How It’s Really Like Vietnam, Mr. President

September 1, 2007
Oklahoma Peace Strategy Newspaper

As one who lived through the Vietnam era, there are not many things said about that war that make me more angry than for someone to say “we just should have stayed to win—the only thing we did wrong was to leave too soon.” It’s not something you hear many people say anymore—it has been widely discredited. But last week President Bush, for the first time acknowledging any comparison between Iraq and Vietnam, decided it was safe to repeat this in front of an audience of veterans, who were predisposed to applaud it. It was reassuring to hear the Sunday morning news/talk shows soundly trouncing President Bush’s assertion. Not only did the pols and pundits pan this idea but one news show stated they could not find a single historian to agree with this assessment.

I was a young woman at the time of Vietnam. We lost 55,000+ of our precious brothers, husbands, lovers, and classmates to that war. As with the Iraq war, it was not “getting out” that was the problem, it was the deeply flawed values and assumptions of the leadership in our country that led us to “getting in” in the first place. Here are some other ways the two are similar:

Then we were supposedly “fighting global communism;” today we are fighting global radical Islamists. In both instances, it was more about maintaining the prerogatives of global commerce than it was about democratic ideals.

Those who have lost loved ones were, and are, placed in the position of painfully assessing whether their dear one died for anything worthwhile at all. They died in service to their country. Some of them had a deep sense of duty; others just wanted help with a college education. And their country played fast and loose with their lives, as though it wasn’t really important to call on their willingness to serve as a precious resource to be used only in the most unavoidable of circumstances.

The country squandered then and is squandering now vast amounts of resources badly needed at home and around the globe. If this country had spent all the money it has thrown at this war in helping every Islamic country around the globe with food, water, medicine, and infrastructure instead of spending it on warfare, we would be safer than we are now. The only problem with this approach is that it would not “feed the monster” of the industrial-military complex.

There are indeed many vets who still believe we could have won the Vietnam war if we had “stayed the course.” (President Bush loves this phrase applied to the current war.) Many vets and their families need to believe this in order for their service to have been worth what it cost them. I knew a Vietnam vet who was on his way to killing himself with alcohol—every time he got drunk, he relived being a platoon leader who was assigned the task of capturing a particular hill. At the cost of all his men but one and himself, he did. Then a few days later it was deemed not important enough to keep holding. He was never able to recover or regain his balance. I have worked with many vets, some in drug and alcohol treatment programs, and the ones who seem to have regained their lives are the ones who are able to let go of the need for our country to be right and instead use the rest of their lives to give their own meaning to that experience. It seems apparent that the mental health cost for our current vets will also be lifelong and the services they are being and will be provided will be woefully inadequate as they have been in the past.

At the time of Vietnam, it took several years for a majority of the country to “get it” and oppose the war, although activists were opposing it from the outset. When it finally ended, 74% of the American people opposed that war. Unfortunately it has also taken a long time for a majority of the general public to oppose the Iraq war. At the time of any crisis, it is always tempting to do more of what one was already doing but with even more energy instead of ceasing to do those things that caused the crisis. But the old adage ‘when you find yourself in a hole the first thing to do is to stop digging’ applies. Instead of renewing our commitment to an already demonstrably failed policy, we need STOP DOING IT. Then we need to evaluate how we got and get ourselves into these situations in the first place so we can prevent them in the future. Write a letter today.