Dec 2, 2009
By T.L. Caswell
For a few paragraphs, simple labels will do: Soldier No. 1 and Soldier No. 2.
Besides serving in the wartime military, they didn't appear at first
glance to have been much alike. They were born in dramatically
disparate cultural eras, Soldier No. 1 amid World War II home-front
anxiety and rationing, Soldier No. 2 in a time of hippies and free
living, during the Summer of Love.
No. 1 was reared on the country's southeastern jut, in Miami, and No.
2 grew up on its western rim, in South Pasadena, Calif. Atlantic boy,
No. 1 was a junior college dropout; No. 2who had been a high school
football team captain and a surferwon a degree after majoring in
criminal justice at Cal State Long Beach and later was a graduate student.
The first ended up in a store where customers were urged to consider
the attractive features of wristwatches and rings. The second had a
less cooperative and rougher-hewn clientele: He walked the thin blue
line, a member of the Los Angeles Police Department.
The difference between them that was biggestprofound would be a
better wordlay in what they did when they were in the U.S. Army.
Soldier No. 2 won praise; his commander once called him "one of the
[battalion's] finest, if not the finest young officer." No such
accolade for Soldier No. 1. He emerged a moral monster who had
brought atrocious disgrace to himself, his uniform and his nation.
But whatever their differences, in the end they had a terrible
element in common, which we shall soon see. The lives of both were
marked by deep calamity, and their tragediesshaped by a monumental
national forcedeserve retelling for the lessons they hold for
Americans singly and as a people. Especially in view of Barack
Obama's announcement Tuesday of a major escalation in the Afghanistan war.
A seemingly enlightened president, with the apparent acquiescence of
much of Congress and, yes, the voters, has chosen to hurl more lives
into the maw of warfare. Of course, Obama's approach to the
Afghanistan issue has been known since the presidential campaign,
when the Illinois senator made clear that he thought military
emphasis needed to be moved to that nation. Still, the decision is a
grating disappointment to those who had hoped that Obama would shift
his view after it became clear to him in the Oval Office that U.S.
military participation in the Afghanistan conflict is elective and
not vital to our interests.
There's no need here to deal much with why it was not necessary or
wise for the United States to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Countless
articles have been written on the subject: the absence of weapons of
mass destruction in Iraq, the lack of a connection of Iraq to 9/11,
the historical inability of invaders to conquer Afghanistan, the
illogic of invading a nation because a cell of religious zealots
carried out a despicable crime in our country, etc.
Soldier No. 1 and Soldier No. 2 stand here not so much as individuals
but as symbols, reflecting what our national policies have done to
harm scores of thousands of young and not so young Americans. Their
cases are instructive and can direct light onto the human
consequences of sending troops across seas to fight unnecessarily.
Let's look at what happened to two of our warriors.
* * *
Soldier No. 1: The Cries for Mercy Still Echo
Last summer, a man on the cusp of old age said he was sorry for
something he did long ago. Normally, such a declaration doesn't
extend past the hearing of an aggrieved wife or an adult offspring
with a wounded past, but in this case there were ripples that reached
across the nation and even into foreign countries.
The Associated Press and other major news conduits didn't latch on to
the story immediately, so the information took a couple of days to
spread widely out of Columbus, Ga., a city of 190,000 that doesn't
often attract the attention of the big media.
The unlikely news scene was a meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Greater
Columbus. No members of the professional press were there to hear the
invited guest who addressed the volunteer organization that day: a
66-year-old Atlanta resident named William Calley.
William Calley. For Americans of a certain age, the name sets off a
firecracker in the brain, an explosion of memories of one of the most
notorious criminals of the 20th century.
Apologists will passionately object to that characterization of
Calley, but it's accurate. A criminal: convicted as a mass murderer
and given a life sentence at hard labor at a 1971 Army court-martial.
Notorious: many millions of words spoken or written in reaction to
disclosures that left the nation sick with revulsion.
(Although Internet and print sources have thousands of references to
Calley's "pardon" by Richard Nixon, according to my reading of the
case the then-president never took any such action, although he did
intervene otherwise; Calley's criminal conviction was never expunged.)
Calley was infamous enough to provoke a damning reference in a
protest song written by the legendary Pete Seeger, "Last Train to
Nuremberg," and to inspire a heroic portrayal in "The Battle Hymn of
Lt. Calley"a spoken song, set to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the
Republic"(!), that penetrated the top 50 on Billboard's Hot 100 and
Hot Country Singles. Hot indeed, our Mr. Calley.
