Lecture

A VIETNAM VETERAN LOOKS AT IRAQ

Copyright © 2005 by Robert Taylor
I’d like to talk with you today about a subject that matters quite a lot to me – the whole question of war, what it is and the effects it has on everyone it touches, which, of course, is all of us.

The year I spent in Vietnam, from the fall of 1966 to the fall of 1967, at the height of the war there, was, as you can imagine, one of the formative experiences of my life. It continues to reside somewhere on the edge of my consciousness and is always present, waiting for something to bring it to the center of my mind.

For more than two years now, this has been happening almost daily, as the war in Iraq brings frightening and distressing memories of my “own” war flooding back. I see the same unexamined appeals to nationalistic fervor, the same confidence in our invincibility – and in our certain knowledge of what is right for the rest of the world – and the same branding of anyone who dares to disagree as unpatriotic, verging on treasonous. All of this was true then, and all of it is certainly true now.

There are differences, of course. Decades have passed, after all, since the end of that other war. We live in a very different time and are now fighting in a different part of the world – but much, too much, is all too familiar to me.

I went to Vietnam as a captain in Army Intelligence, assigned to the staff of the Commanding General at Headquarters, U.S. Army, Vietnam. More important to what we’ll be discussing here today, I went as a naïve, intensely patriotic young Texas boy, ready and eager to believe that we were there to bestow the blessings of freedom and liberty and a better life on a poor, struggling people for whom all of this was surely what they must be seeking.

I believed that it was my responsibility, as an intelligence officer and an advisor to the Commanding General, to find out as much as I could about the “truth” of what was happening there and to tell it as clearly and straightforwardly as possible. Not so. Slowly but surely, I learned that not only did my superiors not understand the things I was coming to know, they actually wanted not to hear them. They wanted to hear only those things that supported their already-formed preconceptions. For a while, I thought I must be misinterpreting somehow, but sadly I was not.

Loren Baritz, a historian and former provost at the University of Massachusetts, in his excellent book about the Vietnam War called Backfire, calls this “enabling ignorance,” the freedom to pursue what you’ve already decided you want to do by ignoring the truth. Sound familiar?

Thirty years after I returned home, I wrote a novel based on my experiences in Vietnam, called appropriately The Innocent. By writing this story as fiction rather than memoir, I was able to allow my hero, Matthew Fairchild, my alter ego, to learn some significant lessons while he was still in Vietnam rather than many years later, as I actually did. I’ll be referring to this book, and to some of the lessons Matthew learned, as we proceed here today.

What has been almost unbearably painful for me these last couple of years is, as I mentioned earlier, that I’ve seen so many things happening all over again. I’ve seen the same unquestioning certainty that force – the more powerful and destructive the better – is the only way to achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves as a nation. I’ve seen the same appeals to fear of an implacable enemy, darker and different from us in ways that make the loss of their lives somehow less important; the same appeals to a fervent and unyielding patriotism, and to the belief that God not only approves of our actions but requires that we proceed with them.

The dismaying similarities between these two wars – both in the decision-making process that led to both wars, and in the way the wars were fought once those decisions had been made – seem to me to fall into three categories: triumphalism, arrogance, and ignorance. Let’s talk about each of them in turn.

I use the word “triumphalism” because this way of thinking goes far beyond the nationalism and patriotism that can be so effective in putting blinders on the eyes and anesthetic in the brain. Our American brand is much more potent even than that. It gathers into itself not just love of country and flag and mom and apple pie, but also the unqualified approval of God and the unstoppable momentum of the sweep of history.

Even though wars may secure for us resources and raw materials and markets for our goods, and may eliminate pesky rivals who’d like to have those things for themselves, we rarely say that we are going to war for those reasons. Oh, no. We are doing so in order to spread the blessings of liberty and democracy across the globe, whether the recipients want them or not. Do you really believe that Halliburton gives a fig about the spread of liberty and democracy? I doubt it. But millions and millions of American voters surely and unquestioningly do believe in this triumphalism on a grand scale.

