Is Iraq Vietnam revisited?


Published: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 20, 2007 at 12:18 a.m.
As the last seconds ticked off the fateful old year I looked to the new year with considerable anxiety. The rash judgment to arms now poses a quandary to which no one has satisfactory answers.
Repeatedly we hear that this conflict and the Vietnam conflict are not the same. Is it not at least a cousin of that terrible conflict? Something offended me as a pilot of one of the first helicopter units to arrive in Vietnam.
We'd take Vietnamese soldiers to an area where the enemy had been spotted only to have them sit in the field and cook their lunch so that the enemy could escape, thus avoiding a fight.
Then I realized that they had no stomach for risking their lives for a dictator hundreds of miles away. Yet, I was angry when Walter Lippman, my favorite columnist, wrote despairingly of our involvement there in 1963.
We were still there a dozen years and tens of thousands of deaths later, all to no avail. I chose to believe that policymakers in Washington knew what they were doing. When I returned four years and half a million troops later, it was obvious that we were propping up a dictator who was unable to rally his people to defend their country.
Now we are propping up a "democracy" (read puppet government) in Iraq that powerful forces there do not want and which go against several millennia of tradition.
The problem was that we were killing the innocent along with the usurpers (terrorists?). We have been doing the same thing in Iraq. Every time we kill an Iraq citizen, we turn his/her family and friends against us. The more soldiers we send there, the more civilians we are likely to kill.
Unintended consequences are inevitable in war, especially when terrorists embed themselves in the civilian populace. Americans don't have the stomach for a scorched earth policy so often employed in the history of the Middle East.
In Iraq there are several multipliers to the normal hazards of conflict on another's soil. The first is that it's all about control of oil, their most valuable resource. The second is that the powerful people who don't want peace and a stable democracy want to control the country to the exclusion of others. Third, the political conflict is greatly a reflection of the religious and tribal conflicts that seem intractable.
It was interesting to hear that former President Ford had advised early on that we ought not to be involved in that conflict. The ideal - establishing a democracy there as a beacon others in the Muslim world could emulate - was certainly in our national interest even without controlling the oil.
However, over a thousand years of conflict between Islam and Western Europe and India, as well as the religious and tribal factors, certainly seemed to make the idealism unrealistic. Compounding this is the fact that the president frequently speaks of winning but has yet to define the parameters of "winning." Give our military an objective and the means to achieve it and they will. What would have constituted "victory" in Vietnam and what would constitute "victory" in Iraq?
We are destroying our military by over-committing our active and reserve units. How many good men and women are going to stay in an organization where obtaining "victory" is not defined and is probably impossible? They are called upon to leave their families and jobs again and again with short respites to heal the family wounds that occur as a result of frequent and continuing separations. So how will we rebuild it for conflicts with Russia or China or for other strategic requirements? Surely the American people won't stand for a renewal of the draft.
It should be obvious even to the casual observer that we are not going to obtain a satisfactory outcome in Iraq. Therefore our concern should be to terminate our participation in the experiment as expeditiously as possible. Lets not mistake the freight train coming at us for "a light at the end of the tunnel" that we so often heard in Vietnam as we sent more and more troops to their sorry fate.
Earl C. Carlson served two tours of duty in Vietnam and one in Korea. He lives in Gainesville.

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