In 1975 there was a television drama about his trial. He would write
an as-told-to autobiography, and many books have dealt with his case
and the events that seared the words My Lai into the American annals.
It would not be a stretch to say that his name was among those most
recognized across the country at the beginning of the 1970s.
After a string of rather complicated legal actions, Calley went free
in 1974. He soon faded into obscurity, working at the Atlanta jewelry
store of his father-in-law. It was not until Aug. 19 of this
yearalmost 35 years after he was released from custodythat he spoke
out publicly, in person, about My Lai and how his feelings about it
Recording Calley's words at the Kiwanis meeting was Dick McMichael, a
retired broadcast journalist who wrote the story on his personal blog
and then in an Aug. 22 bylined article in Columbus' Ledger-Enquirer.
It was McMichael's Ledger-Enquirer account that was widely quoted
when international media got wind of what Calley had said.
The article in the small daily quickly got to the meat of the matter:
William Calley, the former Army lieutenant convicted on 22 counts of
murder in the infamous My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, publicly
apologized for the first time this week while speaking in Columbus.
"There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what
happened that day in My Lai," Calley told members of the Kiwanis Club
of Greater Columbus on Wednesday. His voice started to break when he
added, "I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their
families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am
very sorry." …
… When asked if obeying an unlawful order was not itself an unlawful
act, he said, "I believe that is true. If you are asking why I did
not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say
that I was a second lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I
followed themfoolishly, I guess." Calley then said that was not an
excuse; it was just what happened.
The officer Calley said gave those orders was Capt. Ernest Medina,
who was also tried for what happened at My Lai. Represented by the
renowned Defense Attorney F. Lee Bailey, Medina was acquitted of all
charges in 1971.
William Laws Calley was 24 years old on March 16, 1968, when he
trudged into the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. Until then, the young
Floridian had done little in his life that made him stand out, either
positively or negatively.
Before he joined the Army he had attended a junior college, but his
grades were bad and he dropped out. Eventually he enlisted in the
Army, and after officer training at Fort Benning in Georgia he was
commissioned as a second lieutenant. "Rusty" Calley5 feet, 4 inches
tallwas a leader of men by decree of the U.S. government.
Later, in an Army investigation, men who had been in Calley's platoon
said he was not liked and was seen as lacking common sense. Some even
reported that there had been talk of "fragging" him (the term,
derived from fragmentation grenade, came to mean killing a superior
officer during the Vietnam War).
Exactly what happened at My Lai, and exactly why it happened, may
never be known. What is known is that hundreds of Vietnamese
villagersperhaps as many as 504died that day at the hands of troops
from a land that prides itself on being the home of the good guys. In
the forefront of slaughter were William Calley and at least part of
his platoon. Most of the victims were women, children and elderly
people. Some were raped or tortured in other ways.
Here's one nauseating quote from an eyewitness questioned by Army
investigators: "[One of the U.S. soldiers at My Lai] fired at [a
baby] with a .45. He missed. We all laughed. He got up three or four
feet closer and missed again. We laughed. Then he got up right on top
and plugged him."
Many Americans were surprised to see Calley and My Lai back in the
news near the end of the first decade of the 21st century. After all,
more than 12,000 days had passed since the last member of the
American fighting force was removed from Vietnam, airlifted by
helicopter from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on a spring day in 1975. A
new generation of Americans has arisen since then, and today the
nation has new worriesincluding, sadly, new wars.
Old film and video clips of Woodstock, the Kent State killings and
Haight-Ashbury doings still are seen occasionally, but the milieu of
the late 1960s and early '70s is little known to many Americans born
since then, and indeed is dimming in the memory of some of the folks
who camped in the mud at Max Yasgur's farm in New York state, or
claimed they did. It was a time of passionate division over the
Vietnam War and of confrontation about communism, an incendiary
public debate whose embers still glow after four decades. The
survivors of the anti-Red campaign of the 1960s and '70s surely must
be chagrined today when they look to the Far East and see the evil
Communist Chinese playing banker to a U.S. whose faith in capitalism
has been shaken by a series of near-catastrophic economic events.
Another disconcerting object in their field of vision is Vietnam, a
repository of American bones but also a nation that has metamorphosed
in nearly stunning ways.
