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What Does Afghanistan Have to Do With Vietnam?

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SEATTLE -- Well, the latest news is that a lone U.S. serviceman has gone on a shooting rampage outside Kandahar and killed at least 16 people. The Los Angeles Times reports:

The shooting early Sunday took place in Panjwayi district outside Kandahar city, in a village called Alkozai. U.S. military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was believed that the assailant had suffered a mental breakdown.

There are so many questions raised but not answered here. We can and will learn more details over the coming days, but the thing is, I'm not confident the real questions will be answered satisfactorily. Why did he suffer a mental breakdown? Will he, and he alone, be held responsible? Another way of asking that is: Will he be made a scapegoat, like the enlisted personnel at Abu Ghraib? Might one of these incidents prompt some real soul-searching higher up the American chain of command -- maybe even a high-profile principled resignation by, say, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Secretary of Defense?

I do know there are many good people in the U.S. military -- I've met them -- and that they take moral and ethical issues seriously. Just three weeks ago I had the honor of being heard out respectfully when I gave a challenging speech (titled "Some Things Are Just Plain Wrong") at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. What I do know is that this incident requires a real, soul-searching moral response by the American military hierarchy.

But the military does the bidding of civilian society, and that's where the real soul-searching needs to take place. I know Americans have a lot on our plate these days, what with the mortgage crisis, the election, etc. But Afghanistan is not far away; it's right here, bleeding all over American society. Afghanistan is one of the things on our plate, whether we like it or not.

Americans have become great excuse-makers. When Jared Loughner killed several people and almost killed Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords outside a Safeway in Tucson last year, people like me who saw the incident as inherently political were shouted down by the many who glibly claimed he was a "lone nut." (One of the articles I wrote at the time is online here.) That excuse didn't cut it for Loughner, and it won't cut it in this case either.

I can't say all that needs to be said in one hastily written article. Nor should I: there needs to be a real, honest conversation about Afghanistan among Americans. Finger-wagging by one writer, or even by a few writers, won't suffice.

For now, I'll try to draw our attention back to a question that's behind so much recent history -- so far behind that it usually goes unasked: Do we Americans want to have a relationship with the rest of the world, or do we just want to use other societies and nations for our own purposes?

I recently completed a small research project about coverage of Pakistan and Afghanistan after and before 9/11 in Foreign Affairs, the flagship journal of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. As far as I can tell, the last article fully devoted to Pakistan in Foreign Affairs before 2002 was "The New Phase in U.S.-Pakistani Relations," by Professor Thomas P. Thornton of Johns Hopkins University, published in -- get this -- 1989. It's a memorandum from an era now long past, and any number of passages from it could be quoted for ironic or darkly comic effect:

The United States must consider how to react to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan: Should we use this favorable situation to enhance our role in the region along the Soviets' southern flank? Or should the United States reduce its heavy commitment in such a distant region and postpone thinking about South Asia until more pressing problems elsewhere have been taken in hand? ... The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan reduces the need for an intimate relationship with Islamabad.

Todd Shea, a high-school dropout who has lived and worked in Pakistan providing disaster relief and health care since the earthquake that killed 80,000 people there on October 8, 2005, and who has never been invited to contribute to Foreign Affairs, has an answer to Thornton that resounds with tragic echoes of what might have been. Here's what Todd said to me in July 2009 (I quote this passage in my new book Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti):

I believe that it was a direct recognition that in the eyes of the U.S. leaders at the time, they were barbarians, subhuman, not worth it. And I would submit that they are human beings, that if U.S. leaders had treated them as important in a human way, then society in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be far further along today, because we would have helped them avoid all the things that are happening now. If you remember, at the time, we were loved. Both countries were in such a state of need, and then we just left. "We got rid of our big enemy, let's get outta here," and boy, wasn't that a strategic error. When the [Berlin] Wall came down and we were waving flags and saying "America, America," why weren't we waving Pakistani flags? I remember seeing the Wall come down and all that, and I don't remember hearing anything about Pakistan.

And yes, it has everything to do with Vietnam, with which American society never did come to terms. As an older friend once told me, what the Sixties were about was how "the blood of the war got on everyone's hands, and we couldn't wash it off. It's still all over the place."

But it's possible to see clearly, even through the fog of war -- if we want to, which means shouldering responsibility for things from which we'd rather avert our eyes. In Bangkok on January 13, 1966, a young journalist and sometime U.S. Senate staffer named Clyde Edwin Pettit, who had recently been in Saigon where he had spoken "intensively to over 200 people from colonels to privates, journalists and businessmen, Vietnamese, and English and French colonials," typed a long letter to Senator J. William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Fulbright read into the Congressional Record and later publicly credited with having compelled him to reverse his position on the war. In the letter, Pettit asserted that it was "vitally incumbent that we speak and speak with sincerity" to the Vietnamese:

I question both our original involvement and the deepening of our commitment. ... I am very frightened. I could talk about bright spots; there are many. I do not think they override the stark, terrifying realities of a stalemate, at best, purchased at inconceivable cost and coupled with humiliating setbacks and losses. Then always, and I do not say this lightly, there is the unlikely but ever-present possibility of catastrophe. The road from Valley Forge to Vietnam has been a long one, and the analogy is more than alliterative: there are some similarities, only this time we are the British and they are barefoot. ... I would rather America err on the side of being overly generous than on the side of military miscalculation of inconceivable cost. For what, the world might well ask should we win the gamble, have we won?

ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012). Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans