08/11/2010 12:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Disasters: Pulling Out of Vietnam and Iraq

The Vietnam war has often been compared to the current conflict in Afghanistan, but perhaps never quite so bizarrely as by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal. In one op-ed he argued that " American withdrawal from Afghanistan, followed by a partial or complete Taliban victory, would mean a humanitarian disaster for Afghans comparable to what happened in Southeast Asia after the Communist takeover in 1975."

Let's first go backwards from that 1975 date, and look at the decade before, and talk about humanitarian disaster. During those ten years the sheer number of dead Vietnamese on both sides of the DMZ climbed to genocidal heights, well over a million and possibly as many as 3 million. Many of the dead were armed combatants, to be sure, but many were civilians, the "collateral damage" caused by the 8 million tons of U.S. bombs dropped on Vietnam (three times as much tonnage as in WWII), plus bullets, rockets, missiles, artillery, napalm and other tools of war. Then there were the 12 million gallons of the carcinogenic herbicide known as Agent Orange and millions more gallons of Agent Blue that the U.S. sprayed on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Agent Orange defoliated the forests, Agent Blue killed crops, and a lot of both chemicals landed on people, including American troops. The U.S. government at the time claimed the chemicals were harmless to humans and short-lived in the environment, but the term "short-lived" should have been applied to the humans who came in contact with the defoliants. It is estimated that nearly 5 million Vietnamese were exposed to the chemicals, that a half-million Vietnamese died from their exposure, and that hundreds of thousands more suffered -- and still suffer -- from birth defects and chronic illnesses. Countless (because the U.S. government for years refused to acknowledge them) American veterans of the war also suffered, and continue to suffer and die, from exposure to Agent Orange.

Are we approaching the level of humanitarian disaster yet, Mr. Stephens?

I am guessing that Mr. Stephens has never been to Vietnam. I have been twice, once for a year (1968-69) as a soldier and once in 2003 as a journalist. In 2003 I traveled the length of the country, from deep in the Mekong Delta to Hanoi, and could not resist the sad and ironic conclusion that Vietnam today is the country we promised the Vietnamese it would be, a couple of decades and one whopping humanitarian disaster later. Yes, post-1975 there were reprisals, executions and "re-education" camps, but as humanitarian disasters go, post-1975 was peanuts compared to what we inflicted on the country in the ten previous years. As for today's Vietnamese government, sure, it can be repressive and stupid, but that puts it in the same league as quite a few other governments around the world (our oily pals the Saudis leap to mind, and how 'bout them Chinese?). Just how repressive? In 2003 my traveling companion was a former South Vietnamese army officer who had been tossed into a re-education camp for several years after the 1975 takeover. He was frankly nervous about going back, fearing that he would be followed, harassed, perhaps even detained. But from the moment we landed and were met at the Saigon airport (it'll always be Saigon to me) by my friend's nephew, we traveled freely, interviewed, with a video camera, Vietnamese citizens on the sidewalks, stayed in clean and friendly hotels, ate wonderful Vietnamese food, trawled through the markets and schmoozed with my friend's relatives and his old army buddies. Not once were we stopped, asked for papers, questioned or otherwise inconvenienced by anyone. We saw many young Vietnamese tourists, seeing the sights of their own country. We met a number of expatriates, including former American soldiers who had returned to Vietnam to marry and live. In Danang we were met by another nephew driving a massive SUV and talking business on two cellphones at once. In Hanoi I checked into the glittering Hanoi Opera Hilton, wandered into the sports bar where European soccer was playing on big-screen TVs, and watched a group of American hotshot businessmen and their Vietnamese counterparts toasting a business deal with champagne and cigars. Some disaster.

In a followup piece, Mr. Stephens's key argument for staying in Afghanistan was that pulling out would make the U.S. appear "a feckless nation that can be stampeded into surrender." Nine fruitless years is a helluva long stampede, Mr. Stephens, and you've got the whole equation bass-ackwards. What makes the U.S. appear feckless and weak is invading countries like Iraq, which did not attack us and was no threat to us, and Afghanistan, where we dove in, not to make war against the Afghans but to catch Osama bin Laden, and lost sight of the mission.

Sometimes, Mr. Stephens, we are the disaster.