10/22/2007 11:39 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Vietnam Redux; When Will We Ever Learn?

DANANG, Vietnam - Revisiting scenes of our crime, with those formidable bunkers now furry green and crumbling, I keep obsessing on Iraq. Back in 1968, Peter Arnett summed up futile war in a quote by an American major: "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it." Today, better equipped, we destroyed an entire country to save it.

Just as in Southeast Asia, reporters on the ground who tried to inject Middle Eastern reality were shouted down by cheerleaders back home and muzzled by their editors.

At an antiseptic distance, it is easy to quibble. Desert is not jungle; Arabs aren't Asians; Saddam Hussein was no Uncle Ho; and so on. But that misses the main point. You cannot reorder at gunpoint a society that has spent millennia fending off saviors with a shopping list.

By the time I joined Arnett as an Associated Press reporter in Vietnam, a second point was equally clear. Smart, sensitive American officers are capable of winning hearts and minds en masse. But an army works as a team. They were outnumbered by scared and sometimes murderous kids who could not help but turn sympathizers against them.

By acting essentially alone in Iraq, as in Vietnam, we are responsible to history. Vietnamese, if forgiving, are deeply scarred by what they call the American War.

Only now, after the violent deaths of perhaps 300,000 Iraqis -- who knows the real number? -- and the uprooting of millions, a majority of Americans realize what they should have been told before it was too late.

As war clouds gathered early in 2003, my own attempts to report on these lessons were hardly unique. But I know the facts and background firsthand.

After Arnett left AP for CNN in 1981, I inherited his title of Special Correspondent and his mandate to look beyond breaking news for essential cause and effect.

During the 1990s, I spent a month on the old Ho Chi Minh Trail with Horst Faas, Arnett's legendary sidekick who had won a Pulitzer photographing the war. Long after the fact, reality was dead obvious. Washington could have surged all it wanted and bombed until our ordnance ran out. We never stood a chance.

In 2000, I watched Vietnamese weep with joy as President Bill Clinton came to acknowledge our mistake. He charged into crowds to press flesh. "We just love him," a geography student named Hien Pham Thanh told me, as people chanted, "Uncle Ho, Uncle Bill." A Viet Cong veteran beamed and said, "He shook my hand twice.

Early in 2003, before the Iraq invasion, I went to Jordan. But AP's high command changed after 9/11. If timing was coincidental, the result was dramatic. Editors with scant world experience, guided by Washington wisdom, exerted new controls over their reporters. The baseball bat AP gave me in 1981 was whittled down to a toothpick.

In Amman, Iraqi exiles who knew their history drew parallels to Vietnam. So did workaday Jordanians in Aqaba who watched the new, live from Baghdad on Al Jazeera, and Bedouins at Wadi Ram who measure time in decades. If Americans invaded under their own flag, all agreed, Iraqis would make any long stay impossible.

I called old sources, American officials with long memories, who agreed almost unanimously. If we charged ahead without examining U.N. inspectors' evidence and building a legitimate coalition, it would be our war.

Iraqis, as a rule, hang onto grudges longer than the Vietnamese. The fallout could poison a volatile region for a very long time to come.

I wrote a long dispatch, but it was eviscerated in New York. A freshly elevated editor scolded me: "We think it is too early to talk about Vietnam."

Soon after, I was booted out of AP along with a crowd of other veteran correspondents whose combined experience totaled close to 500 years.

This time, I came to Vietnam with no flak jacket, only sun screen and a full wallet, to look at those old lessons in the clarity of hindsight.

If our goal was to foster capitalism, Vietnam hardly needed our help. Today, the nominally communist state pushes free enterprise in a way that would warm a robber baron's heart. Last years' annual economic growth rate in Chi Minh City, Saigon, was 11.7 percent.

My favorite old Saigon crab hangout was bulldozed, replaced by yet another tourist hotel. Instead, I went to a street corner food stall. Half the customers scooping up noodles wore KFC caps. The other half had red-and-white Pizza Hut shirts. In a world that is not really flat, the Vietnamese may eat our hamburgers but have not become us.

Near Danang, I spoke to a woman born in 1975, the year we were run out of Vietnam. She owns six restaurants and a cooking school beloved by American tourists.

She was not surprised when George W. Bush's visit went differently from Clinton's. He stayed behind steel barriers and fled after a few hours. Vietnamese see those parallels in Iraq, and they don't like them very much.

"Those people think they are clever," the woman said of the Washington juggernaut that repeated the calamitous mistake of trying to reshape an ancient society by force. "But they forgot that other people can be clever, too."

Seasoned correspondents need to remind us of simple truths like that. But the trend is alarming. AP was set up 160 years ago as a cooperative to watch the world for its newspaper members. Now, however, as papers bring home their own reporters, AP is cutting back on its coverage.

We paid a heavy enough price in Vietnam, which pales compared to what war exacted on Vietnam. The cost of - and to - Iraq is beyond calculation. That is the nature of quagmires. Our only hope is to watch where we're going.


Mort Rosenblum's new book is Escaping Plato's Cave: How America's Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens our Survival, published by St. Martin's Press.