Good Morning, Vietnam

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By: Greg Mitchell

Over a very pleasant breakfast late last fall, a distinguished military officer/journalist chided me, quite pleasantly, for allowing E&P to warn, on more than one occasion, that the current conflict in Iraq could turn into a Vietnam-like quagmire. He wasn’t the first to do that and, I have to admit, at the time it crossed my mind that he could be right.

Five months later, even Bill O’Reilly is making the connection. On Monday he compared the Iraqis to the South Vietnamese in their lack of devotion to the United States and our values. “If these people won’t help us, we need to get out in an orderly matter,” he said.

Patrick Buchanan, who had opposed the war but then backed U.S. efforts once the fighting began, said this week, “We have gotten ourselves bogged down in what is clearly a quagmire.” And in a newspaper column on Wednesday he wrote, “What Fallujah and the Shiite attacks Sunday tell us is that failure is now an option.”

But then, like me, they are old enough to have lived through the Vietnam era. So for the benefit of those who did not, or who did but don’t see the link, allow me — on this day when banner headlines across the country suggest that Iraq this week is experiencing its own version of a “Tet Offensive” — to make the following arguments.

Of course, Iraq is not precisely Vietnam, even beyond the desert vs. jungle terrain. We’ve been there for one year, not a decade or more. And there are, of course, many other dissimilarities.

But anyone who lived through Vietnam, even halfway aware, has to be haunted by the current frustration with the failure to truly win the “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi people; with dropping bombs on certain cities to save them; with the charges that critics of the war and its aftermath are aiding and abetting the enemy; with no exit strategy in place — no light at the end of the tunnel.

Then there’s the matter of the “Gulf of Tonkin incident” in spades: no weapons of mass destruction.

On top of that, this week, we witness spiraling U.S. casualties, and hear calls to send more U.S. troops to Iraq, which will (surely) win the peace. U.S. officers on the scene lament that going after the bad guys necessitates killing civilians, which they recognize inspires even greater anger and opposition against us. Our soldiers do not know who is on our side — who they should save and who they should shoot. Sound familiar?

“You’re going to have good days and bad days,” Secretary of Defense McNamara said this week. I mean, Rumsfeld.

It’s said that we are making progress in Iraq because polls show that the majority of Iraqis are with us — just as it was said that most of the South Vietnamese were on our side.

And, most chillingly, the administration, and many newspapers, in editorials (as a new E&P survey shows), raise the very issue that kept us in Vietnam so long: not “bugging out,” as Richard Nixon memorably put it. Every casualty we take means we have to stay longer so they will have not died in vain. And we must show our “resolve” or we will be seen as “weak.”

There’s even a new “domino theory” in reverse: we must establish democracy in Iraq (apparently at any cost) to inspire American-friendly governments throughout the region.

So it seems only right that we still have William Safire with us, as he was with Nixon then, urging all of us, last week, to turn the page on how we got into this war, as this represents the evil of being stuck in the past when there is so much in the present to address — this from a man who wrote countless columns on Whitewater when Clinton was president?

And for those who believe John Kerry may be the answer: even if he becomes president, he will inherit an impossible situation under tremendous pressure (as an allegedly weak-on-defense Democrat) not to “bug out” — especially since he supported the war at the start. His top national security advisor suggested this week that Kerry might be in favor of sending more troops now.

With that in mind, it seems proper to close with the shockingly long list of one-day American fatalities in Iraq listed in The New York Times today, as a reminder of the human costs of this war — and the beauty of this glorious mix of names (even a Mitchell) that reflect the true greatness of this country: Robert Arsiaga, Ahmed Cason, Yihiyh Chen, Israel Garza, Deryk Hallal, Stephen Hiller, Forest Jostes, David McKeever, Michael Mitchell, Gerardo Moreno, Christopher Ramos, Matthew Serio, Casey Sheehan, Jesse Thiry.

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