CHICAGO — To my immense surprise, I recently ran into the American scholar who, for many correspondents in Vietnam, offered the most fair-minded analysis of the war.
Suddenly, there was Gerald “Gerry” Hickey at the Chicago Public Library, a little grayer after 35 years, but still much the same, with a big smile on his face and a welcome “Hello!”
I remembered well how Gerry, then the Rand Corp.’s top man in Vietnam, had meticulously explained for us the cultures and behavior of highland tribes such as the Montagnards, but also the Viet Cong and the “pro-American” Saigon government.
“And now we’re doing the same thing all over again,” he said as we talked about Iraq. “First, we suffer from the same invincible ignorance about Iraq that we suffered over Vietnamese culture. Second, in Vietnam we set the military impact with no concern about our effect on South Vietnamese culture. By the time we left in 1975, they were just exhausted. They were just tired out — and so was I.
“It is so sad now that I can see the same mistakes being made in Iraq. The GIs busting down the doors, breaking into homes, doing everything wrong. But, you know something,” he went on, sadness outlining his voice, “I’m shocked at much of what we are seeing in Iraq: The Americans are much crueler than they were in Vietnam. Remember, when American correspondents found American troops burning down houses — that was remarkable then; today it’s the norm.”
Gerry and I talked a long time that day, mulling over our common experiences, wondering primarily why the United States can’t ever pause to analyze a country correctly, and above all comparing the two conflicts.
Despite the myriad voices in the press insisting, “Iraq is not a Vietnam!” the indisputable fact is that, if you consider the passions and principles applied there, it really IS another Vietnam. Among the causes for the war are obscurantist theories about foreign threats that have little basis in reality; civilians at the top who play with the soldiers they have never been; and the underlying lies that give credence to special interests (the Bay of Tonkin pretense in Vietnam, the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq).
In Vietnam, we were following the bizarre notion of the “domino theory,” the idea that a communist Vietnam would mean that all of Southeast Asia would fall to communism. The Johnson administration refused to realize that it was a colonial war, and that in colonial wars, people fight forever.
With Iraq, the second Bush administration accepted the idea, perfervidly pushed by civilian neoconservatives, that Iraq was the center of terrorism, the cause of 9/11 and an immediate threat, ignoring the Greek chorus of voices warning against such intellectual, military and moral folly.
Curiosly, in both cases it was civilian ideological fanatics in the Pentagon, enamored of American technology and with no knowledge of history or culture, and not the U.S. military, who pressed for the wars. (It was Robert McNamara and his “whiz kids” then; now it’s Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle and others.)
Perhaps the old American maxim of civilian control of the military might be changed, with what we are seeing, to military control of the civilians.
Other comparisons of the two wars:
Today, one hears a doublespeak that almost echoes the communists of the old days. In Vietnam, it was, “We had to destroy the village to save it.” With Iraq, it is President Bush’s statement of last week that “the more successful we are on the ground, the more these killers will react!”
Today, it’s called “Iraqization.” In Vietnam, it was called “Vietnamization” — late-hour attempts to make everything look as though it’s working. As military historian William Lind wryly remarked to me of Iraqization, “It presumes that because you pay someone, he’s yours.”
In 1967 in Vietnam, I spent a lot of time interviewing officers and troops all over the country, and I wrote a series of articles that my paper, the Chicago Daily News, headlined with: “The GI Who Asks ‘Why?'” Today’s GIs are beginning to ask that same question.
America needs to look seriously at these two wars and analyze why it repeatedly gets involved in painful and costly faraway conflicts. Why, when we could with little effort be a great example for mankind, do we allow the driven and arrogant technocrats of the Vietnam era and the cynical and extremist Jacobins today to carry us to war after useless war?