Today, Vietnam is a member of the United Nations and one of our
trading partners. It had an average rise in gross domestic product of
more than 7 percent annually from 2000 to 2007. The American Chamber
of Commerce in Vietnam has a chapter in Ho Chi Minh City, once known
as Saigon. Vietnam.com"your official Vietnam travel guide"offers,
for a fee, to expose you to the delights of Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Hue.
Today's state of affairs probably would not be much different if
58,000 Americans had not died in the Vietnam War. It is a bitter and
sobering thought that so many thousands of U.S. military personnel
perished for so little benefit to the nation that foolishly sent them
into what amounted to a civil war.
The prime architect of the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara, would later
admit that Washington's actions had been "wrong, terribly wrong." The
one-time secretary of defense went to his grave this year burdened
with sorrow for his role in the conflict.
Because of audiotapes now made public, we know of President Lyndon B.
Johnson's anguish over sending more troops to Vietnam, an anguish he
concealed from the nation he led. Before he ordered a military
buildup, he told national security adviser McGeorge Bundy in 1964:
"The more I think about this, I don't know what in the hell. ...
Looks to me like we're getting into another Korea. It just worries
the hell out of me. ... I don't think it's worth fighting for." But
the United States did fight the war, however worthless it might have
been, and as a result the presidency of a man who envisioned a Great
Society fell in shards.
Johnson had been goaded toward escalation by influential advisers
including Bundy. William Pfaff, in his column that appeared Nov. 24
on Truthdig, quotes from the recently published and aptly titled
"Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam,"
by Gordon M. Goldstein. Pfaff tells of a 1967 memo from Bundy to
Johnson saying, "The fact that South Vietnam has not been lost, and
is not going to be lost, is a fact of truly massive importance in the
history of Asia, the Pacific and the United States." Pfaff then
writes: "Looking back at the memo, nearly 30 years after he had
written it in triumph, he [McGeorge Bundy] noted on it, for Goldstein
to read and quote, 'McGB all wrong.' "
All wrong. Surely one of the strongest and most compact
self-condemnations ever written by a former presidential lieutenant.
The U.S. public has overwhelmingly acknowledged that the country
should not have gotten militarily involved in Vietnam. The Gallup
Poll said: " … [I]n retrospect, Americans feel it was a mistake to
send troops to Vietnam. Three polls conducted from 1990 to 2000 found
about seven in 10 Americans saying it was a mistake."
The nation slipped into the Vietnam swamp bit by bit, under four
presidents. None of those presidentswhatever their moral or
political defects might have beenshipped soldiers to that Asian land
to pursue a military campaign for gold or petroleum or territory. The
stated goal was loftier and arguably less material: to save the
worldor at least the United Statesfrom communism.
As it turned out, communism was a cardboard tiger that not only
couldn't devour the planet but generally couldn't even save itself.
Today only Vietnam and four other nations are officially communist …
and two of the five (Vietnam and China), at least when it comes to
commercial expansion, look as though they were brought up by a
money-hungry Uncle Sam rather than an anti-capitalist Papa Karl Marx.
An appalling portion of the United States' young population was
squandered in Vietnam because U.S. leaders had forgotten a
fundamental rule of poker: You've got to know when to fold. Starting
in 1962, more and more Americans were tossed into the pot each year
as the troop level surged: 8,498 … 15,620 … 17,280 … 129,611 …
317,007 … 451,752 … 537,377. Ever bigger wagers were made in a
futile attempt to save a bad bet. Even in 1971, after a couple of
years of U.S. pullback, the American deployment remained at more than 200,000.
The mission in Vietnam was disastrously wrong-headed, and much
American treasure and blood could have been spared if our leaders
simply had had the political guts to say: "Enough. This is not
working. Let's go home."
* * *
Soldier No. 2: 'Numb and Withdrawn Upstairs'
The story of Peter Sinclair is poignantly laid out by staff writer
Jia-Rui Chong in a Page 1 story in the Nov. 2 Los Angeles Times.
When Sinclair was 20, he enlisted in the Army and later was sent off
to the Persian Gulf War. Afterward, he became an L.A. cop and a
member of the Army Reserve. In the first year of the Iraq war, he was
back in the regular Army.
