Sunday, August 26, 2007


I found it odd this week to hear President Bush comparing the Iraq War to the fiasco in Vietnam. He seemed to be taking a page out of the anti-war playbook.

To an ol’ peace marcher like me, Vietnam is the ultimate symbol of modern American folly. As the world’s most powerful nation, we could have been spreading peace and prosperity throughout the planet, but chose instead to invade a country halfway across the world populated by people we couldn’t begin to understand for reasons known only to ideologues. The sooner we could have ended that mess the better, I’ve always thought, and yet we strangely kept the conflict going for well over a decade. Then, only a single generation after we left Saigon with our heads between our legs, we felt compelled to invade Iraq, a country halfway across the world populated by people we couldn’t begin to understand for reasons known only to ideologues. And what do you know? It has resulted in a tragic, protracted mess.

For me and my fellow doves, Vietnam is a source of all sorts of lessons. But apparently, it’s a source of just as many lessons for our nation’s hawks. Consider for a moment not the Vietnam War itself but its immediate aftermath. Once we “turned tail,” as some of our more conservative brethren might say, all hell broke loose in Southeast Asia. Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese who had been loyal to their Uncle Sam lost their lives in “reeducation” camps. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” lost their lives after fleeing the nation altogether. And during the next couple of years after the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, roughly two million people were murdered.

Talk all you want about the 60,000 or so American soldiers who died in that war, but that number pales in comparison to those who were killed when we “abandoned” our mission. Hawks will point out that America made promises to the Southeast Asian people when we originally destabilized their region but abandoned those promises in the face of domestic political pressures. The results of that abandonment are apparent to any student of history. Why would we forget them now?

Americans who disagree with President Bush typically focus on one basic fact: our own sons and daughters are dying every month we remain in Iraq. Cindy Sheehan talks about her dead boy. Other anti-war advocates talk about the tens of thousands of “nameless, faceless” soldiers who’ve survived, but with one fewer limb or with a plate in their head. Surely, say the war’s opponents, it’s time to learn from our mistakes and get our soldiers home while most of them are still intact.

It’s a powerful argument, acknowledge the war hawks. But is it a moral one? Is it worthy of our status as a superpower? Let’s not forget, they point out, that we thoroughly destabilized a nation, toppled its head of state, and promised (as we did in Vietnam) that we would usher in an era of freedom, democracy and stability. How then, could we leave in the face of evidence that hundreds of thousands of innocent people might die, simply because of our desire to save a few thousand of our own soldiers? When the argument is put that way, the pull-out crowd seems pretty darned selfish and shallow.

And yet … I’m proud to be part of their ranks.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about why I have been such a vehement opponent of this war from the moment we killed our first Iraqi. It’s not because I performed some sort of pre-war calculus about the consequences of the invasion. And it’s not because I’ve more recently analyzed the consequences of pulling out, as opposed to “staying the course.” Oh sure, I’ve thought about consequences, we all have. But I keep coming back to the same conclusion: there’ll be hell no matter what we do. As for which circle of hell is going to be worse for the world, the one following a U.S. pull-out or the one resulting from a permanent occupation, I remain somewhat agnostic.

Maybe I am being shallow, but neo-cons aren’t the only ones with principles. Some of us “bleeding hearts” have principles of our own. And here’s one of mine: superpowers who invade countries based on justifications that have been discredited have no right to continue to occupy them. In fact, not only do we have no right to remain as a military occupier, but we have an absolute duty to get out of Dodge! Maybe we can remain during some sort of transitional phase, but only with one proviso – that we admit our mistake to the world and request that the world community step up to the plate and help us fix what we have broken.

In this case, the fault of the invasion doesn’t lie solely with the United States. Saddam Hussein, no sweetheart himself, encouraged the rest of the world to fear him in thinking that he had more weapons capability than he in fact had. But the fact remains that we entered the war precipitously, without adequate international support, based on crappy intelligence, and driven by ideological reasons having nothing to do with our publicly stated justifications for regime change. When it turned out that our intelligence didn’t pan out, we needed to admit our own fault and ask for help. Our hubris prevented us from doing so, and now we are paying a seemingly unlimited price – in lives, in limbs, in money, and in reputation.

Politicians and journalists don’t generally make arguments like the above that focus exclusively on rights, principles and duties. In the public marketplace of ideas, people are much more comfortable making arguments based squarely on utility. Whatever your position, you can always trot out a few “experts” who will predict the future and explain that your position is likely to produce the happiest consequences – or the least horrible ones. No, they don’t have a crystal ball, but they don’t need one. They just need a suit and tie, and they can get on TV or take to the newspaper, and speculate about why one scenario is wise (from a utility standpoint) and another is foolish.

Surely, I can speculate too. I can explain why ending our participation in this God-forsaken war is the best way to further our national “interests.” The truth is, though, that I’m mostly interested in two national interests. First, we have an interest, whenever we make a horrible mistake, in owning up to our folly, and in inviting the world to help us all move on. And more importantly, we have an interest in making sure that whenever we make the same horrible mistake twice, we never EVER consider making it a third time.

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