Vietnam, the War That Won't Heal

The lessons of Saigon, still unheeded, permeate the presidential campaign

If ever one needed proof that presidential political campaigns have become a farce, that tableau of McCain hugging Bush and praising him is a beaut. The pilot who flew combat missions over Vietnam in a fake embrace with the pilot who flew after lunch over Texas oil fields. The big lie personified.

The debacle of the Vietnam War will not fade away until Washington stops lying this nation into wars. Serial lies were broadcast about Vietnam from Washington. And then, in futile attempts to erase that memory, our politburo lied to the public in order to stage weekend wars in Grenada and Panama, rehearsals for the Gulf War, the one that was supposed to bury Vietnam forever. And now we have the embarrassment that is the Iraq war, constructed almost entirely on lies and distortions and faux-conservative ideology.

At least our leaders during Vietnam grew embarrassed and humiliated. The present administration, except for Secretary of State Colin Powell, admits no mistakes. George Bush says he is guided by God and his conscience is clear. If you disagree with him, it means you are saying it is God who is making the mistakes.

Vietnam is back because it never went away, and because Iraq reminds us powerfully of it.

All the talk about individual war records is male locker-room blather. Courage and bravery have almost nothing to do with it. I have been a soldier and a war correspondent. I learned that fortitude and honor come in many forms and sizes. Men and women who have never carried a gun also perform heroic acts.

It's not heroic for a president to declare himself mistake-free. It just means that he suffers from an absence of humility. It is not heroic to say that another man lacks manhood because he used the word sensitive. It's just cheap.

Though Iraq is by no means an exact parallel to Vietnam—their cultures and histories and geographies are vastly different—the echoes are all there. Listen to the language we employ when we talk and write about Iraq: "collateral damage," "quagmire," "hearts and minds." This is the argot of Vietnam. And it stays with us because Iraq, too, was an unnecessary war. People are dying needlessly.

The next time somebody in Washington says Vietnam is behind us, let it actually be true.

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