2004-10-29 / Columnists

Editor’s Desk From the

By Howard Schwach


My young colleagues at The Wave continue to tell me that I don’t know what I am talking about when I say that the war in Iraq is beginning to look more and more like the war in Vietnam every day.

They did not live through it.

They have no way of remembering those things that made that war so memorable.

The riots over whether America should have entered the war in the first place.

The draft card burners and the debate over whether or not to run and hide in Canada.

The debate between the Hawks and the Doves over the pursuit of the war.

The debate over whether being against the war was also a slap in the face of the conscripted men that were actually on the front lines.

The constant stories about soldiers “fragging” their non-coms and commissioned officers by throwing a live hand grenade under their bed while they were sleeping.

The refusal of unit after unit to “hump out into the boonies” looking for “Charlies” but finding death instead.

The refusal of pilots to fly through SAM missile hell to bomb “truck parks” that held nothing but trees.

The constant stories and televised news pictures of captured and killed Vietcong – the famous “daily body count” in which the Vietcong looked very much like the South Vietnamese we were fighting to protect – and, in many cases were both.

The stories from MACV, the command structure, that promised that in a short time the South Vietnamese would be well-trained and motivated enough to take over the burden of the war so that Americans could be phased out.

The promises that the government could see the “light at the end of the tunnel” – the end of the war.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Of course, we do not have a draft any longer – at least for now. It is hard to believe that we can carry on this war in Iraq for several more years without conscription of some sort, and that means both men and women aged 18 to 25. The institution of a draft, by the way does not depend on who wins. If the war continues, we will need a draft no matter who wins the election. That is a fact of life.

When I was a teenager, many of the decisions I made for college and later on were predicated on the fact that the draft was hovering in the background like some sort of threat to life and limb. You couldn’t ignore it and it could be beaten only with foresight and planning.

When things went wrong, however, the draft caught me and, as those who have read this column in previous weeks know, I was “forced” into joining the Navy to keep from becoming a “mudplugger,” what they later called a “grunt.”

Many of my friends made career decisions, however based on the threat of being drafted and sent to Germany or Korea (this was prior to Vietnam).

Take the draft out of the mix, however, and much of what later happened as a result of the Vietnam War is now beginning to happen as a result of the war in Iraq.

There have been no riots over whether we should be in Iraq in the first place, but there certainly have been a number of demonstrations and lots of political debate over the issue. While that debate now centers on the presidential race, after next week it will shift to focus on why we are “in-country,” how we should fight the war and whether a draft is needed to keep the war going.

The debate will grow as time goes by and more lives are lost for no apparent reason.

Are they dying for American values? Are they dying to fight terrorism? Are they dying for oil? Substitute “Communism” for “terrorism,” and you are back on the ground that would have been familiar in the late 1960’s and 1970’s.

They are decidedly not dying to free Iraq and provide a democratic government to its people, because few in that nation want a democratic government.

In Vietnam we learned that you cannot free an indigenous population that does not want to take on American values. In Vietnam, our soldiers were looked on as usurpers even as we tried to help. In Iraq, where the majority of the population wants not American democracy but a Moslem theocracy, we face the same situation. We are disliked intensely by those we are seeking to free.

We have already begun to see soldiers who volunteered to be in the army refusing to obey the orders of their superiors. Can fragging be far behind?

We are also being fed the line that we will begin to withdraw as soon as the Iraqi Defense Force is ready to take over the burden.

We heard for years that we would withdraw from Vietnam as soon as the South Vietnamese Army was ready to take over the burden. They were never ready and the last we saw of many members of the ASV were pictures of them hanging from the skids of copters taking the last Americans out of the defeated nation.

We are training an Iraqi Defense Force that will supposedly one day take over the burden of fighting the Moslem insurgents, officials say.

Those same officials, or their ilk in any case, used to say that we are training the South Vietnamese Army to take over the burden of fighting the Communist insurgents.

Not much difference.

Where is the “light at the end of the tunnel” speech? “Wait for it,” as Radar O’Reilly once said. It will come.

Then, we have the seminal question that we heard during the Vietnam war and that we heard again in the Presidential debates.

If I am opposed to the war and speak out, am I providing “aid and comfort” to the enemy and undermining the war effort?

“It’s very demoralizing for the U.S. troops [who hear dissention from home],” said retired Major Geneal John Singlaub.

“You’re either on one side, or your on the other,” said Republican Congressman Henry Hyde.

“What message does it send our troops?” the President asked.

Gary Ackerman had a Liberal answer to that question.

“A lot of us are sick and tired of those who would question our patriotism when we exercise our rights and responsibilities as Americans and as members of Congress,” Ackerman said. “

I agree. It is in the best tradition of the Constitution to speak out against government intransigence. Any government that does not realize that does so at its peril. Those who speak out are doing democracy’s finest work and only those who continue to remain silent when they know the government is committing a terrible wrong are the traitors to democracy.

And any government that does not learn from the past faces worse.

“Those who don’t understand history are destined to repeat it,” philosopher George Santayona once said. Iraq is proving him to be right.

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