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The Lingo Of Vietnam

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The way President Bush whisked through Vietnam -- oh, if only we had done the same 40 years ago -- it seemed as if he was feeling an obvious parallel with the war in Iraq. His aides, who somehow lose IQ points by mere proximity to the commander in chief -- national security adviser Stephen Hadley argued that Bush had "gotten a real sense of the warmth of the Vietnamese people" as he sped by in his motorcade -- insisted that no parallel existed. But these aides are dead wrong. There is this: I would have fought neither war.

Before you protest "of course, Cohen," let me explain that the "I" in the foregoing sentence is really four people. There is the "I" who originally thought the Vietnam War was morally correct, that the communists were awful people and that the loss of South Vietnam (the North was already gone) would result in a debacle for its people. That's, in fact, what happened. It was only later, when I myself was in the Army, that I deemed the war not worth killing or dying for. By then I -- the second "I" -- no longer felt it was winnable, and I did not want to lose my life so that somehow defeat could be managed more elegantly.

Things are precisely the same with Iraq, and here, too, I -- No. 3 -- originally had no moral qualms about the war. Saddam Hussein was a beast who had twice invaded his neighbors, had killed his own people with abandon and posed a threat -- and not just a theoretical one -- to Israel. If anything, I was encouraged in my belief by the offensive opposition to the war -- silly arguments about oil or empire or, at bottom, the ineradicable and perpetual rottenness of America.

On the contrary, I thought. We are a good country, attempting to do a good thing. In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic. The United States had the power to change things for the better, and those who would do the changing -- the fighting -- were, after all, volunteers. This mattered to me.

But these volunteers are now fighting a war few envisaged and no one wanted -- not I (No. 4), for sure. If at one time my latter-day minutemen marched off thinking they were bringing democracy to Iraq and the greater Middle East, they now must know better. If they thought they were going to rid the region of weapons of mass destruction and sever the link between al-Qaeda and Hussein, they now are entitled to feel duped by Bush, Vice President Cheney and others. The exaggerations are particularly repellent. To fool someone into sacrificing his life to battle a chimera is a hideous abuse of the public trust.

Daily I read the casualty list from Iraq -- and I invent reasons to make the deaths less tragic. This is a hopeless, maybe tasteless, task, but it matters to me if someone is a career soldier who knew what he was getting into as opposed to some naive kid digitally juiced on a computerized version of war -- or, even sadder, some guardsman who enlisted for God, country or spare cash, but not by any means for Baghdad. He's a volunteer, all right, but not for a war that didn't exist when he raised his right hand and took the oath.

My dauntingly knowledgeable Post colleague Thomas E. Ricks reports from the Pentagon that the military is now considering three options for Iraq: more troops, fewer troops (but for a longer time) and no troops at all -- the ol' cut and run. The missing option here is victory. Don't worry, it will be invented. "You have to define win," Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who is about to return to Iraq, told the New York Times. Ah, just in the nick of time.

Where have we heard this sort of language before? It is the lingo of Vietnam. As with Vietnam, we are fighting now merely not to lose -- to avoid a full-fledged civil war (it's coming anyway) or to keep the country together, something like that. But not for victory. Not for democracy. All this talk of the Iraqis doing more on their own behalf is Vietnamization in the desert rather than the jungle. What remains the same is asking soldiers to die for a reason that the politicians in Washington can no longer explain. This, above all, is how Iraq is like Vietnam: older men asking younger men to die while they try to figure something out.

That's why Bush kept moving. He knows Vietnam is not just about the past. It's also about the future.

cohenr@washpost.com


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