View Full Version : Let's finish the job this time

08-27-06, 08:07 AM
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Let's finish the job this time
Register columnist

My Iraq nightmare actually began more than 30 years ago.

It was April 1975, and I was sitting in a bar with a woman I'd met. She was a good-looking gal, young and pretty, but I wasn't looking at her. My eyes were on the TV.

The sound was turned down, but I could see the images – images of helicopters being pushed off the deck of an American Navy ship, images of frightened people screaming and crying, images of American military personnel being forced to ignominiously run away.

The images were from the fall of South Vietnam. And they filled me with grief, and rage.

I had served as an Army sergeant in Vietnam – not with any particular distinction, just another guy doing his bit. The Vietnam War hadn't been especially hard for me.

But for 58,000 other Americans, my comrades and brothers, it had been fatal.

In Vietnam one of the GI slang words for killing or being killed was "wasted" – as in, "They wasted those guys," or "He got wasted." And never was the word more apt or descriptive than in April 1975. Through political cowardice and national lack of will, America had wasted 58,000 of her own sons.

I tried to explain it to the young woman next to me. I tried to explain how it felt to see my country abandoning people we had once vowed to defend, and turning our backs on the souls of our dead.

Oh, I went on and on, raging and grieving, and then finally I looked at her and realized that she wasn't listening, that her eyes were glazing over. She was bored. She couldn't have cared less.

And neither, it seemed, did hardly anybody else. In America in April 1975, Vietnam was an old, boring story, a long-lost cause.

And now, more than three decades later, that's the nightmare I have about Iraq – that we'll once again turn our backs on our dead, that we'll brand our troops as losers and misfits and baby-killers, just as we did for so long to Vietnam veterans, that we'll simply give up and slink away in failure and shame and humiliation.

My Iraq nightmare isn't that we'll lose the war in Iraq in Iraq. My Iraq nightmare is that we'll lose the war in Iraq in America.

Since I've come back from Iraq many people have asked me, can we succeed there? And if so, how?

Well, I'm not a military strategist. I spent far more time over there with lance corporals than with lieutenant colonels, much less generals; I have a grunt's-eye view of the war. But if it were possible, there are a few things I'd do.

I'd send in far more troops, and the right kinds of troops, especially infantrymen and special operations units, guys who can actually take the fight to the enemy and kill them – and I'd loosen the rules of engagement to let them do exactly that.

I'd get rid of the lavish chowhalls and giant PXs and gourmet coffee shops on the large U.S. bases and have all the troops live closer to the ground, like the grunts still do. They're young, they can take it, and it would actually make the rear-area guys feel better about themselves. When you see fliers posted in the chowhall at a large base advertising "buns and thighs" exercise classes for the troops, you know you have a leanness-and-meanness problem.

And finally, and above all, I'd give the troops time, as much time as they need to accomplish their mission of bringing peace and stability to Iraq. Sure, we can argue about whether we should have gone into Iraq in the first place – but in my opinion, that's now irrelevant. Instead of talking about withdrawing our troops as soon as possible, I would have us as a nation suck it up and realize that it's probably going to take years to succeed.

And I would have us realize also that if we run away, we will have wasted our dead – just as we did in Vietnam.

It's a hard and painful choice, whether to risk more lives to honor and redeem the lives already lost. I knew some of the Americans who have died in Iraq, just as I knew some of the Americans who died in Vietnam – and I know their deaths will always be open wounds.

But I also know many of the Americans who have fought or are fighting the war in Iraq. And while I can't presume to speak for all of them, I know that many of them, perhaps most of them, are still willing to risk their own lives to make sure that their comrades and brothers – and sisters – did not die for nothing.

It's important to them.

And all we have to do is give them the chance.

• • •

This is my last column in this series about the war in Iraq. Although I'll certainly return to the subject from time to time, after today I'll also write about things closer to home.

But before I leave the war in Iraq, there are people I need to thank.

First, I want to thank my editors at the Register for giving me the time and space to pursue this lengthy project. (You can find past columns from the series at: )

I also want to thank the hundreds of Register readers who wrote and called while I was in Iraq and since then. I've tried to respond personally to as many as I can, but I want all of you to know how deeply I appreciate your support, and in many cases, your prayers.

But mostly I want to thank the Marines and sailors and soldiers and airmen who I met in Iraq. They are among the best and bravest men and women that this country has to offer.

And I hope that, as a nation, we will prove ourselves worthy of them.