By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON—Good Morning, Vietnam. The most fascinating aspect of George W. Bush’s no-holds-barred campaign to keep Congress from meddling in his foolish and tragic war is the way he has begun invoking the Vietnam War—not as a cautionary lesson about hubris and futility, but as a reason to push ahead (whatever “ahead” might mean) in Iraq.
Say what you want about the man, but he’s full of surprises—and I’m not talking about the unannounced visit he made Monday to Anbar province. With the pivotal report from Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker due to land next week, and with the Iraqi government having made zero progress on political reconciliation, it’s no surprise that the Decider would decide to be photographed touring the one part of Iraq where he can claim any measure of success.
But seeking support for the war in Iraq by reminding the nation about Vietnam? I’d feel better if I thought this was just some exquisitely subtle, deeply cynical gambit, yet I have the sinking feeling that Bush actually believes the nonsensical version of history he’s peddling. I fear the man is on a mission to rewrite the past.
Last month, Bush told the Veterans of Foreign Wars at its Kansas City convention that “one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ ‘re-education camps’ and ‘killing fields.’ ”
He added: “Here at home, some can argue our withdrawal from Vietnam carried no price for American credibility—but the terrorists see it differently.”
Lest anyone think this was merely a random rhetorical spasm, outgoing White House political czar Karl Rove wrote an article in the conservative National Review last week that included this passage: “If the outcome (in Iraq) is like what happened in Vietnam after America abandoned our allies and the region descended into chaos, violence and danger, history’s judgment will be harsh. History will see President Bush as right, and the opponents of his policy as mistaken—as George McGovern was in his time.”
For the record, the illegal U.S. bombing of Cambodia destabilized that country and boosted the Khmer Rouge, who eventually took power and exterminated those “millions” in the “killing fields.” The monstrous Khmer Rouge regime was finally ousted by ... none other than the communists who took power in Vietnam after the American withdrawal. Oh, and it was Richard Nixon who negotiated and began the U.S. pullout. Gerald Ford presided over the fall of Saigon. Both of them were Republicans, as I recall.
And George McGovern, who never got to be president, was right.
Bush, Rove, Dick Cheney and the other principal architects of the Iraq war never served in Vietnam—in fact, they went to great lengths to put distance between themselves and the military adventure they now describe as both necessary and noble. At the moment, though, I’m less concerned about their hypocrisy than their distortion of history.
To say the United States should not have withdrawn its forces from Vietnam is to say that there was something those forces could have done—something beyond napalm, carpet-bombing, destroying villages in order to save them—that would have led to some kind of “victory.” Of course, Bush and the others don’t say what that special something might have been, because they don’t know. They’re seeing nothing but a historical mirage.
Bush seems to want to return to a golden age when America confidently threw its weight around wherever, whenever and however it pleased. The problem is that no such golden age existed. American power has always had its limits, and there have always been some wars that simply couldn’t be won.
George W. Bush wants us to remember Vietnam? Fine, then let’s remember those iconic images—the Viet Cong prisoner being executed in cold blood with a pistol shot to the temple; the young girl running naked and screaming from a napalm attack. Let’s remember how little we really understood about Vietnamese society. Let’s remember how wrong the domino theory proved to be. Let’s remember how much damage prolonging an unpopular war did to our armed forces and our nation, and how long it took us to recover.
Thanks for the reminder, Mr. President. When you talk about “victory” in Iraq and the Petraeus report discerns a light at the end of the tunnel, we’ll think of Vietnam.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group