Two Tales of War: Read ‘Em and Weep

By Colbert I. King (THE WASHINGTON POST, 04/11/06):

Maybe it was the memory of the turbulent time I spent in the State Department as the Vietnam War escalated. Perhaps it was the names of Howard University classmates on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Or maybe it was just the recollection of the arrogance, prevarication and outright lies by the government during the Vietnam era that caused a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I read «State of Denial,» Bob Woodward’s inside look at the Bush administration and the Iraq debacle.How in the world could we be reliving a nightmare like Vietnam?

To be sure, that war and Iraq are different in the number of casualties, the geography and the enemy. But there are ghostly similarities. Writing about Vietnam in his book «My American Journey,» Gen. Colin Powell made it abundantly clear that U.S. policymakers had almost no understanding of what they had gotten themselves into. Woodward makes the same point about President Bush and his advisers, and in excruciating detail. Vietnam was a quagmire; so is Iraq.But after Vietnam, if you listen to people such as Powell, we weren’t supposed to find ourselves in such a mess ever again.

Powell wrote that officers of his generation vowed that when it was their turn to call the shots, they would not bow to self-censorship or uncritical acceptance of groupthink. Powell said that the career captains, majors and lieutenant colonels seasoned in the Vietnam War would, when they became generals, talk straight to their political superiors, including the secretary of defense and the president.

No more halfhearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people could not understand or support, Powell declared. When they got their stars, his generation of officers would make good on that promise to themselves, the civilian leadership and the country, Powell said. To do otherwise would mean the sacrifices of Vietnam were in vain.

Well, they got their chance with Iraq.

As «State of Denial» reveals in accounts so embarrassing you want to look away, key military brass in the Pentagon and on the ground in Iraq who knew things were going badly would not, when given the opportunity, stand up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Worse still, they wouldn’t even stand up for their own opinions. Finding themselves face to face with President Bush, senior officers put their careers first and kept up the pretense that the war was going well, just as their predecessors had done 40 years ago.

Former White House chief of staff Andrew Card «put it on the generals — Myers and Pace in the Pentagon, Abizaid and Casey in Iraq,» Woodward wrote. «If they had come forward and said to the president ‘It’s not worth it’ or ‘The mission can’t be accomplished,’ Card was certain the president would have said, ‘I’m not going to ask another kid to sacrifice for it,’ » wrote Woodward.

Another then-and-now likeness: In his book, Powell condemned the way political leaders generated the manpower for the Vietnam War. He referred to the draft and the way some Americans were able to escape service through deferments or by wangling slots in reserve or National Guard units. How much has really changed?

Today’s war, though fought without a draft, still allows the healthy sons and daughters of Washington’s powerful to stay home and leave the fighting to others. Ivy League enrollment hasn’t taken a hit since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. So much for the notion that all Americans owe equal allegiance to their country. As was the case with Vietnam, a small fraction of Americans still carry the burden of war in Iraq.

One more resemblance. Powell wrote in his book that he was proud of the way Americans in uniform «answered the call in a war so poorly conceived, conducted and explained by their country’s leaders.» The same can be said of Iraq, where American heroism and sacrifice are on display every day notwithstanding the poor planning, miscalculations, seat-of-the-pants decision-making and shameless sloganeering coming out of the White House.

There is, however, one aspect of today’s war that sets it light-years apart from Vietnam: the abdication of congressional responsibility.

The Republican-led Congress has given President Bush a blank check on the war. With few exceptions, for the past three years GOP House and Senate leaders have shown little interest in learning how the war has been going or what Bush has been doing, as measured by congressional oversight. It’s almost inconceivable that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as Woodward reported, had to clamor for nearly a year to get Condoleezza Rice to testify about Iraq. That the Senate’s premier committee for national foreign policy debates could allow itself to be so humiliated speaks volumes about congressional obeisance to the Bush White House.

Vietnam was debated in Congress after an aroused public helped lawmakers find their voices and courage. Today, Iraq is debated on talk shows, on editorial pages and at rallies — everywhere but in the halls of the pliant Republican Congress. Unfortunately, this particular difference only underscores the erosion of our honored system of checks and balances.

Meanwhile, in Iraq the improvised explosive devices and the suicide bombers keep taking their toll, and sectarian violence rages on — even as the campaigning president keeps sugarcoating the situation like mad.