US troops must continue in a “support role” while being maimed and killed with increasing frequency.
Sorry to appear so jaded, but it has been nearly 40 years since I was briefed in Saigon by US officials about the great progress being made in turning the affairs of South Vietnam over to Washington’s handpicked leaders of that country. I was also told with great emotional forcefulness that it would be irresponsible to just leave, given the dire consequences for world freedom.
Iraq is not Vietnam, and this is not 1964. But there are enough pillars for this analogy that we should remember some of the lessons of our last attempt to remake a nation in our image.
First, we never managed to build “our” stable Vietnam government; one gang of incompetents and thieves simply replaced another, until–ten years and millions of deaths later–we finally left, under the most ignominious circumstances.
Second, after Saigon fell, the anticipated security disaster for the United States and the region didn’t happen. To the contrary, communist Vietnam and communist China soon went to war with each other, leaving the United States in a far stronger position to exert its influence on both of those nations and the rest of Asia.
Third, and perhaps most important, in Vietnam then and Iraq now, guerrilla tactics by “the locals” and overwhelming American firepower killed or maimed a large number of innocent people on all sides. All in a war without a clear purpose and sold to the American people by US political leaders willing to lie to them.
For me, there are two particularly symbolic victims, one from each war. They stand out for their parallel experiences, marked by tragedy and bravery before and after their experiences in battle. Ron Kovic and Jessica Lynch were both working-class kids vulnerable to the siren song of jingoism, and both suffered serious injuries that will keep them in considerable pain throughout their lives–long after the movies made about them and the reasons for the wars they fought in have been mostly forgotten.
Kovic and Lynch are true heroes, not because they were severely wounded in battle but because they refused to give in to despair and emerged as decent people with clear, honest voices. Both refused the easy positions–either retreating into private silence or touting the government’s line that their sacrifice was worth it. Each went public to talk about the nonsensical realities of war in general, their wars in particular and how they were individually treated by their government.
“They used me as a way to symbolize all this stuff,” Lynch told ABC’s Diane Sawyer of the way the military packaged her story for the media. “It hurt in a way, that people would make up stories that they had no truth about.”
Kovic served two tours with the Marines in Vietnam and has been a peace activist for three decades now. I first met him in the early 1970s while he sat in his wheelchair contemplating the vast rows of graves in a West Los Angeles military cemetery. Recently, he met with families of some of those killed in Iraq and with wounded soldiers. Compare this to President Bush, who has been unwilling to attend funerals of those killed in Iraq.
Lynch is still grappling with just how she was used as a propaganda tool by a Pentagon that sought to turn her into a female action figure. But the stance she has taken against further manipulation of her suffering reveals a sterling character far stronger than the macho movie image placed on her when she was a prisoner of war. As Lynch told her biographer, Rick Bragg:
“We went and we did our job, and that was to go to war, but I wish I hadn’t done it–I wish it had never happened. I wish we hadn’t been there, none of us…. I don’t care about the political stuff. But if it had never happened, Lori [Piestewa, a fellow soldier and her best friend] would be alive and all the rest of the soldiers would be alive. And none of this would have happened.”