Airborne Staff Sergeant David Safstrom is on his third tour as a member of the Airborne in Iraq. It is his first time to question whether there is any value in what he is doing there.
“In Mosul, in 2003, it felt like we were making the city a better place,” he said. “There was no sectarian violence, Saddam was gone, we were tracking down the bad guys. It felt awesome.”
But now on his third deployment in Iraq, he is no longer a believer in the mission. The pivotal moment came, he says, this past February when soldiers killed a man setting a roadside bomb. When they searched the bomber’s body, they found identification showing him to be a sergeant in the Iraqi Army.
“I thought, `What are we doing here? Why are we still here?’ ” said Sergeant Safstrom, a member of Delta Company of the First Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. “We’re helping guys that are trying to kill us. We help them in the day. They turn around at night and try to kill us.”
His views are echoed by most of his fellow soldiers in Delta Company, renowned for its aggressiveness. (New York Times.)
The quagmire of Iraq is not the same as the one in which we once fought in Viet Nam, but there are echoes. Lots of echoes. Big echoes. Look at a few more of the echoes.
A buddy of mine once commanded a supply company in Long Binh, staffed by a mixture of Americans and South Vietnamese. He said the Vietnamese were generally the better workers, more motivated and more efficient. The senior Vietnamese employee was also a friend of his. My buddy felt that we were making real progress there – until one evening he went to town and stumbled on a Communist rally which his highest ranking Vietnamese worker – his friend – was leading. Not only could my buddy not trust our allies, like Staff Sergeant David Safstrom, he couldn’t even trust his Vietnamese friends. ( An echo.)
Lyndon Johnson didn’t invade South Viet Nam. He just tried a massive “surge” to resolve the issue in a way that the American political right-wing could accept. It was Eisenhower who committed the U.S. to military support of the South Vietnamese government when the French pulled out in 1954. That was a political decision, since leaving Viet Nam right then would have been described by the conservative right-wingers a “Losing Viet Nam,” just as they were still blaming Truman and the Democrats for “losing China” from 1948, six year earlier.
Then when it came time in 1956 for the scheduled vote in South Viet Nam on whether South Viet Nam would be reunified with North Viet Nam, Ike could not permit the vote to take place. It was clear that the South Vietnamese would vote to unify with North Viet Nam, and 1956 was a Presidential election year. Ike couldn’t afford to be the one who lost Viet Nam during an election year.
This was high “Joe McCarthy” time. Like now, the radical American right was in the ascendant. At some point during this period of the 1950’s the John birch Society even called Ike a Communist. America’s radical right had veto power over ending unnecessary wars. (Note the “echo.” Just like Iraq.)
So Viet Nam became a tar-baby. Once America had grabbed hold it became politically impossible to let it go. Ike couldn’t ignore the Conservative right-wingers and pull out, so he handed Viet Nam off to his Democratic successor, John Kennedy. Still, America didn’t have a major commitment of American troops there in 1961. It was more like the current American involvement in Colombia. But it remained unwinnable. Kennedy even sponsored or permitted a coup which removed the corrupt South Vietnamese leader and replaced him with a military dictator in hopes that corruption would be reduced and Viet Nam would become more unified fighting the Viet Cong. That didn’t work either. (The corruption of the government is another echo. Since we created the current Iraqi government it is the equivalent of the post-coup RVN government.)
Lyndon Johnson was also unable to face up to the American radical right wing. His White House tapes have him recorded as admitting that we could not win there, but he could not politically face the threat of right-wing accusations that he had “lost” Viet Nam to the Communists. So he listened to Gen. Westmoreland and attempted a “surge” in 1965. (Another echo.)
Only Johnson had a draft in place, so his “surge” could get a lot larger than Bush/Cheney’s has been. It reached half a million military men. The substitute that Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld have used is to have 100,000 contractors substitute for combat soldiers. Still, that places this current “surge” at about 160,000 military and 100,000 contractors (including Blackwater) for a total of roughly 260,000 Americans. The population of South Viet Nam in 1960 was 17,333,000 and of North Viet Nam was 21,154,000. Half a million was not enough to win Viet Nam, and as has been clear since late 2003, 260,000 are not enough to win in Iraq. (Echo?)
Neither LBJ nor George W. Bush found it politically possible to mobilize America for a real war. For LBJ it was “Guns and Butter.” For Bush it has been “Support the troops. Display a ribbon.” But at least LBJ passed a 10% surtax to try to pay the costs. Didn’t work, as the inflation fought by Nixon, Ford and Carter demonstrated, but at least he had the good sense to try. Bush hasn’t even tried, instead leaving the Federal Reserve to manipulate the money supply and depress the economy to prevent inflation. (Echo? We’ll see.)
Bush 41 could have invaded Iraq as the armies of the Persian Gulf War swept across the sands towards Baghdad, but as he explained in his book, the potential cost was not worth what little could be gained.
Dick Cheney and the NeoCons obviously disagreed, so the moment they got a pliable and ignorant George W. Bush into office they took the opportunity to continue the Persian Gulf War by invading Iraq. A significant part of the reason for invading Iraq appears to have been an effort to erase the “stigma” of having “Lost” the war in Viet Nam. The Neocons were trying to prove that America was no longer bound up in what the conservatives call “The Viet Nam Syndrome.” Rather than being an echo of the Viet Nam War, this seems to be the same set of right-wingers who have never accepted our leaving Viet Nam attempting to correct what they saw as a mistake when we left the war there without a clear victory. This has not been an echo of Viet Nam so much as refusing to learn from their mistakes and making the same mistake twice. (Refusal to accept loss in Viet Nam – sort of an echo.)
Whatever the excuse for invading Iraq in the first place, it has clearly been recognized as not worth the cost for at a minimum the last three years. But like in Viet Nam, the American right-wingers have defined leaving without victory (which they never define) as losing, so we have to stay. (Yep. Another echo. A real big one this time.)
That kept Americans fighting an unwinnable war in Viet Nam for two decades before we saw that the French had been correct in leaving in 1954. There was always enough evidence to show that we were winning, if you asked the professionals. During Tet we destroyed the Viet Cong organization. But we couldn’t bring stability and peace to that country, not matter what we did. Compare that to now in Iraq. (Another major echo.)
Cheney has already promised the King of Saudi Arabia that America will still be in Iraq 18 months from now, and it is clear that Bush intends to pass this abortion of a war off to his Democratic successor when the new President is sworn in January 2009. Then, of course, the “Who lost Iraq” cry will ring from the rafters as the right-wingers blame the person who pulls the troops out of Iraq for losing the damned war we never should have started in the first place. (More echoes. It is American domestic politics that keep us there, not the war itself.)
How long – and for how many American lives – do we let these right-wing power fantasies keep us stuck in an unwinnable and unnecessary war in Iraq? How long will we be hamstrung by the mostly chicken-hawk conservatives?