The Last Soldier to Die for a Mistake: Vietnam and Iraq

03/18/2008 12:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At the fifth anniversary of the attack on Iraq -- marked, among other things, by last weekend's "Winter Soldier" hearings and the approach of 4000 U.S. deaths in the war-- I would like to update John Kerry's famous question in 1971: "How do you ask someone to be the last American soldier to die for a mistake?"

This has caused me to wonder: Well, who was the last soldier to die for the Vietnam mistake? And what can we learn from that example?

To my surprise, with a little research, I discovered that there is a consensus on who that individual was. We'll get to his name in a moment, but what's most relevant is that he died almost exactly -- get ready -- five years after that "mistake" was widely acknowledged. How many will die from now until the last American perishes in Iraq? Gallup and other polls show that a clear majority of Americans have already labeled the Iraq invasion a "mistake."

We are at a haunting juncture in the Iraq war. Forgive me for another "back in the day" reference, but I recall very well that the public only turned strongly against the Vietnam conflict with the mass realization that young American lives were not only being lost but truly wasted.

Now, who was that last American to die in Vietnam?

According to Arlington National Cemetery, and numerous other sources, he was Army Lt. Col. William B. Nolde, a 43-year-old father of five. He was killed Jan. 27, 1973, near An Loc--just 11 hours before the U.S. signed the Paris Peace Accords--when an artillery shell exploded nearby.
This is how Time magazine reported it the following week: "The last hours of the Viet Nam War took a cruel human toll. Communist and South Vietnamese casualties ran into the thousands. Four U.S. airmen joined the missing-in-action list when their two aircraft were downed on the last day. Another four Americans were known to have been killed--including Lt. Lieut. Colonel William B. Nolde, 43, of Mt. Pleasant, Mich., who was cut down in an artillery barrage at An Loc only eleven hours before the ceasefire. He was the 45,941st American to have died by enemy action in Viet Nam since 1961."

His Wikipedia entry opens: "Born in Menominee, Michigan, Nolde was a professor of military science at Central Michigan University before joining the army. As an officer, he served in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, acting as an advisor to the South Vietnamese forces in the latter. . . .

"While other Americans lost their lives after the truce was enacted, these were not recorded as combat casualties. During his time in the armed forces, he had accumulated four medals, including the Bronze Star and Legion of Merit."

His full military funeral was so momentous--it included the same riderless horse who that accompanied President Kennedy's coffin--it was covered on the front page of The New York Times on Feb. 6, 1973. That story began, "The Army buried one of its own today, Bill Nolde. And with him, it laid to rest--symbolically, at least--its years of torment in Vietnam."

How many more years of torment and wasted lives remain in Iraq?
Greg Mitchell's new book, hailed by Arianna, Bill Moyers, Glenn Greenwald and others, is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. It features a foreword by Joe Galloway and preface by Bruce Springsteen.