Peace is good, but it takes time.
Of all the similarities between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, perhaps the most painful is the wreckage America will eventually leave behind when its imperial adventure is finally over. Whether the last U.S. soldiers leave Mesopotamia this year or 10 years from now, they will leave behind a devastated country where essential services like clean water and electricity are sporadic – and a country where a brutal foreign occupation has caused the population to embrace the most fundamentalist of rulers.
Many well-meaning Americans seek to avoid this catastrophe, so they support a continued military presence in Iraq even as they argue that the Bush administration pushed the country to war using lies and deceit.
After spending four months in Hanoi, I find the example of Vietnam is cause for both optimism and unease.
When the last U.S. Marines pulled out of Vietnam on April 30, 1975, the situation was indeed bad. Years of war had killed more than 3 million people, while Agent Orange had turned whole swaths of the country into toxic wastelands. The situation was made worse by the brutal policies of the country's newly national Communist government, which promptly rounded up 400,000 people and sent them to forced-labor reeducation camps. Party hacks were put in charge of important government programs. Food was scarce, and the situation was made worse by the imposition of hardcore Communist policies that stripped farmers of their desire to work.
But if the Vietnam example provides cause for unease, it also provides reason for optimism, because the Vietnam of today is a bustling society that's working its way out of poverty on its own terms. Far from a country experiencing famine, Vietnam is now the world's number-two exporter of rice and the number-three exporter of coffee. Motorbikes and taxis buzz through city streets, while increasing numbers of modern buses take the country's twentysomethings off to work in export factories. On the political front, the country is still a one-party state, but people feel more oppressed by corruption than by a dearth of civil liberties. Thirty years after the fall of Saigon, most Vietnamese have put the war behind them.
How did this happen?
Peace and time.
After its hardcore Communist policies met with failure, the government here started to open up in 1986, giving people more personal freedom and economic opportunity. More and more small businesses and markets started to pop up, and foreign investors started to pour money in. In 1994, then-President Bill Clinton lifted America's decades-long economic and political embargo on Vietnam, and the country began to join the world economy. According to the World Bank, Vietnam's anti-poverty programs are now the most successful in the world.
Peace and time.
Sometimes the situation needs to get worse before it gets better. Here in Hanoi, I often wonder how much earlier things would have gotten better if the United States had only ended its war sooner rather than later so that the damage would have been less severe on the population. Perhaps then the Communist winners wouldn't have been as severe in their postwar crackdown and the dark years wouldn't have been quite so dark. Perhaps not, but does anyone now think that America could have left Vietnam in a more rosy scenario? Many Vietnamese who opposed the Communist ideology fought for the North simply because they wanted a country free of foreign interference. Does anyone now believe that a war that left more than 50,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese dead could have ended in a positive outcome for anyone?
Peace and time.
It's time the Bush administration gave the Iraqi people the space they need to begin working out their own problems. We have destroyed their country enough already with our bombs and raids. Our continued use of Saddam's Abu Ghraib torture chamber is a national embarrassment. When we leave, the situation will get worse before it gets better, but the Iraqi people are not stupid. They have the ability to govern themselves, and despite our own blunders, they will eventually be able to get their country set right.
Pacifica radio network reporter Aaron Glantz is author of the new book "How America Lost Iraq" (Tarcher/Penguin). More information at www.aaronglantz.com