Saturday, September 8, 2007
Echoes Off The Wall
"Peace with honor." I keep hearing those words lately, like some sad echo off the surface of a wall.
"Peace with honor," those were the words and Richard Nixon was the man saying them. This was his promise as he ran for election in 1968, the promise he made to a country already deeply wounded and troubled by an ill begotten war in Vietnam. Those words had a hopeful reassuring tone to them then. We mightn’t win, but we won't lose, they said. We're not making war, they said, our goal is peace, "peace with honor."
I heard those words and I was a little less afraid, for myself, for my two older brothers, for those poor wounded soldiers I saw on the cover of Life Magazine. There was hope, there were new words like "vietnamization" and "demilitarized zone." We'll step back when South Vietnam's army steps forward -soon they won't need our young men to fight and die in their terrible country. That was the hope. It was a good promise that would come in good time. It was 1968 and I was seven years old, my oldest brother was fifteen.
Those years that followed were scary times of argument and conflict. As the song said, "battle lines were being drawn." Men in hardhats waived American flags and “peacenik” hippies burned them. In my house, my parents tried to teach us to believe in noble things and "peace with honor" soldiered on as the closest thing we could hope for. "Peace, now" was just an infantile demand. "Peace with honor" would require sacrifice, and time.
From 1969 to 1972, the years that followed Richard Nixon's promise of "peace with honor," another 20,000 U.S. soldiers would die in Vietnam as we sought that peace. Over 100,000 would return home wounded. About 320,000 Vietnamese would die in the armed conflict. There is no accurate way to estimate the civilian losses of that period.
In 1975, shortly after the withdrawal of American fighting forces, South Vietnam fell to an invasion from the North combined with the Viet Cong insurgency. The result we had feared most came to pass.
That was over thirty years ago.
Recently, our current president visited Vietnam, the unified communist led Vietnam this country spent over 58,000 American lives opposing, the Vietnam that lost five million of its own people to that terrible war. Our president was there to emphasize the "extremely important" and "very broad relationship" between the United States and Vietnam of today. Vietnam is soon to join the World Trade Organization, explained Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, as the President headed off for Southeast Asia(finally), and this "is going to be of tremendous benefit to both Vietnam and to the United States in terms of job growth, in terms of making the markets open for products!"
On the way to his recent visit President Bush was asked if Vietnam offered any lesson he might apply to his current situation. Yes, he said, we shouldn't expect "instant success" in Iraq. "We'll succeed unless we quit."
The recent elections, Rumsfeld's departure, the release of The Iraq Study Group report -some see these as positive signs, as progress towards peace. And I would like to believe that is the case. But I hear those words still echoing. "Peace with honor." I hear them -when even the ISG report is premised on half our troops remaining for years in Iraq as "embedded forces." When even Democrats enjoying the spoils of an antiwar vote are heard mulling a surge in U.S. forces in Iraq "if only for a
little while." When no one can say what we're trying to win exactly. When no one, for sure, can say where the battleground is, or what side we’re on. When even the generals are saying it's not a military fight "per se." When politicians start explaining the difference between 'victory" and "success" -that's when I hear those words, echoing off our sadly repeated history.
How much blood does it take to paint an "honorable" face on an ill advised calamity? In Vietnam we learned that 58,000 dead American soldiers wasn't enough, not for any lacking honor of the service men and women whose lives were sacrificed, but because a falsely premised war, sustained with lies,
even the lies we tell ourselves, won't ever find an honorable peace. Not for those lies, not for those liars. That is not a function of impatience or quitting. That is a function of the truth.
Take a look at the wall, Mr. President, The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, right there in Washington, D.C.. If that dark shining wall with all those names was twice as long and three times as high, if it was marked with five times as many names, the truth would still be the truth.
Perhaps, that is what we all should have learned from Vietnam. How much longer will it take for us to learn that lesson now?
My older brother John served with The First Cavalry Division in Vietnam and is currently deployed with the Massachusetts Army National Guard in Kosovo on a peace keeping mission. He has never once "quit.”
originally published in Metrowest Daily News/July 07