Pete's unit was quickly caught up in insurgent attacks. His base at
Al Taqaddum, about 45 miles west of Baghdad, was shelled as often as
56 times an hour, according to a sergeant stationed there. In Balad,
north of the capital, a rocket explosion threw Pete, who was asleep,
from his cot onto the floor.
"I'm happy just to be alive today," he wrote home. …
… His injuries [back injuries suffered in the Army and on police
duty] were exacerbated by the weight of his body armor and the
constant jostling in Humvees. Sometimes he experienced spasms in his
lower back so severe he could not walk. Sometimes it hurt so bad he
had trouble speaking.
Painkillers, muscle relaxers, ibuprofen and Valium offered relief,
but Pete struggled with the realities of war. He saw a Marine torn
apart by a rocket. He came across mutilated bodies hanging from a
bridge. Then there was a ride through Baghdad in the fall of 2004.
Soldiers had been handing out candy to children to celebrate the
opening of a sewage treatment plant when a bomb went off. More than
40 people, mostly children, died; dismembered bodies littered the
street. Pete's convoy rolled through the aftermath.
Two weeks later, he e-mailed his sister about his nightmares:
standing in city streets surrounded by body parts and blood.
"I am pretty numb and withdrawn upstairs," he wrote.
Sinclair returned from Iraq a captainand a man tortured in body and
mind. He was at times deeply distressed, and prescription drugs
became an important part of his effort to survive. In 2006 he
threatened to shoot himself, and later cut his wrist with a knife.
The following year, the Army ruled that Sinclairwho had been in
hospitals and under various treatmentswas suffering from severe
post-traumatic stress disorder. He had told his Army examiners, in
part: "I had a good, solid career. I was moving up. Everything was
great. And now, you know, I can't even pick up a book and read it and
I'm scared. I'm afraid to go outside."
At one point after leaving the Army the former captain expressed
worry about becoming addicted to the prescribed morphine, oxycodone
and Valium he was taking.
Sinclair fell in love with a schoolteacher and talked of marriage;
perhaps brighter days lay ahead. But last year Peter Courtney
Sinclair, a child of sunny Southern California, died in a dark cloud
wrought by bodily and mental devils. The official finding: morphine
The life that ended in 2008 had begun 40 years earlierjust months
before Rusty Calley led a platoon into My Lai with murder in his heart.
* * *
More PTSD, More Suicides, More Divorces
Sinclair's story is sad by almost any measure, but sadder still is
the fact that he must be counted among thousands of U.S. military
people taken down, often fatally, by post-traumatic stress disorder,
sometimes in conjunction with physical medical conditions incurred in
the military or aggravated by wartime service.
Veterans for Common Sense, an aid organization, has said that as of
last Dec. 15 the Department of Veterans Affairs had diagnosed PTSD in
115,000 U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Last year a study by the Army surgeon general found that an appalling
percentage of soldiers on their third or fourth tours had experienced
emotional illnesses. USA Today, citing the Army report, wrote:
From 15% to 20% of all soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan
show signs of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
says the study of almost 2,300 soldiers finished last fall .
That rate jumps to about 30% for soldiers who have been on three or
four combat deployments. …
The report underscores concerns raised by military leaders that the
current year-long break soldiers receive between successive 12- to
15-month combat deployments is far too short for them to recover.
One simple but incisive insight into the problem stands out: "People
aren't designed to be exposed to the horrors of combat repeatedly,
and it wears on them." The originator of that 2008 quotation was not
some timid, pacifist lefty; it was a man who well knows war's
violence and soldiersGen. George Casey, Army chief of staff.
The increasing strain on America's thinly stretched fighting forces
and the effects of that pressure have long been evident, and much has
been said about the issue. Apart from the growing incidence of PTSD,
suicide among soldiers has become a source of grave concern in the
Army, which in January reported that the problem was the worst it had
been in 28 years of tracking. Last month, Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the
Army's vice chief of staff, told the Pentagon: "We are almost
certainly going to end [this] year higher [in suicides] than last
year. … This is horrible. …"
And just last Friday it was disclosed that the divorce rate in Army
families is up in 2009. The Associated Press wrote: "The toll for a
nation long at war is evident in military homes: The divorce rate in
the armed forces edged up again in the past year despite many
programs to help struggling couples. …" Still another sign of the
psychic damage being suffered by the men and women of America's armed forces.
