Sliding toward Vietnam

Thursday, 6 November 2003

When I was growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I remember watching images on TV of soldiers in Vietnam, of gun battles, and of bodies coming home. One particularly vivid image sticks with me. A reporter was traveling by boat down a river in Vietnam, accompanying a group of soldiers. As he was reporting the story, gunfire suddenly rang out from the river banks, and soldiers returned fire into the weeds, where they could see smoke. Although I didn't know the word at the time, the term that best describes how I felt was surreal. The images seemed real, yet somehow they appeared to be distortions of reality. The assassinations of the Kennedys and King, the shootings at Kent State, and the riots in various places evoked a vague feeling of dread in me at times, even as a young boy. Those feelings subsided with the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Since then I have experienced times of anxiety, grief, and unease many times as I've listened to, seen, or read news stories about world events and U.S. involvement in them. It's only recently, however, that the feelings I had more than thirty years ago have begun to re-emerge. I've watched many TV stories that had images of U.S. soldiers on the battlefield over the years, but tonight, for the first time, as I watched a news story about the U.S. military in Iraq, images of Vietnam War coverage flooded back into my consciousness.

Maybe the picture of soldiers stringing rolls of barbed wire triggered my memories, or maybe it was the image of guns stuck in the ground with helmets on top. I suspect that the chief cause is neither, however. More than likely two items I've read in the past two days have reminded me of that troubling time for our country. The first item was a story about preparations that are currently underway to reinstitute the draft. The second item was a story in today's New York Times about the U.S. government rejecting a last-ditch effort on the part of Iraq to avoid war.

First the draft story. On a Web page hidden deep beneath the surface of the Department of Defense's Web site ( is a call for volunteers to serve as members of local draft boards. The draft was ended in 1973 as a direct result of U.S. citizens' opposition to the war in Vietnam. Since that time, we have had an all-volunteer military. Pointing to the fact that the children of poor families and minority groups are much more likely to serve in the military, and thus be injured or killed while on missions, than children of rich families (including most congressmen, senators, and high-ranking members of the executive branch), Democratic congressman Charles Rangel of New York on December 31, 2002, proposed reinstituting the draft. The move was a symbolic rather than a real effort. He and others who proposed a new draft wanted to point out that the president and members of Congress would think harder about sending American soldiers into battle if their own children were among those on the front lines. Their proposal was actually a call for sanity in the deployment of military personnel and the waging of war.

The Defense Department's proposal for reinstituting the draft, on the other hand, is an extremely troubling development. Far from challenging the Bush administration's "make war at the drop of a hat" policies, this proposal, if implemented, promises to provide larger numbers of troops for military ventures all around the planet. A new draft will provide presidential administrations with imperial ambitions, like the current one, plenty of bodies to put in harm's way, thus alleviating the shortage of soldiers we are currently facing because of overcommitment. The new draft proposal will continue to discriminate against the poor and minorities, sending them to die for our country in disproportionate numbers, just like they always have. Rich kids will still be able to get deferments, or at least enter the military as officers, while the poor will fill the ranks of enlisted men (women are still excluded from the draft in this proposal).

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of a new draft is the unmistakable imagery of Vietnam that it will invoke. Most Americans view the U.S. involvement in Vietnam as a tragic mistake, an unbelievable waste of 58,000 American lives, not to mention as many as two million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians killed. The Bush administration, however, most of whose leaders conveniently avoided service in Vietnam (with the exception of Colin Powell), seems determined to recast Vietnam as a noble undertaking. Restarting the draft is a way of saying to all those who believe that the U.S. had no business in Vietnam, "You're wrong, and we're going to do it all over again in other parts of the world!"

We turn now to today's New York Times story. It seems that high-ranking officials of the Iraqi government attempted to communicate through back channels their desire to avoid war with the U.S. at all costs. In February and March of this year, before the U.S. attacked Iraq, word came to U.S. government officials, including Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, that Iraq was willing to make almost any concession to avoid war. The story reports that the Iraqis offered to allow U.S. troops and weapons experts into the country to verify the non-existence of WMDs, to hand over a man suspected of involvement in the 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade Center, to offer U.S. oil companies lucrative concessions on Iraqi oil, to support any U.S.-backed peace plan in the Middle East, and even to hold elections within two years. U.S. officials rebuffed all these advances, and they began their assault on Iraq on March 19.

