Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld kicked off the Memorial Day weekend by proclaiming to Ft. Bragg's 82nd Airborne troops that a wounded Abu Musab al Zarqawi was now like HItler in his bunker, firing off in all directions at the bitter end approaches. Ten hours later Al Qaeda claimed on its website that al Zarqawi is alive and well and fully engaged in Jihad. And the war of words continues, oblivious to what goes on in the streets of Baghdad. Where have we seen this before?
In the process of helping my sixteen-year-old with a term paper last week, I had occasion to re-read David Halberstam's The Best and The Brightest and Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie. It was striking to recall how once the Pentagon was in control of all communication out of Saigon, beginning in earnest about 1964, government accounts of the war employed no political or social context to help establish what was really going on in Vietnam. The military perspective was that the South Vietnamese were being threatened by Communism, and ought to be just as fearful of that as we were on their behalf, and by God, as soon as they would simply learn to stand up and fight for themselves the right way this thing would be handled. For Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Commanding General William Westmoreland and their support staffs, the politics of anti-Communism were unequivocal, irreversible and blinding. The South Vietnamese in general, the Army of Vietnam in particular, shared little of their true believer conviction, and that in the end was decisive.
In Baghdad they're calling in 40,000 Iraqi troops to shut down the city and stop all this nonsense once and for all. By God, as soon as they learn to stand up and fight for themselves the right way this thing will be handled. The true believers haven't wavered, regardless of what's really going on in the streets.
In Vietnam the true believers ultimately had to reckon with 58,000 American coffins. In Iraq the number doesn't yet exceed 2000, which puts us in early 1965 on the Vietnam timeline. It was 1975 before the last evacuating American helicopter finally paid proper and poignant tribute to the reality of Vietnam's internal politics.
Is it any different this time? Well, consider this: there's a $25 million bounty on al Zarqawi's head, and the Iraqi government supported by American troops can't induce anyone to tip us off as to where he might be. How long do you think a fugitive would last in America with that price on his soul? American Commanders in Vietnam used to scratch their heads in wonder that Vietcong soldiers would crawl for miles underground to fight them and die. That kind of emotional fuel isn't something we easily comprehend.
The 82nd Airborne Division troops who dutifully sat and listened to Rumsfeld can reflect with pride on their unit's blood commitment to duty and honor and respect: 42 soldiers killed, 450 wounded so far in Iraq. This weekend is for them, and for their forebears in Vietnam, and not for their masters of war. By now we surely should see through their masks.