In his review of a new book, The Dominion of War by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, says the authors “show that Americans have, of their own volition, repeatedly opted for the sword, viewing it as a righteous response to those who threaten liberty itself by refusing to accommodate U.S. requirements for deference, access, or outright control. . . . The ensuing wars were justified as defensive in nature but were waged offensively and produced (with a few notable exceptions) the expansion of American power, initially across the continent, then throughout the hemisphere, and ultimately around the world. . . .”
The book’s authors, Bacevich says, “take great pains to note that Americans’ professions of their devotion to liberty are neither cynical nor hypocritical. But if heartfelt, they also turn out to be conveniently elastic. In practice, freedom means whatever Americans say it means, with the reigning definition tending to coincide neatly with the nation’s momentary political and commercial priorities.” Amen.

As for arrogance: This past spring, I was sitting on a bench in the plaza of a beautiful little town in Mexico. A woman, obviously American, sitting near me got up and went away. She came stomping back a few minutes later and said indignantly to her traveling companions, “Can you believe it? Not a one of them could speak a word of English!”

Arrogance so astonishing it takes your breath away, and yet this is the way many of our so-called leaders see the world.

Although I am certainly not a religious scholar, it is my understanding that most, if not all, of the world’s religions have among their teachings some version of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Treat other people – all other people – the way you yourself want to be treated. Simple, and so powerful it could change the world – if large numbers of us decided to actually follow this rule.

It is an amazing concept, which, in its fullest sense, rises from the personal to the global: I want you to take seriously the intense love I have for my country; therefore, I will respect the love you have for yours. I believe that the way my country chooses to arrange its affairs should come out of its own history and culture and view of what the world is and is not; therefore, I will respect your wish to do the same.

Here, unfortunately, is where arrogance makes its ugliest appearance. Too many Americans believe that they have the final – therefore the only – answer. Our way is the best, and we will keep beating up on you until you agree.

It is this kind of arrogance that leads inexorably to those feelings of “might makes right” and “the end justifies the means” that have too often characterized what passes for foreign policy in this country. We are big and powerful and believe that we can make other people do what we want them to do, therefore why should we not? And because we are forcing these things on them for reasons that we can easily justify to ourselves, we can tell ourselves that what we are trying to achieve is far more important than little distracting details like deception and torture.

Here again, the similarities between the two wars are striking. Both involved monumental deception – or, to be more accurate, lying to the Congress and the American people. It is important to remember here that the framers of our Constitution wisely gave the power to declare war to the legislative bodies they were creating. They had a deep and abiding fear of concentrating such awesome power in the hands of one man, whether he be king or president, and the small circle of his advisors.

However, as fighting in Vietnam was heating up, Congress was persuaded to hand over to the President almost unlimited authority to wage war after word came of an unprovoked attack on American ships in the international waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. A huge uproar ensued, the resolution was passed, and the war was on in earnest. Of course, we learned later, much too late for it to make any difference, that the “attack” may well not have taken place at all, but that the administration, which knew this, kept saying that it had in order to get the war-making power it thought it needed.

In order to “justify” sending our forces into Iraq, the current administration went to great lengths to persuade Congress and the American people that Saddam Hussein had horrendous weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them – and that he was closely involved in the attack on us on 9/11. Congress dutifully gave the President what he then interpreted as the go-ahead to invade Iraq, the public relations campaign inflicted on the American people having been so successful that even after everyone in power, including the President, said well, yes, there were no weapons and there was no link, millions of American voters continued to believe that both things were, in fact, true. We’ll talk about ignorance a little later, but this amazing fact is a stunning preview.

As for torture, we did it in Vietnam and, as the whole world now knows, we did it somewhat more enthusiastically in Iraq. All for something very important, you understand: our self-preservation.

Near the end of my novel, The Innocent, Matthew learns of a massacre in a small Vietnamese village. His first thought is that he needs to tell those higher up so that such a thing will never happen again. Not only do they not want to hear, they go to great lengths to make sure Matthew never mentions it again – efforts that include the torturing of the young Vietnamese man Matthew has come to love. This early echo of Abu Ghraib had, for those involved, the same justification: We need to have this information – of course we do – in order to protect ourselves. How we get that information is irrelevant.

