On the first Saturday of each new month during the summer a group of Vietnam Veterans gather at the Vietnam Memorial in the early morning hours to wash The Wall. It is an act of homage, honoring our Brothers and Sisters. We are joined by a local service group, Civil Air Patrol Cadets, recruited to continue the work after we are gone. Each person has his or her motives for coming together in that hallowed place. For me, it is an act of contrition.
From 1971 through 1974 I served in the White House as a Special Assistant to the President. Part of my role involved the crafting of speeches arguing the case for staying the course in Vietnam. These speeches represented, in the aggregate, a monument to specious reasoning and a misapprehension of the imperatives of great power. President Nixon did not coin the phrase "I am not going to be the first president to lose a war." That self-regarding sentiment came from President Lyndon Johnson.
Still, President Nixon adopted it, and the popular wisdom of foreign policy "thinkers" reaching back to the 50s dressed it in the more presentable language of global realpolitik. If the communists took Indochina, Thailand would fall, then Burma and on across the Asian sub-continent. Jingoists, confused over which way the dominoes might fall, and never reluctant to send other people's sons and daughters to war, warned that if the communists weren't stopped in Southeast Asia we would be fighting them in the streets of San Francisco.
Establishment gray beards joined the chattering classes to insist that if the US withdrew from Vietnam, the US would lose its credibility, would cease to be a great power, its word never again to be trusted by its allies and others who looked to us for leadership in the struggle against global tyranny. It was all, as Neil Sheehan, writing about John Paul Vann, called it: "a bright shining lie." And the worst lie of all, in repeated appeals to the grieving hearts of our fellow citizens, was that we could only redeem the lives of our fallen by "winning" the war. Braced by that lie, we sacrificed more.
At length, President Nixon, the grand master of realpolitik, began the necessary process of extracting America from Vietnam. The fears we promoted in the speeches I and others wrote and promoted proved baseless. Inevitably, the angers set loose by our misadventure in Vietnam persisted for years.
In the end, it was John McCain, brutalized as a prisoner of war, who completed his Vietnam service by leading the fight to lance the boil of bitterness that disfigured the face of America in the aftermath of the war. It was John McCain, much honored for his wartime heroism, who brought further honor upon himself by standing for reconciliation with an old foe. Implicit in McCain's healing leadership was the understanding that our withdrawal from Vietnam, where our nation lost a war but our warriors never lost a battle, did not disgrace the memory of the more than 58,000 who died there.
If disgrace is to be assigned, it rests not with those who served, but with those who misused their service. The fighters of Vietnam, after all, defending their homeland, were only the instrument of our losses. It was America's misguided leadership that was the agent of those losses.
So, it is a sorrow now to hear John McCain, in pursuit of the White House, accusing Senator Barack Obama of dishonoring the sacrifices of American soldiers by calling for the withdrawal of US forces from a conflict promoted, as was Vietnam, by deceiving the American people. It is inexplicable, as the war in Iraq itself is inexplicable, that Senator McCain should charge that Barack Obama "is willing to lose a war in order to win the presidency." Buried near the surface of that discreditable allegation is the insistence that America must put still more of its best at risk in order to redeem those it has already lost.
The Senator insists we must win in Iraq. Yet, after a war that has lasted longer than World War II, and after the loss of more than 4,000 American lives, a definition of "winning" has still to be offered by the authors of this fiasco and their supporters. Senator Obama's fitness to be Commander-in-Chief is reaffirmed by his determination to end this folly, despite attacks on his motives and his patriotism. It was that determination that has served to persuade Iraq that it must now put its own house in order. And that is as close to "winning" as we are going to get in this war.
It is often said, and correctly, that Iraq is a very different war from Vietnam, but this much they have in common: American lives were wasted in Vietnam and they are being wasted in Iraq. However much American blood is shed in that sour soil, it will not be sweetened sufficiently to nurture up the seeds of democracy.