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fiasco at Saigon's daily "5 o'clock follies" -- as military briefings were dubbed by a derisive press corps -- has been replaced by meaningless claims of dead insurgents.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 21/2 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.
Today, Muslim suicide bombers and terrorists are our Viet Cong. We can bring 'em on, smoke 'em out and hunt 'em down from now until doomsday, but the line of committed volunteers seems only to grow longer. The world -- not just the Middle East, but South and Southeast Asia, Europe and North America -- is being populated with more and more alienated and bitter young Muslims who feel that they have nothing to lose. The ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq and across the Middle East doesn't intimidate them; it just stokes their fury.
That there is no military solution to this conundrum is clearly illustrated by a ride I took on my first day in Baghdad. The small plane I flew on from Amman, Jordan, corkscrewed into Baghdad airport early one afternoon. The South African pilot warned the 20 passengers that the stomach-heaving descent might be uncomfortable, but that it was necessary in order to avoid any heat-seeking missiles. The last time I'd made such a landing was in April 1975, on a flight into Phnom Penh as a correspondent for The Washington Post. Two weeks later, Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge.
I was bound this time for the relative security of the walled-in Green Zone, just five miles from the airport. For security reasons, we could not leave immediately. I was assigned one of two dozen canvas cots in a large tent. It was air-conditioned. (This -- along with Internet availability, 30-minute-guaranteed to-your-tent-door Pizza Hut delivery, Cuban cigars at the PX, fresh meals and regularly sanitized portable toilets -- is one of the gains the U.S. military has achieved since Vietnam.) We weren't told our departure time.
At 3 a.m. a chipper sergeant with a bullhorn voice flicked on the tent lights and told us to get up and put on body armor and helmets. Three Rhino Runner buses, painted desert-tan and heavily steel-plated, were lined up and 90 of us, mostly GIs and civilian contractors, boarded. Three armed Humvees preceded us; three followed. Overhead clattered three Blackhawk helicopters.
Again I was reminded of Vietnam, where the GIs used to say that the night belonged to the VC. In Iraq, it's the roads -- where IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, have replaced punji sticks as the guerrilla weapon of choice. If, 21/2 years in, you don't control the only road linking your military airport to your headquarters, you don't control much of anything.
The next day, a U.S. Marine Corps brigadier general told a televised news conference that the escalating rate of car bombings in the capital and around the country was a sure sign of the enemy's "final desperation." (Two weeks later, Cheney issued his tweaked version.) The troops on the ground in Iraq, much like the grunts in Vietnam, know better. Yet by and large they're loyal, and most told me that they believe in the mission -- at least until they're ordered back for their second or third tours. These "stop loss" soldiers are most bitter about their perception that the administration's effort to wage the war on the cheap applies only to them, while private contractors grow rich.
On the green plastic wall of a portable toilet at Baghdad military airport, I read the following graffiti, scrawled by a civilian contract employee: "14 months. $200,000. I'm out of here. [Expletive] you Iraq." Beneath it was a response from the ranks: "12 months. $20,000. What the [expletive] is going on here?" Speaking of money, the administration has never come clean about the massive debt it's piling up for us and our descendants. The nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments estimates that the Vietnam War cost the United States $600 billion in today's dollars. Iraq, according to the center, is costing between $5 billion and $8 billion a month -- $218 billion to date. That would mean $700 billion if the guns fall silent six years from now, a modest timetable according to numerous military analysts. Other estimates predict an eventual bottom line of over $1 trillion.
So, do we cut our losses -- human and financial -- and leave? If so, when? If not, how long do we stay? If we stay, the insurgency continues; if we go, it most likely expands into an all-out civil war, the fragmenting of Iraq and the intervention of its neighbors, Iran, Turkey and Syria, followed by the collapse of promised democracy in the Middle East: a kind of reverse domino theory. What likely will happen in the short term, it's beginning to appear, will be an attempt to spin a more positive illusion: President Bush will order several thousand troops sent home in time for the 2006 midterm election campaign. He will claim that the Iraqis are taking charge of their own security (see "Vietnamization") and leave the mess to his successor.
Then what? If the bulk of the 130,000 U.S. troops are kept in Iraq for the rump of the Bush presidency and into the next administration, whether Republican or Democratic, the insurgency will go on.
The tax dollars we'll be spending on that military presence might be better spent on helping educate new generations of Iraqis, and millions of other young Muslims around the world, on the basics of running a country. They need it: "Democracy is wonderful," exclaimed a mother of two teenagers whom I met in the southern city of Basra. "It means you're free to do whatever you want." While that may be an understandable interpretation from a people who weren't free to do anything under Saddam Hussein's 35-year dictatorship, surely it's not what Americans are fighting and dying for.
The ultimate lesson of Vietnam -- one that is applicable to Iraq -- has been that once Americans declared victory and returned home, the Vietnamese went through the inevitable, sometimes brutal, shakeout that we had merely delayed. Eventually, the realities of the marketplace and the appeal of capitalism resulted in a nominally communist but vibrant nation. Today, Americans feast on low-cost Vietnamese shrimp and wear inexpensive Vietnamese T-shirts. Two month ago, President Bush welcomed Prime Minister Phan Van Khai to the White House and promised him increased trade and military cooperation.
So, what happens if we don't apply that lesson to our Iraq adventure? One of the most senior diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad told me that what he and his colleagues believed, and what kept them awake at night, was that if the United States is serious about establishing democracy in Iraq, and attempts to do so under current policies, it would take two generations of our soldiers fighting there. That's 40 years.
You may want to pass that along to your grandchildren.
Lewis Simons, a former foreign correspondent for The Post and for Knight Ridder newspapers, is a contributor to National Geographic.