Our Tunnel Vision
Some years ago, I accompanied John McCain to Vietnam. For him, it was yet another trip to the place where he had been a prisoner of war, but for me it was a first. After we visited Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), McCain and the rest of his party went home. A colleague and I stayed behind to visit the famous Cu Chi tunnels. To the Vietnamese, they are a monument to a lesson they taught us. To us, they are a monument to a lesson we never seem to learn.
Experience -- reporting, we call it in my business -- can be vastly overrated. I went to Bosnia and Croatia during the war there and came away convinced that NATO, which was to say the United States, should stay out of that conflict. I was intimidated by the terrain and horrified by the ethnic enmity. I came away with precisely the wrong lesson. NATO went in and ended the killing.
Ducking into the Cu Chi tunnels might be a similar sort of misleading experience, but I don't think so. Suddenly, I was underground, stooped, gasping for air and intolerably hot. I was experiencing -- just for a short while -- the conditions in which the Vietnamese communists lived for long stretches. The tunnels had sleeping quarters, meeting rooms, kitchens, clinics and even operating rooms where surgeons worked in what had to be miserable conditions.
Those tunnels explained to me why the United States lost the Vietnam War. We were fighting people who cared deeply enough about their cause to live underground, to live in ways that no American could even imagine. The Vietnamese communists would do for their cause what no American would do for ours. They won because they believed. We lost because we didn't. We didn't have to.
I keep those tunnels in mind when thinking about Iraq. Just as I could not imagine living in one of them, I could not imagine being a suicide bomber or a member of a death squad -- or killing someone because he was a Shiite or a Sunni. As there was in Vietnam, there is a piece of Iraq -- its culture, it religions, its history -- that we do not understand. This war has lasted longer than we expected not just because we were inept or understaffed or fired the Baathists or discharged the army -- but because we don't understand the country. For instance, an Iraqi government that reacts lethargically to American proposals moved with surprising alacrity to hang Saddam Hussein. Even late in the game, we didn't see it coming.
Similarly, we did not notice that in all the hoopla just before Hussein's statue in Baghdad's Firdaus Square came down in 2003, the crowd went silent after an American flag was draped over it. The crowd came to life only when the Iraqi flag replaced it. Had we noticed that, we might have learned something about Iraqi nationalism and the fleeting gratitude awarded to liberators. One minute you're a liberator, the next an occupier.
I have some questions. When politicians and commentators detail all that the Bush administration did wrong, I wonder whether any of it really matters. Would things have turned out differently if we had done everything right? Was Iraq so "broken" we never could have fixed it? Was Hussein's despotism an avoidable tragedy, or was it, instead, a tragic necessity? I wonder about all these things. I tend to think now we never could have made it work.
Now, of course, everyone looks like an idiot. Bremer was an idiot and Garner was an idiot and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and Cheney and all the generals, with the exception of Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who called for lots and lots of troops and was sidelined. But these men are not really idiots. They were merely wrong, sometimes on account of arrogance, but they were doing what they thought was the right thing. They simply didn't know what they didn't know. They didn't know a damned thing about Iraq.
I wish McCain had been at the Cu Chi tunnels with me and my colleague. (I'm sure he's been there at another time.) I would like to have seen his face, measured his reaction. He knows Vietnam far better than I do, but as a prisoner -- not as an insurgent in a tunnel. I would like him -- because I do like him -- to consider whether the remedy for Iraq is not more American troops, as he insists, but fewer and fewer . . . and then none at all. Iraq is not Vietnam, but America is still America -- and we still don't know what in the world we're doing.