A Tale of Two Wars
Iwent to Vietnam a hawk. It was July 1967; I was an ex-Marine and a reporter for the Associated Press. It took only a few months before I realized I was being fed official lies on a daily basis. Now, having spent decades covering war and its aftermath around the world, I have just been through an eerily reminiscent experience in Iraq.
In the Baghdad of 2005, as in the Saigon of four decades ago, my government tells me that by staying the course, we'll cut out a vicious tumor metastasizing through the body of Western democracy.
Today's cancer is terrorism, not the red menace. But the singular constant remains this: Armies and governments at war all lie. They tell us that we're winning hearts and minds, that the troops will be home for Christmas, that the mission is accomplished. They did it then, and they're doing it now.
My hawkishness is long gone. I went to Iraq this May on an assignment for National Geographic magazine, already convinced that this war was a mistake. I found myself cloistered in a nightmare world, behind layers of 12-foot concrete barriers beyond which no thinking American strays without armed guards. I returned home a month later, certain that this war, like Vietnam, will never be won.
What would "winning" in Iraq mean, anyway? A democratic society that's free to elect an anti-American, pro-Iranian, fundamentalist Islamic government? A land of gushing oil wells feeding international oil company profits at U.S. taxpayers' expense? Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis joining hands to end terrorism around the world? Since, in my judgment, we were wrong to go in, I'm afraid there's no good way to get out.
Americans didn't know what "winning" meant in Vietnam, either. Most didn't understand the enemy, its objectives or the lengths to which it was prepared to go to attain them. We had a fuzzy notion of communist "world domination," and the "domino theory" and no realization that what the Vietnamese wanted, south and north, was independence. They didn't want to take over Southeast Asia. They didn't want to invade Los Angeles. They wanted to run their own country. They wanted us out.
Nor do we understand Iraq. The truth -- that Iraq was not a terrorist haven before we invaded, but we're making it into one today -- has been thickly painted over with unending coats of misinformation.
The enemy body-count fiasco at Saigon's daily "5 o'clock follies" -- as military briefings were dubbed by a derisive press corps -- has been replaced by meaningless claims of dead insurgents. Lyndon Johnson's vision of "light at the end of the tunnel" has evolved into Dick Cheney's embarrassing "last throes." Where 392 Americans were killed in action in Vietnam from 1962 through 1964, the first three years of the war, (and 58,000 by the time of the U.S. withdrawal in 1975), after 2 1/2 years in Iraq we have nearly 1,900 American KIAs. Where 2 million Vietnamese were killed by the war's end, we have no idea how many Iraqis have died since we unleashed "shock and awe." Is it 10,000, 20,000, 30,000? More? Who knows? Who in America cares?
This blithe American disregard for their lives infuriates Iraqis. After President Bush recently congratulated soldiers at Fort Bragg for fighting the terrorists in Iraq so that we wouldn't have to face them here at home, a Baghdad University professor told an interviewer that Bush was saying that Iraqis had to die to make Americans safe.
What we failed to understand in Vietnam -- that people who want foreign occupiers out of their country are willing and prepared to withstand any kind of privation and risk for however long it takes -- we are failing, once again, to grasp in Iraq.
I've returned repeatedly to Vietnam since the war. About 20 miles northwest of Saigon, in Cu Chi, I had one of the more harrowing experiences of my reporting career, crawling for an hour through black, airless, grave-like tunnels that spider-web for well over 100 miles beneath the jungle floor. (This was before the Tourism Ministry enlarged some of the passages, to accommodate super-size Western travelers.)
Here, entire armies and civilian communities had lived and worked and plotted attacks, through not just the American war but the earlier war against the French. With dirt dropping into my sweat-stinging eyes, my imagination raced: What must it have been like with tanks and bombers rumbling overhead? When I stumbled out, heart pounding, I told my guide that finally I understood why his side had won.