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Deja vu

From the Publisher of Chicago Life

By PAM BERNS

Last month I attended an alumni event at the Park Hyatt. It was exciting seeing old friends-some I have known more than 30 years.

It did not take but a few minutes to catch up on what we had been doing recently. But the conversations quickly turned to the war in Iraq and how we got into this mess. We discussed the parallels between the quagmires in Vietnam-which drastically changed the lives of my generation-and Iraq.

My college class graduated in 1969. Both the graduates of 1968 and 1969 were especially affected by the Vietnam War. In those years, nearly every male friend I knew was drafted the week after graduation. By this time, most of us had formed our opinions on the futility of winning the war in Vietnam. It seemed like the war divided the American public in half. Because of the draft, the protests on campuses became more vocal and violent. Most of the men I knew attempted to get deferments. They applied to medical and dental school. Others joined theological seminaries. Some joined the National Guard. Those troops would, months later, be keeping guard on larger campuses-like the University of Wisconsin where anti-war protesters were controlled with tear gas- and at Kent State, where student protesters were shot and killed.

Vietnam claimed the lives of 58,000 of our generation's best. And it seems like yesterday. Most of the young men I knew who made it home brought back problems they didn't have when they left. Out of 32 males in my high school class, two of my classmates came back from Vietnam and committed suicide. These kinds of tragedies aren't counted in the 58,000. We all knew men who were sent to Vietnam who came back addicted to drugs and alcohol and carried a burden of depression and addiction into middle age, unable to cope.

In 1968, a good friend of mine babysat often for her boyfriend's sister's two toddlers- the children of a Vietnam War soldier who was missing in action. Away at war, he had never even seen his baby. Most of us felt it was beyond hope because he had been missing in action for years. We kept praying. It was 5 years later when he was found alive with several other prisoners of war.

Today our country is again deeply divided by war in Iraq. Many of us feel the Iraq invasion was unnecessary. Like Vietnam, now we are in too deep to leave. Bob Woodward in Plan of Attack says that even though Richard Armitage believed that the U.S. would eventually quell the insurgency in Iraq, Armitage felt that the U.S. might stay another decade. This invasion has already cost us $200 billion.

At one point, the Vietnam War also had fewer than 1000 casualties. In the war years we would watch the nightly news, listening to Dan Rather, as body bags were unloaded off planes. Today, we are not permitted to even view the flag-draped coffins of our fallen soldiers.

Bob Woodward discusses President Bush's decision to invade Iraq in his book. According to Woodward, Bush and Dick Cheney decided to go to war without deliberating with their staff. Bush did not seek counsel from his father (who had launched the Gulf War), Colin Powell or Donald Rumsfeld on whether he should declare war on Iraq. After having had made the decision, Bush did ask Rumsfeld about what kind of war plan he had for Iraq. According to Woodward, Bush made the decision to go to war without any doubt it was the right thing to do.

At one point, the Vietnam War also had fewer than 1000 casualties, too.
As Paul O'Neill told Ron Suskind in The Price of Loyalty, Bush's "lack of inquisitiveness or pertinent experience" was reflected in how he decided to invade Iraq. O'Neill described how the staff examined selected bombing targets in Iraq from the first weeks on Bush's clock. According to Woodward, the "axis of evil" reference in Bush's January 2002 State of the Union speech was actually designed to create a bridge between Iraq and terrorism. But the speech writers added Iran and North Korea to cover for Bush's secret planning to pre-emptively attack Iraq.

Woodward writes, "Powell knew deeply, intimately, that war is fought by kids, even teenagers who would die because of decisions made in Washington. The top echelon of the Bush administration was noticeably free of those who had seen combat. Bush had served in the Texas Air National Guard but had not been in combat. Cheney had never served in the military himself, though he was defense secretary during the Gulf War. Rumsfeld had been a Navy fighter pilot in the 1960s but not during wartime. Rice and Tenet had not seen military service. Only he [Powell] had been in combat."

"By early February 2004, [Karl] Rove could see that Iraq was turning into a potential negative. The violence of the ground continued...The U.S. military had more than 100,000 troops there and would require that many or more for some time. American soldiers were being killed at too high a rate, and they hadn't reached a political settlement," says Woodward. He adds that Rove seemed optimistic that Bush could beat Kerry on the Iraq War. Says Woodward, Armitage felt that "the army was stretched too thin." In fact, before the war General Eric Shinseki's estimate of the need for several hundred thousand troops was dismissed by the administration.

Our country seems as polarized today as it was in the Vietnam years. The official draft has not been called up, but 40 percent of the soldiers fighting in Iraq-the National Guard and Reserves-probably never thought they would be called to serve for more than a year overseas in a violent war away from their families and careers. This 40 percent of our troops are not career soldiers. During Vietnam, the National Guard guarded campuses in the U.S. The risk of death or being blinded or maimed would have been slim. Today, these men have been put in harms way in unsafe vehicles-without sufficient armor-that have not protected the soldiers from explosives that have caused loss of limbs and other severe damage.

According to the Seattle Times, at the start of the Iraq War only 2 percent of the humvees were armored. Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey said, "They were not intended to be on the front lines." One can only surmise that if Bush had more carefully examined all the repercussions of an attack and consulted with his staff, experts, political scientists and historians before he made the decision, better planning might have prevented many of the severe injuries and losses our soldiers have endured.

Recent changes to the administration's war tactics include the hiring of Saddam Hussein's intelligence officers like Falluja's Muhammad Latif-and relinquishing some power to the United Nations to assemble a transitional government-a move that should have been done before we invaded Iraq.

Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is quoted in The New York Times: "Whatever the plan was, there would have had to be constant improvisation and adaptation, but the fact is the administration went into this war with something approaching a fantasy world."

This war has not resulted in a grateful Iraqi citizenship dancing and throwing flowers in the street, nor have we been able to finance the war with sales of the Iraqi oil, as Paul Wolfowitz and Cheney predicted. Iraq is a complex state with Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions. This should have been a war launched only as a last resort. Woodward says that Colin Powell knew the dangers of starting such a war in Iraq.

There is something seriously wrong when an administration does not consult those who have differing views, especially before launching a pre-emptive war based on weak intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. In the Vietnam War, President Johnson offered flawed intelligence on an attack in the Gulf of Tonkin as justification for war. A myopic stay-the-course strategy in Iraq could become another Vietnam War with terrible costs in precious lives and untold billions of dollars. We can't let that happen.-Pam Berns

Published: June 01, 2004