Perhaps the best judges of the condition of today's U.S. armed
services are the officers themselves. In February of 2008, a survey
of officers, both current and retired, found nine in 10 saying the
Iraq war had stretched the American military "dangerously thin"
(although a majority maintained that morale remained high). An
article on the survey stated: "Gen. Casey has warned that the
military was deploying at unsustainable rates, and was in danger of
crossing a 'red line' beyond which it would take a generation to rebuild."
In the face of this ever-growing mound of evidence that individual
soldiers and the Army overall are under dangerous tensions, it's hard
to argue that things are just fine in the U.S. military. So, we
support the troops by finding ways to ease their burdens, don't we?
No, that would only be too sane. In an era with no draft, we have now
chosen to support the troops by heaping upon them more
responsibility, more work, more war, more physical and psychological
trauma. Thirty thousand more troops for fighting in Afghanistan?
Sure, why not? It's not as though there are any human costs to be
paid (and this is to say nothing of the astronomical financial costs).
Besides, it's not as though we are fighting in Afghanistan without
unstinting help from our international allies. According to a report
in April by Britain's Times, in response to "an impassioned plea" for
troops for Afghanistan that President Obama made on a visit to
Europe, "[British Prime Minister] Gordon Brown was the only one to
offer substantial help. … Just two other allies made firm offers of
troops. Belgium offered to send 35 military trainers and Spain
offered 12. Mr Obama's host, [French President] Nicolas Sarkozy,
refused his request."
Thirty-five from Belgium? Twelve from Spain? Zero from France? Is it
possible that our friends know something we don't?
[Editor's note: After this was written, the U.S. ambassador to NATO
said he expected NATO allies to send 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan
next year. He also said he could not report yet which countries would
dispatch the troops and how many each would deploy. In another new
report, NATO estimated the alliance's coming deployment at 7,000. The
articles suggested that France and some other NATO countries might
decline to send personnel; some others would not commit to any
deployment numbers. And, as the Los Angeles Times reported Dec. 4,
"The new troop commitment, announced at a meeting of foreign
ministers in Brussels, includes about 2,500 soldiers who are already
in the Central Asian nation. … [M]any … put limits on their soldiers'
participation in combat, making them less valuable from the American
* * *
Bad Judgment, Militarism and Hubris
The lives of Lt. William Calley and Capt. Peter Sinclairone the
villain, one the victimboth were ruined by the United States' bad
judgment, militarism, hubris and imperial leanings. Add to that list
a twisted notion of exceptionalism, an idea that God has ordained us
to teach the world how to live.
In short, the two men, along with thousands of their comrades, were
done in by national policy. Both were sent to wars that were purely
elective for the U.S. The reasons for fighting the conflicts lived
mainly in the minds of politicians, not in the realm of need; there
were alternatives to getting militarily involved, but these were
ignored in favor of exercising force of arms.
The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong did not invade Hawaii,
California, Oregon, Washington or any other U.S. soil. Even the
famous "Gulf of Tonkin Incident"which opened the way for the U.S. to
use military force in Southeast Asia without a declaration of
warturned out to be a half-baked justification built partly on
fantasy. President Johnson said in commenting to his press secretary,
Bill Moyers, about what happened between the U.S. Navy and the North
Vietnamese boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, "For all I know, our Navy was
shooting at whales out there."
The nation would have been better off had it heeded boxer Muhammad
Ali, who, when he refused to be drafted, said in 1966, "I ain't got
no quarrel with them Viet Cong." U.S. leaders, of course, did have a
quarrel with them Viet Cong and them North Vietnamese, and that
disagreement ended up killing nearly 60,000 Americans and
contributing to the deaths of millions of Asians, civilian and
militarynone of whom were U.S. presidents, cabinet members,
top-ranking civilian advisers or members of Congress.
In our national arrogance we put weapons in the hands of Americans
and sent them abroad, where more than a few of them learned that all
of those strange little people were enemies fit to be killed, even
the old ones, even the females, even the children, including the babies.
This article is no apology for Calley, because none can be made for
him. No doubt, murderous bigotry against anyone who looked like the
enemy found fertile soil in the lieutenant. But his nation's
culpability cannot be discounted. We as a people trained him and
armed him and sent him across the Pacific to do violence to an
imagined enemy, and he carried out that charge with almost
unimaginable enthusiasm. To be sure, we did not send him there with
instructions to massacre the innocent; nor did his military training
call for mowing down unarmed peasants. But we did create a situation
in which body count was kinga situation conducive to indiscriminate
killing. And our frustration over being unable to rout the enemy
engendered ever more extreme military measures, on the ground and in the air.
