In the early ’60’s Pres. John Kennedy committed the United States to a war in Vietnam to stop the spread of communism. After his death in 1963, Pres. Lyndon Johnson escalated our participation and took personal charge of the military planning and implementation. There was no plan for winning and no plan for exiting. The war was being fought not to lose political face. As the war continued the usual anti-war movement gained strength when students watched in horror as their friends and classmates returned home dead or maimed – and for no apparent reason.
When the ever-cautious politicians sensed a political opportunity, they too began to oppose the war effort – never enough to actually take responsibility for a decision to fight or flee but just enough to maintain popularity. As criticism over the conduct of the war increased, more and more restrictions were imposed on the way the war would be fought. There were demilitarized zones, restrictions on civilian casualties, and ever changing “rules of engagement.” The politicians sought to “civilize” the brutality that is war. In each instance, the net result was to provide the enemy with safe havens, human shields, and tactical advantage. Each limitation increased the body count and the physical and psychological maiming of our soldiers. And each increase in the body count led to additional restrictions. The true “domino effect” of the Vietnam war was the increasing politicization of the conduct of the war.
I was in college and then law school during those turbulent times. I became a part of the anti-war movement – albeit in a more sedate fashion than the more famous anti-war groups – simply because it was my friends and classmates that were being killed. All three of my roommates graduated from college to the killing fields of Vietnam. One was a combat soldier who confronted the enemy in the dense jungles, one was an intelligence officer who counted the dead and wounded on both sides, and one was a chopper pilot who flew the fresh troops in and the dead and wounded ones out. I too was destined for Vietnam as an artillery officer until I was washed out of ROTC because of a congenital birth defect.
We still see each other and reminisce about old times – but they never talk about Vietnam. While they all made it home alive and without significant physical injury, each has had his own struggle with the psychological impact of fighting a war in that fashion.
But that was more than a generation ago – or was it? Few, if any, lessons have been learned from those dark moments in American history.
On September 11, 2001, terrorists struck America on our shores for the second time and for the second time targeted the World Trade Center. Nearly three thousand people died that day. My daughter called from college that morning; stunned, fearful and filled with apprehension of what would happen next. I told her that America would react quickly and that the world would be shocked by the violence that would rain down on the enemy. Despite its peaceful nature, America is a country that reacts violently when provoked.
I am not a fan of war and I am certainly not a student of war. But like every man, I understand that war is the act of ultimate brutality on both sides. It is the ultimate test of strength, courage, and determination. It is fought savagely and people die – combatants, civilians and innocents. As a result, civilized countries, America included, have sought to impose “rules” for the conduct of war. Most of those rules center on the protection of civilians and the treatment of prisoners. No nation is a more rigid adherent to those rules of civility than the United States. And not one nation, not one enemy, not one tyrant that we have opposed since the end of World War II has given a damn about any aspect of those rules. Tick through the list: North Korea, Red China, North Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge, Bosnia, Lebanon, Somalia, Libya, the Taliban, Iraq, Iran, Syria, the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah and the list goes on forever. All of the politicians’ “great hopes” about the enemies’ treatment of our own in turn is lost in pictures of beheaded Americans and tortured soldiers – and three thousand dead in the World Trade Center.
War is like dealing with a bully – it is only over when you beat the holy bejeezus out of the enemy. If you are unwilling to fight at that level, you should not be engaged in war.
And that brings us to the present. Many political pundits have cast the last election as a referendum on the war in Iraq. I don’t know whether that is true or not, but I do know that the politicians think it is. And that signals the beginning of the end. The political will to fight and win is ebbing. If that is true we can expect more politicization of the conduct of the war, more restrictions, more second guessing, more congressional hearings that cast doubt, and more disparaging of our troops (ala John Kerry’s recent bitch slap of their intelligence).
I would prefer that we do what is necessary to win and to begin the systematic dismantling of the radical Islamic terrorist network. But if that is not to be and the politicians have lost the will to win, then I will once again join the anti-war movement. Not to disparage America but to demand that we do not sacrifice our young men and women for no good reason. I couldn’t stand it for my generation and I cannot stand it for my children’s generation.