Comforting civilians about Iraq
February 28, 1991
When I began as a journalist, the war in Vietnam was at its height. I was staunchly opposed—the only time in my life I showed staunch about anything—not only because I thought it immoral, but because I was appalled by its stupidity, its ignorance, its arrogance, its waste of treasure and lives.
Of course I assumed that the nation would learn from it. Of course we didn’t.
Ordinarily, the Springfield City Council doesn't meddle in foreign affairs. The world is full of countries whose names the aldermen cannot pronounce, and they usually have their hands full, diplomatically speaking, with Leland Grove. But on February 6 the council stretched its horizons and unanimously approved a resolution supporting U.S. troops in the Gulf and endorsing the leadership of George Bush. It is impossible to say how much comfort this action will bring to the troops but it seemed to bring considerable comfort to the aldermen.
It was exactly the kind of resolution you'd expect from people who get their news of the world from the State Journal-Register. This is not to say that the council was not correct to comment on the war. The U.S. military began destroying U.S. cities years before they started doing it in Iraq, by eating up the money that should have been spent rebuilding sewers and bridges and roads. (A man was selling T-shirts at Mac Arthur and Outer Park last weekend that read, "Illinois supports it's troops in the Gulf." Too bad we don't support our schoolteachers; what we spend on one Cruise missile can buy the services of twenty-five English teachers for a year.) Rich Daley, speaking as the mayor of Illinois's largest city, made that point just the other day. Referring to the Bush administration's steadfast refusal of aid for drug rehab or housing or mass transit, Daley suggested that Chicago declare war on Washington; if the U.S. can afford to rebuild Iraqi cities after a war, he explained, maybe it would rebuild Illinois cities too.
Our generals in the Gulf are busy fighting the last war, as generals tend to do, but it isn't only the generals who are reliving Vietnam these days. Americans have welcomed this war the way they might welcome a second marriage. Kicking Saddam's ass is a rare chance to profit from painful experience, to do right the second time around all the things they messed up the first time. The White House has learned not to let the real war onto TV like they did the one in Vietnam, confident that the American public only recognizes incipient fascism when it has a funny foreign accent. Antiwar activists have learned to cater to that public's simple pieties with ritual statements of support for the troops in the field, and to drape their hypocrisies in the American flag, just as the Right has always done.
The issue that seemed to most animate the aldermen was the memory of the indifference endured by Vietnam's veterans. Pat Ward spoke for the council's position when he argued the need "to eliminate any possibility of what happened after Vietnam." It's a common theme. A Chicago-area vet told the Trib the other day that he was glad to see all the ribbons and T-shirts and speech-making because it proved that we'd learned something from Vietnam.
It wasn't the troops' fault that we lost in Vietnam, of course. But if World War II GIs got a hero's welcome (including heroic benefits packages) it was because they, unlike their Vietnam-era counterparts, constituted a voting bloc too massive for politicians to ignore. And if politicians were eager to shake their hands in public, it was for the same reason that they pose with Superbowl champs—because America loves winners.
Actually, America loves only winners. This is not right, and we know it; a draftee sent to fight in a mistaken war is as much a victim as the people he is sent to kill. The residue of Vietnam thus turns out to be not wisdom but guilt. If there is anything most Americans regard as more heinous than killing and dying in a bad cause it is feeling bad about yourself, and they are determined that the troops in this war won't suffer it as a result of their exertions on the nation's behalf.
Perhaps the most dubious lesson from Vietnam is that the U.S. lost that war not because it had little support among the Vietnamese or because it was fought using the wrong means or because it proceeded from geopolitical premises that were wrongheaded, but because we talked about it too much at home. Fourth ward alderman Chuck Redpath said of the council's pro-Gulf resolution, "The policies of this war are not an issue here." Alas; soldiers do not die for flags, they die for policies, which is why not talking about policies does soldiers a disservice. This is especially true when the policies they will die for consist of impatience, ignorance, naiveté, macho bluster, and stumblefooted diplomacy in equal proportions. Commending Bush's leadership in the Gulf is like commending the driver who steers a crowded bus off a cliff while chasing down a fleeing shoplifter.
The aldermen did not spell out what it means to "support" our troops in the Gulf. Does it mean that they wish them success? Then they are hoping that hundreds, perhaps thousands of them are killed or wounded; a soldier's success comes from staying alive, but an army's success is still measured in blood, even in a high-tech war. From what I have heard around town, many of the aldermen's constituents harbor the hope that our soldiers can both win and come home unharmed. One is tempted to trace this childish fantasy to TV and movies, which is where most Americans learned about war, but its roots lie deeper; the yellow ribbon is not a political symbol to them but a magic charm.
No one on the council apparently thought to ask whether the way to not repeat what happened after Vietnam is to not have another Vietnam. That task, we have learned to our sorrow, is not one we can safely leave to our presidents and their generals. Among the lessons we might remember from Vietnam are the ways that governments lie to the public, how akin to racism is our willingness to bomb brown-skinned civilians, how dissent didn't prolong the war nearly as long as did the vanity of politicians, how a war with no clear objectives—or worse, with objectives that arc unrealizeable—cannot and perhaps should not be won, how the policies of war cannot be separated from the politics of war.
The troops in the Gulf, like troops of all wars, are happy to leave the politics to others. We are the others. It was interesting to contrast the vote in Springfield with one taken last month in Oak Park. The council in that Chicago suburb of 55,000 commended the bravery of U.S. troops, but it also condemned Mr. Bush's war as foolish. The town's government is producing window banners, to be given away free to residents, on which appear the U.S. flag, a dove, and the phrase, "Work for peace." The resolution remembered Vietnam's most important lesson, which is that if you care about your country's soldiers you don't send them to places where they must die and be maimed in wars that didn't need to be fought. Far better than remembering to honor troops for their bravery is making their bravery unnecessary in the first place. ●