There is no way of knowing how many "Little Calleys" there were in
Vietnam, Americans who committed lesser atrocities against innocent
Vietnamese. And few higher-ups who set policy and tone ever had to
answer for misdeeds. Calley was caught and he went to jail, while
superiors at various levels who egged him on toward the slaughter
went free. If readers want to drew any parallels between this and the
crimes at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, they are given free rein to do so.
None of this is meant to indict the GIs and officers who served
honorably in Vietnam. Those of Calley's ilk were a microscopic
segment, and his deeds at My Lai found infamy because such actions
were so far from the norm. Few American fighting men took lasting
delight in seeing fellow human beingsbattlefield enemy or
notblasted to bits or burned beyond recognition. Our national store
of compassion is not a false myth. The percentage of our countrymen
who would repeatedly shoot at and then kill an infant must be close
to zero. But some would do so, and have done so, especially after
themselves being wounded physically or psychologically.
William Calley and Peter Sinclairthe brute and the brutalizedboth
were victims of U.S. eagerness to settle affairs by duking it out
with other countries: one man thrust into a situation that called out
the beast within him, the other savaged by beastly experiences.
Brutes themselves are born in traumatic events. According to USA
today, the Army's 2008 study of PTSD found that "[s]oldiers in combat
suffering emotional issues and who saw friends killed were twice as
likely to abuse civilians by kicking or hitting them, or destroying
their property. … Half of those soldiers admitted unethical conduct
compared with a quarter of all other soldiers in combat."
* * *
Presidential Speech: The Scent of Mendacity
President Obama is, I believe, personally a decent, moral man. But he
is a politician, too, and he is not being straightforward with
Americans. His speech at West Point on Tuesday carried the scent of
mendacitya whiff of wartime speeches by Johnson, Nixon and (dare I
say it?) George W. Bush. To argue that we must conquer a nation to
prevent a handful of Muslim extremists from hatching activities that
could be plotted in any apartment in any country of the world pushes
against the boundaries of common sense. When we finally subdue the
bad guys in Afghanistan and make Pakistan secure, will aggrieved
Islamic fanatics around the globe suddenly say, "Well, that's that.
…. Now we love the Yankees"?
Obama was quick to whip out the national security card. He said: "If
I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety
of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly
order every single one of our troops home tomorrow. So noI do not
make this decision lightly. I make this decision because I am
convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
One can almost hear echoes of presidential speeches from the 1960s
and 1970s in which the word Vietnam fills in for Afghanistan and
Pakistan. At least Obama did not tell us there was "light at the end
of the tunnel," a phrase that fell from the lips of more than one
government official or military leader during the Vietnam era. And
mercifully we did not hear a sentence that was popular among Vietnam
hawks: "If we don't fight them there we'll be fighting them here."
But the old messages of "we will win if we stay the course" and "be
afraid, be very afraid" were subtext.
Perhaps the reason Obama took such pains to assure us that
Afghanistan is not another Vietnam was because of the pesky pile of
evidence that that's exactly what it is.
We will come out of Iraq and Afghanistan much as we came out of
Vietnam, with nothing to show for it except huge bills and death
lists and unknown numbers of U.S. combatants who were either turned
into evildoers or wounded beyond healing in body or spirit. That's
what war produces. By subjecting participants to almost unthinkable
horrors, it turns a small but disturbing percentage of them into
something horrible or horribly pitiful: a Calley reviled and
everlastingly racked with regret; a Sinclair deeply afflicted and
then dying because of an accident with pills. All need our compassion
and, when necessary, our forgiveness.
If a war is unavoidableas was our struggle against the Axis powers
in World War IIarmed services personnel must be asked to pay
whatever the price is for the survival of the nation. And they must
bear whatever human consequences come. But the Iraq war was and is
not necessary, and the Afghanistan war was and is not necessary. Pat
Tillman should be on an NFL field today, not dead.
The Afghanistan surge announced Tuesday is a blow against American
military men and women. Most will be worse for the experience if they
are sent to a war that pits Afghans against Afghans, and Americans
against whoever happens to hate them most at the moment. They deserve
better from our leaders and from us. They deserve to be home.