Daniel Ellsberg, the former Pentagon official famous for leaking documents illustrating the government's deceit in Vietnam, was recently asked if he saw differences between Vietnam and Iraq.
"Of course there are differences," he said. "In Iraq, it's a dry heat."
Vietnam is the one word no one in the Bush administration wants to hear these days. It's the curse, the black cloud that hangs over the country's military history. After years of revelations and stark evaluations, conservatives and liberals, soldiers and peaceniks, vowed together that it should never happen again, that American soldiers should never die without clear goals and a just cause. We were all supposed to have learned something from Vietnam.
Instead, two decades later, history is repeating itself. No one wants to admit it, but it's time to face the cold reality: Iraq is the new Vietnam.
Some call it "Vietnam on crack," which is sad commentary. It makes us all look like idiots. What kind of superpower would make the same mistake twice in the same generation?
The similarities and cruel irony run at every level, but nowhere are the comparisons more obvious than in Oceanside, where Camp Pendleton Marines are once more trickling home in body bags. And families are again starting to wonder why their best and brightest are going to a far off place to try to save people who hate us.
In both Vietnam and Iraq, the government ignored logic and sound military planning to push the country into war, using trumped-up incidents or flat-out fake evidence to deceive the American public. In 1964 it was Tonkin Gulf; in 2003 it was WMDs.
As a result, like Vietnam, our soldiers are caught in the middle of what is essentially a civil war, where it is often impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Instead of the jungles of Asia, troops are stuck in the streets of Tikrit, fighting a guerilla war against an unseen enemy fighting on his home turf. Vietnam and Iraq vets tell similar stories of spending every day wondering if the smiling shopkeeper or friendly mayor may actually be plotting to slit their throats.
After Vietnam, our military leaders assured the public and their troops that they would never allow the mightiest fighting force in the world to be suckered into an alley fight again. Yet, 40 years later, their mighty tanks and high-tech weaponry can't stop the slaughter caused by homemade bombs made with chicken wire and old bean cans.
The troops felt let down by their leaders in Vietnam, when they learned their piles of equipment were worthless and dangerous in a jungle fight. In the modern era, our elite troops are salvaging trash to armor their Humvees.
Worst of all, there is no end in sight, no realistic plan for getting us the hell out of there. Like Vietnam, there is a profound sense that we are stuck, over-committed to a fight that could go on for centuries. The idea is to train the locals to fight their own fight, a plan that sounds a lot like the attempts to let the South Vietnamese defend themselves against the North Vietnamese, who were often referred to as "insurgents." It didn't work then, and there are no signs that it'll work now, a miscalculation that is sure to cost thousands of American lives.
The term "quagmire" is popping up again, too, providing ugly reminders of what it's like to be engaged with an enemy where the battle line never moves, and progress is measured by years. Even if Iraq flourishes as a model of democracy, and virgins lope through the streets of Baghdad tossing rose petals in the air, the very real possibility is that the country will vote to back an administration that hates us, a prospect the Bush administration simply ignores.
A lot of smart people predicted this would happen. But no one listened. They were branded as traitors, liberal pinheads, smart-ass intellectuals. The emotions and rhetoric of the 1960s is bubbling up again-anyone who dares say American soldiers are dying for the wrong reasons is immediately accused of "undermining the war effort."
The very idea of being "against the war" enrages the cheerleaders, the flag wavers who believe Iraq was behind 9/11 and any minute Saddam was going to launch nukes at Cleveland. No matter what happens, they'll believe in their president, right or wrong, even though Vietnam showed us that the government can be dead wrong about these things.
By the time the war ended in shame, it was clear that every fantasy rationale for escalating the Vietnam conflict was a farce-the red menace didn't seep across the Pacific; there was no "domino effect," as hardliners warned. They were all wrong. Vietnam is communist and Eggos are still readily available at every supermarket. Life goes on.
It's now becoming clear-even to the true believers-that taking over Iraq did nothing to defuse the Middle East or end cruelty in the country. And it certainly hasn't done anything to stem terrorism. Iraq is another farce, the product of a president who doesn't like to read and refuses to learn anything from history.
But Vietnam taught us that, sooner or later, the American public catches on. As more body bags come home, the dissension will seep into the suburbs, outrage will grow and people will demand to know how our leaders managed to get us into another un-winnable war.
Write to MsBeak1@aol.com and editor@SD citybeat.com.