Let’s examine another aspect of the power of self-preservation. Loren Baritz, in Backfire, shows, in astonishing detail, how the individual branches of the U.S. military – Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines – spent the entire Vietnam War scheming (that’s not too strong a word) to find ways to strengthen their own positions, usually at the expense of some other branch of the military. You notice the emphasis here was on bureaucratic maneuvering among the services, not on defeating the presumed “enemy.”

Here is one of Baritz’s most stunning examples: “The decisive form of the struggle between the air force and the navy,” he says, “was a competition to fly the most bombing missions. The contest was between the Seventh Air Force and the Seventh Fleet aircraft carriers sailing off the Vietnam coastline. It was apparently thought that the winner in this contest would prove its comparative effectiveness, so the stakes could not have been higher, and the principles could not have been lower.

“Promotions and length of duty were determined by the number of sorties each pilot flew; the more sorties, the sooner they could leave Vietnam, probably with a higher grade. This set of incentives meant that the pilots wanted to fly as many sorties as possible, and had every reason to stay out of trouble by avoiding tough targets. Cumulatively, the budgets of the air force and navy were determined by the ‘sortie rate,’ so the services had the same bizarre incentive as the individual pilots. Everyone tried to be in the air as often as possible, so long as they could avoid dangerous targets.

“The pilots generally flew two sorties a day, which the North Vietnamese timed and usually could anticipate. There was no good bureaucratic reason for the pilots actually to reach their target because they would get credit for a sortie even if, as many did, they dropped their bombs on fish in the sea, or on places already destroyed by bombs, or on places where there was nothing to bomb, except perhaps the rice paddies which fed the people.”

One of the enduring myths of the war in Vietnam is that the military could have successfully accomplished its mission there if it had not been hindered by civilian interference, which was itself influenced by the antiwar movement. What Baritz is saying here – and what I saw time after time at Army Headquarters – is that the military is perfectly capable of hindering itself.

It is doing so again in Iraq, with a different kind of bureaucratic foul-up: the inability – or unwillingness – to properly supply and protect our troops. An article in a recent New York Times talked about a Marine Corps unit, Company E, which has had the highest casualty rate of any company during the war in Iraq.
The article begins, “On May 29, 2004, a station wagon that Iraqi insurgents had packed with C-4 explosives blew up on a highway in Ramadi, killing four American marines who died for lack of a few inches of steel. The four were returning to camp in an unarmored Humvee that their unit had rigged with scrap metal, but the makeshift shields rose only as high as their shoulders, photographs of the Humvee show, and the shrapnel from the bomb shot over the top.” Most of the shrapnel wounds that killed all four men, a sergeant said, were to their heads.

With more than a third of Company E’s soldiers killed or wounded, and many of them not replaced, the unit, according to the Times, “resorted to making dummy marines from cardboard cutouts and camouflage shirts to place in observation posts on the highway when it ran out of men. During one of its deadliest firefights, it came up short on both vehicles and troops. Marines who were stranded at their camp tried in vain to hot-wire a dump truck to help rescue their falling brothers. That day, ten men in the unit died.”

Let me talk now about the special kind of arrogance that allows those in power to send other people’s sons and daughters off to die. Columnist Nicholas Von Hoffman, whose own son served in Iraq, wrote recently, “It is the incontestable truth that the politicians and news personalities who talk so blithely about war would adopt a different and more cautious tone in their advocacy of killing others were they to know that a degree of risk attaches to themselves and their own kith and kin should war ensue. It would be a more peaceful world if the law read that the children of every elected official and every TV news celebrity would immediately be drafted on the commencement of hostilities.”

