Tuesday, June 19, 2007

We've been here before

In this space, we have tossed around the idea of whether Iraq is Vietnam. It's not a simple answer...they are similar in that American troops are in a conflict that can only be solved politically, unless you are a Curtis LeMay clone and are willing to destroy the village to save it, bomb'em back to the stone age or make it a wilderness and call it peace. They are dissimilar in that Vietnam was a basic disagreement about the future, with the weaker side opting for a continuation of colonial rule, and the other for a different future, a national Communist future without foreign domination. Iraq, of course, is many different conflicts--Sunni v. Shiia, Shiia militias vs. the US, Shiia militias vs. Al-Quaeda, Sunni militias vs. the US, Kurds vs. everyone trying to drag them into the muck, Al-Quaeda vs. the US, Shiia criminal gangs vs. Shiia criminal gangs for control of the Basra port traffic.

Another point of convergence between the two was front and center at the New York memorial service for David Halberstam. Halberstam, along with his colleague Neil Sheehan--who later went on to write a brilliant book about the origins of the US involvement in Vietnam, "A Bright Shining Lie"--were the first to sound the alarm, or try to, about the inability or unwillingness of south Vietnamese forces to engage their enemy. We were trying to train these people to resist their Communist countrymen, using our advisers and resources in order to avoid sending in ground troops. Halberstam, Sheehan and others repeatedly exposed the veniality, corruption and lack of fighting spirit among the south Vietnamese, coming right out and saying that they were incapable of bringing off a victory against the highly motivated Communists. Implicit in all their reporting was that the US would not have much luck, either, if it intervened militarily. In contrast, all official sources--a lot of grey-haired, crew-cut generals--painted a rosy picture for the American public. The light was always just at the end of the tunnel, we only needed a few additional months and millions to bring the ARVN around, patience, not "defeatism" was called for.

Halberstam in particular challenged these optimistic scenarios with his own eyes, ears and prose. Official Washington tried mightily to silence him, but he went on writing and accusing the American government of covering up and sugar coating the truth. Thus was born the adversarial relationship between the press and the government, which deepened during Watergate and survives today in the death-defying reporters who bring you all that "bad news" about Iraq--the bombings, the cruelty, the torture and abuse, the internecine warfare, the corruption, the essential hopelessness of trying to solve militarily something that can only be solved politically.

Dexter Filkins, who did some of the finest writing for the Times during his four-year stint in Baghdad and environs, paid eloquent tribute to his Vietnam-era predecessor at the memorial in these words: ""When the official version didn't match what we were seeing on the streets of Baghdad, all we had to do - and we did it a lot - was ask ourselves, What would Halberstam have done? And then the way was clear."

Popessa was fighting getting down the other day. This should get her back out there, cheering. We've been here before, and we still have some intrepid truth-tellers in the field.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Bucky, it helps. Of course, nothing helps quite like the site of Darth Cheney fighting off his demons of open & honest government. I don't know why, but his crazy-eyed antics sometimes just put a smile on my face. It's his willingness to go the extra mile out on the plank I think. I am going to enjoy the work historians will do on this Veep down the road.

5:29 PM  

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