As a veteran, nothing offends me more than to see a politician pull on a flight jacket, combat fatigues or a ball cap emblazoned with the symbol of some legitimate military organization and mingle with young men and women serving our country in a war zone. Vice President Dick Cheney recently played out the Bush administration's version of this "patriot act" by joining the troops in Baghdad to drum up support for our misadventure in Iraq.
Cheney's act gets no rave review in my book. His act of patriotism has little substance and no historical justification. This is the same Cheney who in 1989 told The Washington Post, in explaining his avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam era: "I had other priorities in the '60s than military service." So did I. So did, I have no doubt, the 55,000-plus young patriots who gave their lives in Vietnam.
I cannot help but think that if Cheney were 20 years old today, the last place on this planet that either he or George W. Bush would be is in Iraq. Even so, there he is, a man a step away from being commander-in-chief, sitting down to a Halliburton-provided meal with some true patriots and urging them to sacrifice their young lives for Iraqi freedom and Halliburton's bottom line. How ironic is it that Cheney is sequestered safely within the fortifications of the Green Zone in besieged Baghdad?
Just how green the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys have been for Halliburton and Cheney remains a matter of some conjecture. In 2003, Cheney stated on NBC's "Meet the Press": "I have no financial interest in Halliburton of any kind and haven't had, now, for over three years." Without boring you with the details, let me say that it has been verified that Cheney's statement was not entirely true.
As we are all well aware, Cheney also claimed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. This did not turn out to be true either. Now, while I don't want to accuse the vice president of being a liar, I would advise him if he were the protagonist in Pinocchio to steer clear of any lumber companies in the great Northwest. Cheney should instead concentrate more fully on the facts in Iraq. While it is highly unlikely that he would risk life or limb for Iraqi freedom, he is more than willing to sacrifice your sons and daughters to fulfill the administration's pipedream of democracy in the Mideast. Lyndon Johnson had a similar dream for Southeast Asia; that too turned into a nightmare. But not just for him.
The drums of Washington's Beltway warriors sound all too familiar; in my case the call was to defend the freedom of the people of South Vietnam from the red peril; or was it that we were defending ourselves from the yellow peril? Or were the North Vietnamese defending themselves from the white peril? I don't recall. I just know it was a perilous world we lived in, and if Vietnam fell, so too would Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and all the rest, like dominoes. That theory, I'm sorry to say, is alive and well today in the Mideast. If Iraq falls, so too will Iran, Lebanon, Syria, etc. Dominoes déjà vu. The beat goes on.
How many times have we heard that Iraq is not like Vietnam? I agree; it's not. It's much worse. And the guys who got us in there have no idea of how to get us out. This administration cannot comprehend that democracy is a process; it cannot be imposed on another country by military force. The will of the people must provide the foundation for a democratic government; the people who want it must be as willing to die for it as the people who so vehemently oppose it. We cannot do the killing and the dying for Iraqi freedom; Iraqi patriots must do it for themselves.
Our failure in Vietnam was inevitable because we did not have the support of the people. When we pulled out of Vietnam under the Nixon administration's banner of "Peace with Honor," we left South Vietnam with a well trained and well equipped, albeit poorly led, army. However, that army, that government, did not have the support of the people. Did we learn nothing from the fall of Saigon in 1975? Did the loss of 55,000-plus American and millions of Vietnamese lives teach us nothing? Are elections supervised by an occupying army truly democratic?
One can already sense, in spite of the spin by Bush administration, that their resolve to stay the course in Iraq is weakening. This month, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld announced that a gradual reduction in force levels would begin immediately. These cuts are more the result of politics that military success in Iraq. Because of political pressure and unrest at home, the administration is looking for a way out that can somehow justify to the wives and parents and children and husbands of American casualties that their lives were not wasted. Bush's admission that his decision to go to war was based on faulty intelligence in no way diminishes his poor judgment; nor does it excuse the senseless loss of life military and civilian, American and Iraqi. This administration will never indeed it cannot admit that invading Iraq was a horrible mistake. This war has made neither Iraq nor our country safer; Bush's lack of foresight has only strengthened the resolve of our enemies.
But what's a president to do? Tell the families of the causalities that he made a mistake? No way. Not with his legacy at risk. Bush wants to pawn his failure and bad judgment in Iraq off on the next administration; he and Cheney want to be let off the hook for the causalities suffered in Iraq. That way, their patriot act might be recorded more favorably by historians.
This country had a revolution because the people would no longer tolerate the abuses of King George. That is how the world works; that is how a democracy is born; democracy is not imposed at gunpoint by an occupying army. Political change must come from within, not from without. And the Iraqi people will never be truly free until they are free from us as well as their own history.
That having been said, I still urge those young Americans of both parties who support the war to become patriots rather than just give lip service to the Iraqi cause-enlist, get a commission, sign up for the National Guard. Then if you enter politics at some time in the future, you can run on your military record rather than from it. You'll be able to sit down with your troops in a war zone knowing you're one of them; you won't have to fabricate a patriot act because you will have already demonstrated your patriotism through service.
Dave Christner is a Newport, R.I., playwright. He fought in Vietnam aboard the USS Carronade from 1966-1969. He was awarded the Navy Commendation Medal with a combat V, a Gold Star in lieu of a second Navy Commendation Medal, and a Combat Action Ribbon. Christner is also the author of an award-winning trilogy of Vietnam plays. His newest play, "Free Shot," will premiere in Broomfield in May.
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