A character in The Innocent, an enlisted man Matthew interviews on one of his trips out into the field, puts it more succinctly: “Far as I’m concerned,” he says, “the whole idea of war went straight downhill the minute the man deciding it was time to go off fighting stopped being the one riding at the head of the frigging column. Any time it gets where you can [just] send off raw meat like Creeper and me to do your dirty business, reality’s gonna take a goddam hike.”

Which brings me to what war really is. This seems to be a good place to talk about that. I have seen war, and I can tell you it is a horror. There is no “glory” in it. There may well be glory in courage and sacrifice and the extraordinary comradeship – call it love – that develops on the battlefield and allows a soldier to willingly give his life to save a buddy. But the actual battles are far from grand and glorious. They are deafeningly noisy, filled with acrid smoke and dust and flying shrapnel. They are confused and chaotic and terrifying beyond belief. And most of all they are bloody. Blood is everywhere – the symbol of life turned into the certainty of death. This day-to-day conduct of war – this killing in order not to be killed – is a horror. It is brutal – and brutalizing. And perhaps it is this last aspect that is the most destructive.

There is, I believe, deep inside us a basic compassion for the lives of others. Most people find it difficult to consider killing another person – except for the psychopaths among us, and the military certainly attracts its share of those. But for the rest of us, in order to make the idea of killing routine and automatic, the victims must be dehumanized, made to seem less than human, or “other” than human.

In Vietnam, this was easy. The “enemies” were clearly different – small, brown, slanty-eyed, and, since their weird-sounding language made no sense to us, probably not very smart. They became “gooks,” a kind of sub-species that didn’t matter as much as “real” people and could therefore be snuffed out without much guilt or remorse.

But, in line with the currently popular law of unintended consequences, this process can boomerang and dehumanize those who kill as well as the victims. Many who are sent to fight become brutalized and dehumanized themselves, and come back haunted by what they have seen – and what they have done. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a far too clinical, too sanitized term to describe the aching, often lifelong sense of anguish and guilt and stunned disbelief at what these soldiers have been a part of. All of us who’ve been there – whether traumatized or not – feel a sadness so deep that it never goes away.

It is this brutalizing and dehumanizing, I believe, that lead so directly to the My Lai’s and the Abu Ghraib’s. They have to. The only things that could stop them from happening – conscience, moral principles, compassion, reverence for life, call it what you like – all of these have been banished, replaced by the mission, the flag, the chain of command, the desire for revenge, and the immediate and overpowering wish not to die yourself.

Now we come to the place where arrogance shades into ignorance, and the two together become far more powerful and destructive than either could be alone. In both instances, Vietnam and Iraq, U.S. administrations who knew nothing of the history, culture, and certainly not the language of the countries they were attacking became convinced that they knew what was best for people either unable or unwilling to make the “right” decisions themselves.

A fascinating aspect for me of this ignorance is that in both cases – Vietnam and Iraq – vicious purges made us far less safe than we would otherwise have been. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s rampage through the State Department in the 1950s – slinging charges of being “soft” on Communism at the very least and in some cases of actually colluding with the enemy – wiped out the careers of many of those who did in fact understand the history, cultures, and languages of Southeast Asia and might – might – have been able to head off at least some of the catastrophe that followed in Vietnam.

As for our current war on terrorism – beginning with the attacks of 9/11 and leading on to our invasion of Iraq – the few revelations that are allowed to trickle out of what we knew or didn’t know before that fateful day show that information was pouring into U.S. intelligence agencies about an impending attack, but that much, if not most, of this information lay untranslated and therefore unread. At the same time, almost 30 Arabic- and Farsi-speaking translators that we know of, a large portion of all those available, had been dismissed from the military for one reason and one reason only – that they were gay – a perfect example of the triumph of ideology over anything resembling common sense. Had all of those translators been still at their desks hard at work, might we have learned something that might have helped prepare us for those attacks? You tell me.

In a special op-ed piece for the Washington Post, Andrew Bacevich, the professor of international relations at Boston University, said, “Whereas technology was supposed to render the battlefield transparent, the ‘fog of war’ settled over Iraq like a suffocating blanket. Never have U.S. forces fought in such ignorance of the enemy’s purpose, strength, leadership, and order of battle. George Armstrong Custer knew more about the warriors he faced in 1876 than U.S. commanders today know about their adversaries.”