Recent reports have made it clear that the U.S. government, as well as Tony Blair, knew that Iraq had no credible WMDs long before launching their attack on Iraq. What then was the reason the Bush administration was so adamant about going to war with Iraq? A plan for attacking was already on the drawing board early in Bush's term in office, and September 11 gave him an excuse to implement it. Already on the afternoon of September 11, administration officials were instructed to try to tie Iraq to the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Was it oil? Perhaps, though this latest revelation that the Iraqi government was willing to give American companies significant concessions suggests that oil was not the main motivating factor. The only viable rationale that remains that would explain this administration's obsession with removing Saddam Hussein from power is revenge: revenge for the foiled plot to assassinate former President Bush, revenge for Hussein's disrespect for the former president (as evidenced by the placement of a huge mosaic picture of Bush I on the floor of the al-Rashid hotel), revenge for former President Bush's electoral loss to Bill Clinton in 1992.

The Iraqi government was willing to make peace, but the Bush administration was determined to make war. Up until days before the attack on Iraq began, the president claimed that he had not yet made up his mind to attack Iraq, but it is clear now that he had in fact decided months earlier to invade. (It was pretty clear to most people that his mind was made up long before March. When the president, addressing a crowd on a college campus, claimed that he had not yet made up his mind whether to attack Iraq, the audience laughed.) These latest revelations that the Iraqi government was ready to do whatever was necessary to avoid war demonstrates that the government's cynical decision to move ahead with the invasion was unconscionable. Almost 400 Americans have lost their lives in Iraq, as have about 50 soldiers from Britain, and one each from Denmark, Ukraine, and Poland. Probably about 15,000 Iraqis have died. The tragedy of the situation is that had the Bush administration been the least bit interested in peace, these lives, and those that will die in days to come, wouldn't have been wasted.

Current U.S. military policy is morally bankrupt. When the Department of War was renamed the Department of Defense after World War II, government officials hoped that the name change would reflect a U.S. government that would wage war only in international coalitions like the newly formed United Nations. Unfortunately, over the past fifty or sixty years, the U.S. has interfered militarily many, many times without international approval, using both military might and covert activities (i.e., the CIA). We need a Department of Defense that understands that "Defense" is not merely a euphemism for "War." More than that, we need to establish a Department of Peace that will work for peaceful resolutions to conflicts and build both trust and strategic partnerships among nations, as Representative Dennis Kucinich has proposed.

Dismissed as a "vanity candidate" for president in a recent NPR report (along with Carol Mosely-Braun and Al Sharpton--hmm, the only two candidates of color, one of whom is a woman), largely ignored by the mainstream media, Dennis Kucinich is the conscience of the Democratic Party. He saw the direction the Bush administration was headed with regard to restrictions on civil liberties and war with Iraq shortly after September 11, 2001 (see his speech, "A Prayer for America"). A staunch opponent of the war, Kucinich has called for the U.S. military to be replaced as quickly as possible in Iraq by U.N. peacekeepers, who will in turn hand the reins of government over to Iraqis expeditiously. Establishing a cabinet-level Department of Peace, Kucinich believes, is of vital importance in a world as dangerous as the one in which we currently find ourselves.

When faced with one last opportunity for peace, the Bush administration hurtled recklessly ahead, with the result that hundreds of American families, and thousands of Iraqi families, have had to endure gut-wrenching tragedy. If certain elements of the administration have their way, we will repeat these errors in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere, multiplying our guilt before God. America is poised on the brink of returning to a time of angst and dread that characterized the Vietnam era. Those of all faiths, or no faith, who love peace, must stand together and demand an end to the madness before it's too late.

© Copyright 2003, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology