Vietnam’s Ghosts -- As Congress prepares to debate Iraq, a disagreement bet. Kerry & Webb resurrects some of the toughest questions facing the nation.
The number of American dead is still a fraction of what it was in Vietnam, and yet the horror that Iraq has become could eclipse that earlier misadventure. Supporters of the war warn that if American troops leave precipitously, then Iraq will descend into a bloodbath the way Vietnam and Cambodia did when the Democratic Congress withdrew funding from the South Vietnamese government, in effect sending hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of innocent people to their deaths at the hands of the North Vietnamese. As Congress grapples with a war gone bad, the ghost of Vietnam hovers over the Capitol. Antiwar Democrats were not rewarded at the ballot box, and it’s taken a generation—and another disastrous war—for the party to get anywhere near parity with the Republicans on national security.
Having lost in Vietnam, many Americans cannot bear the thought of another defeat. That’s why the stakeholders in the current conflict—the president and his party, principally—cannot bring themselves to accept the fact that the Iraq war is lost. The House will begin the debate next week, with every member given five minutes to speak, and sooner or later, the Senate will have to come out of hiding and express itself on the most important issue facing the country.
But the president is the decider, and he’s decided to keep waging war, perhaps even to expand the war to Iran. It’s not unlike President Nixon announcing on television in April 1970 that U.S. troops were entering Cambodia, an expansion of the war he said was necessary to protect the troops in Vietnam. The memory of Vietnam is selective—depending on who is doing the remembering. Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, who fought there, sees it through a different prism than former presidential candidate John Kerry, another Vietnam vet who came to an opposite conclusion about the war’s worth. The flash point between the two decorated veterans came at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing last month, when Kerry seemed to assume that those opposed to the Iraq war felt the same way about Vietnam. Webb steered him away, saying, “As much as possible, we need to keep this debate away from Vietnam.”
Webb was as fierce a supporter of Vietnam as he is now a critic of Iraq, which “is not a parallel situation,” he said. When Saigon fell and American television screens carried images of the ignominious U.S. pullout, Webb felt nothing but disgust for the seeming joy among his fellow law students that the war was over. “You make me want to puke,” he told a classmate, according to an account in Robert Timberg’s book “The Nightingale’s Song,” about the life stories of Webb, Sen. John McCain and three other graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Vietnam is why Webb left the Democratic Party, only to come home again over Iraq. He is a true Jacksonian, a populist who doesn’t like foreign wars. He still believes the soldiers in Vietnam were betrayed by their political leaders, a phenomenon he sees repeated in the decision to invade Iraq and the subsequent bungling of the mission. He was attracted to Ronald Reagan when he called Vietnam a noble cause, a phrase ridiculed by those on the Kerry side of the divide. The event that triggered Webb’s break with the Democrats was President Carter granting amnesty to those who fled the country to avoid the draft. To many people, that’s a fair response to an unjust war, but in Webb’s view, if you’re enjoying the benefits of freedom, fleeing duty is not an option.
For Webb, it’s not really about the war, it’s about the culture of service, and for him there is no contradiction. If you’re from this tradition, and in Webb’s view everybody should be, you serve proudly and trust the judgment of your political leaders. Webb’s father flew planes during the Berlin airlift; his son is a Marine in Iraq, and Webb served heroically in Vietnam. He doesn’t want the debate over Iraq corrupted by competing views over Vietnam, and whether the politicians betrayed an ally by abandoning South Vietnam. Kerry protested the war and appeared with Jane Fonda and had long shaggy hair, and it must have grated on Webb. Webb is saying to Kerry that they can agree Iraq is a disaster without rehashing Vietnam. A struggle that began in the 1960s is once more taking shape on Capitol Hill.