And the result of this ignorance? Just last month, the former head of the National Security Agency, retired Lt. Gen. William Odom – a man with undeniably impeccable credentials – said, “The invasion of Iraq, I believe, will turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in U.S. history.”

As the Vietnam War progressed, arrogance and ignorance kept joining forces in the idea that all we needed to do to “win” – whatever that might have meant – was to send in more troops. So we did: 50,000 more, 100,000 more, until we had over half a million soldiers there, and yet, with each increase, we seemed to be moving further and further away from our goal of “pacification.” What we were incapable of recognizing – then as now in Iraq – was the simple truth that it was the mere fact of our presence there that continued to inflame the opposition.

Columnist William Pfaff cites a recent study of the Iraqi insurgency by the Project on Defense Alternatives, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. Their report, he says, “on the basis of interviews and the public opinion findings available in Iraq, concludes that the occupation and the insurgency are locked in a circular conflict from which there is no logical escape. The insurgents are fighting because of the occupation, and the occupation forces are fighting because there is resistance. U.S. military operations meant to quell or defeat the resistance actually provoke it, according to the study.”

Boston Globe columnist Thomas Oliphant believes the same thing: “The biggest threat [in Iraq],” he says, “stems from the huge . . . overwhelming presence of the U.S. military as an occupying force – assisted by an American embassy with the largest staff of any such mission in the world. This immense American footprint has already become the major reason – [the major reason, he says] – for the insurgency’s continued existence and recent growth.”

“Oh, well,” critics of these opinions might say. “What do you expect from all those Massachusetts liberals?” Well, columnist Susan Ives writes for the San Antonio Express-News, a newspaper located, you will notice, in George Bush’s home state of Texas. In a recent column, she wrote, “The United States is not preserving the peace in Iraq: We are fueling the violence. Far from being a stabilizing influence in Iraq, we are destabilizing the country. Insurgent attacks are five times more frequent than a year ago. . . .

“Perhaps if we left, there would be civil war,” she continued, “Sunni against Shia, Kurds breaking away to form their own country. Perhaps it would happen next year, or in 10 years. Our presence is not preventing such a possible future fight, just delaying it. These ethnic and religious tensions cannot be resolved by a foreign occupation.”
Comments like this in our own media have been reinforced by a recent nationwide poll in Iraq, which found that 85 percent of the Iraqi people surveyed wanted U.S. troops out of their country as soon as possible. Eighty-five percent.

The essential idea here is expressed very cogently by Nathan R. Turner, a research assistant at the Center for Arms Control. “Democracy has worked [in the United States],” he says, “although slowly, because it is a unique American creation and not imposed by an outside power. It is important to remember that democracy is not a gift one developed country bestows on another. Instead it is an indigenous creation of self-empowerment. In other words, Middle Eastern countries will become democratic as they choose that path for themselves, not as it is mandated by the United States.”

The Bush Administration, always obsessed with the public relations aspects of its policies, both foreign and domestic, is adding a new dimension to ignorance about their war: They are working in harmony with a docile and compliant press to keep as much of the “bad” news about what is happening in Iraq as they can from the American public. This is one of the “lessons of Vietnam” that they have learned all too well. The fact that the earlier war came home – vividly and relentlessly – to every American living room through graphic nightly reports on television news was a crucial factor in the growth of antiwar feeling in this country.

Our current leaders have no intention of allowing that to happen if they can help it, so as many reports as possible are now consistently, and effectively, sanitized. Photographs of the bodies of our dead soldiers returning home in flag-draped coffins are missing from the news, on specific instructions from the White House. The British medical magazine Lancet estimates that our forces have now killed about 100,000 Iraqis – most of them civilians, we assume, since there is no longer an Iraqi army. But there is no way of knowing for sure, because our government refuses to either keep or release those figures.

In a recent column in the New York Times, Bob Herbert said, “There’s been hardly any media interest in the unrelieved agony of tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq. It’s an ugly subject, and the idea has taken hold that Americans need to be protected from stories or images of the war that might be disturbing. As a nation we can wage war, but we don’t want the public to be too upset by it.

“So the public doesn’t even hear about the American bombs that fall mistakenly on the homes of innocent civilians, wiping out entire families. We hear very little about the frequent instances of jittery soldiers opening fire indiscriminately, killing and wounding men, women, and children who were never a threat in the first place. We don’t hear much about the many children who, for one reason or another, are shot, burned, or blown to eternity by our forces in the name of peace and freedom.”

Sadly, many Americans are being taken in by this unconscionable charade. If they don’t actually see it, then it isn’t happening. So much ignorance – all around us.

Again quoting Andrew Bacevich: “This is what war has always been – grueling, filthy, confusing, replete with accidents and miscues that victimize the innocent, giving rise to unforeseen consequences and loose ends. What qualifies as truly perplexing is not that the conflict in Iraq has reaffirmed this reality but that so many Americans, seduced by claims that this nation could bend war to our purposes, indulged in the fantasy that it would be otherwise.

“Well, now we know better. But let this be said: If our experience in Iraq demolishes once and for all the martial illusions to which the current generation of Americans has proven susceptible, then the United States may yet derive some benefit from this costly misadventure.”

Tierno Bokar was a Sufi Muslim who lived in Mali during the first half of the 20th century. “The only struggle that really concerns me,” Bokar said, “is the one that is aimed at our own weaknesses. This struggle, alas, has nothing to do with the war that so many of Adam’s sons wage in the name of a God they claim to love deeply, but whom they love badly – because they destroy a part of his creation.”

And part of that creation we are destroying is ourselves.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was as outspoken in his opposition to war as he was to poverty and segregation. He said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” And this: “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America.” He could be talking about today. We are spending obscene amounts on bombs and ammunition, and at the same time are slashing the budgets for education, child care, low-cost housing, environmental protection, even – and this is so shocking you’d think there’d be rioting in the streets – even for health care for returning veterans of the war in Iraq.

How can this possibly be happening?

Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Imagine: “We belong to each other.”

I’d like to end with two passages from The Innocent. When Matthew hears about the torturing of Nhan, the Vietnamese man he loves, Matthew at last – at long last – begins to see:

“It’s not what we pretend it’s about at all, is it? I thought. It’s not about bullets or bombs or strategic alliances. It’s really about hurting and being hurt. If we can hurt the Vietnamese enough, in enough ways, they’ll stop doing what we don’t want them to do. If they hurt us enough, we’ll pack up and go home. Hurt one man enough, and he’ll tell you everything he knows. Hurt another, and he’ll shut up and never say a word.

“All I wanted, right then, was for no one to be hurt that much, ever again.”

Matthew wanders out “the door of the Headquarters building and down the road to the right. I came to a tree, one of the few left standing inside the compound. I sat on the ground and leaned up against the trunk. It was hot and still. No breeze stirred the thick red dust that covered everything.

“Across the road, an old mama-san squatted beside the steps of a barracks shining shoes. A portable radio on the top step was playing a Vietnamese song that sounded strange to my ears. The singing was so high-pitched and nasal it was impossible to tell if the singer was a man or a woman. Although I couldn’t understand a word of it, the song sounded old to me. Maybe ancient. The odd tonality and unfamiliar harmonics created a barrier I couldn’t penetrate, behind which was a world I would never know.

“We’d all be gone some day, I thought, this new horde of foreigners who’d come to rearrange things. The barracks would be gone, and the mama-san would no longer shine shoes. But she’d still listen to that song. And not a one of us who’d come and gone would have the tiniest inkling of what the song meant. Or what went through her mind as she sat there listening to it.”

Ignorance – arrogance – triumphalism. They led us into Vietnam, and now, 40 years later, they have led us into Iraq.

In the words of a song of our own, one that came out of the heart of the Vietnam protest movement, “When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”

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