Friday, June 15, 2007

Father's Day and That Place Called Vietnam

Yesterday viet vet said... "Does anyone remember a place called Viet Nam?" While I have never been to a place called Vietnam, I feel close to it.

My dad served two tours in Vietnam (1967 and 1970). He retired a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps. Although my brothers and I continued the family tradition of military service, it was not until recently that my dad and I began sharing the Things We Carried. Even on the eve of my deployment to Saudi Arabia in December 1990, scarcely a word was mentioned about his time in Vietnam. Perhaps it took my own wartime service to have enough of a reference point to ask useful questions. Today we talk about Iraq a lot and my work with EPIC makes the conversation increasingly relevant.

The more I learn, the more I believe the U.S. experience in Vietnam is instructive about how America can do better. No, I don’t mean to suggest that "victory in Iraq" is possible. That is too simplistic. For starters, the rhetoric of "victory" suggests that there is only one war: a contest between good and evil. In fact, there are at least 8 major conflicts going on in Iraq with varying degrees of intensity. Talk of "victory" also suggests that Iraq is a military problem with a military solution. While that may be true in combating suicide extremism that targets Iraqi civilians and places of worship, it does not hold true for the multiple national, provincial and local civil wars taking place from Mosul to Basra. The more appropriate frame is that of conflict resolution, and that is where America (or more specifically our leaders in Washington) can do much better.

Rather than pursue a military solution, it's time for a more sustainable U.S. policy and strategic direction in Iraq; one that has a greater chance of success in bringing stability to the Iraqi people while avoiding a regional war or even worse disasters down the road. The question is less about victory vs. failure and more about what's possible vs. what's not.

In an atmosphere of suicide bombings and civil war, what do I think is possible? For starters, Washington must recognize the imperative of economic and political solutions to Iraq’s multiple civil wars and address the worst humanitarian crisis the Middle East has seen in 60 years. Thanks to hundreds of EPIC supporters, Members of Congress are beginning to hear from constituents demanding action. Our message is clear: it is not enough for Members to debate military surges and timetables for withdrawal. They need to do more to mitigate the consequences of armed conflict in Iraq and pass comprehensive legislation to assist and protect millions of Iraqis driven from their homes by violence, especially those who are most vulnerable.

Jim Webb (left) and his son Jimmy in Afghanistan last year. The younger Webb recently returned home from Iraq. Courtesy Jim Webb.A place called Vietnam was also a topic of conversation this morning on NPR. Morning Edition's Renee Montagne interviewed Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) about his family's military tradition and about serving, even in conflicts they don't support. Webb, a Vietnam veteran, was elected last November as a leading critic of the U.S. war in Iraq. His son, Marine Lance Cpl. Jimmy Webb, just returned from a 9-month tour with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, in Anbar, Iraq. Here’s an excerpt:

Webb: …whatever the politics of a war are, for people who believe in their country, and who are willing to step forward and take those risks because they believe in their country. It sounds intellectually odd, but emotionally it's correct.

Montagne: How do you reconcile that as a person in uniform and actually fighting?

Webb: You know, I got that same question from a young Marine a few years ago when I visited Quantico. His question to me was, "I don't believe in this what we're doing. I don't think it's the right way to go. What do I do when one of my Marines asks me that question?" And I said I'll give you the same answer that I used to give myself during Vietnam. And that is that the war isn't going to go away whether or not you or I like it — we're talking as young second lieutenants, not as senators here — and, given that, my instincts, my responsibilities are to do the job and to get as many people back as I can. And that's really the duty of a young military leader.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports the Senator is proud of his son's service and that of his son's unit. "What they did has kind of become the hallmark for how to operate out of Anbar province," said Webb.

I expect Senator Webb and his son will have a very interesting conversation over the weekend, and I anticipate they will both learn a lot from each other as my dad and I continue to learn from each other as we share what we know about America’s experience in Iraq and a place called Vietnam. Thanks viet vet for your national service and for lobbing a damn good question into the fray.


Viet Vet said...

Thank you Erik. I hope you can impart this ethos to many of your generation who have no feeling of "country" and the many more who regard the United States of America as only an address. This Dad's day I have far more to be thankful for than you might imagine.

Geoff Schaefer said...

Viet Vet - "many of your generation who have no feeling of "country" and the many more who regard the United States of America as only an address." That's an incredibly interesting perspective on the way a lot of younger people feel about our country now.

We really don't do enough promoting about what is great about this country anymore. I dare anyone to go to the Vietnam Memorial, or the WWII Memorial, or stare up at Lincoln, and tell me you don't "feel" it.

We've lost a lot of appreciation for our history and for the amazing things we stand for and have accomplished as a nation. I hope we can get that back.

reader said...

At least part of the reason for the loss of respect for this country has to do with the way the media treats subjects from the president on down. There are some who feel this is their right but I think it's been carried way too far.

jt said...

A "Happy Father's Day" to all and to all a nice weekend!

Geoff Schaefer said...

While the media does a lot wrong, I think we need to be careful to place all the blame on them. If you're fed up with CNN and Fox, I would suggest MSNBC. Or, another name for it, "Best news channel of all time."

Happy Father's Day. See ya in the "EPICsphere" on Monday

Anonymous said...

"EPICsphere", hmmm!

Emily Stivers said...

Viet vet, I think you underestimate my generation.

This past weekend, I was at a packed nightclub in Dewey Beach - known as the playground of young Congressional staffers - when the young, blonde singer broke from the latest "All-American Rejects" song to bring four Marines up on stage. All four, she told us, are being deployed to Iraq this week.

"No matter what your politics are, no matter how you feel about the war, these men are about to go and risk their lives for this country," she said with a crack in her beautiful voice. "These men are ready to die for you."

In a rowdy nightclub full of hundreds of drunk or half-drunk 20- and 30-something D.C. professionals, not a single one of us made the slightest disrespectful noise. In fact, the entire place fell silent. We all understood.

Then everyone joined in as she led us in a powerful rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." And as one of the Marines let a tear slip from his eye, I can't imagine that a single soul in that club was not moved.

Don't let our frequent, angry criticism of specific government actions fool you. The younger generation - my generation - loves this country too, and we have nothing but deep respect for those who serve it.

Anonymous said...

Putting a "human face" on the soldiers makes a difference. Too often our feelings about the war are taken out on the boys who serve. That who they are though, "boys", our boys, and they need our support.

Anonymous said...

I am glad you wrote about the fallacy of oversimplifying the conflict into a victory-failure type of paradigm. I would go so far as to say that type of thinking has no place in modern warfare. In past centuries, victory was determined by the acquisition of land, resources, or political dominance of another country, essentially the "spoils". In recent history a "victor" is more often burdened with political turmoil and having to support a faltering economy. Realistically in the modern world the goal of any military action should be the peace and prosperity of both the United States and the region our forces are deployed. Military action alone could never achieve these goals, which necessitates a multi-faceted approach to resolve the conflicts.

Anonymous said...

reader- I think that it is unfair to make such a broad criticism of the media's treatment of the president or other public figures. For one thing, the US has a long history of disrespect and distrust for highly publicized individuals as early as the founding fathers. This type of attitude is in many cases an important check on the power of government. Take an example of the media following 9/11, there was prctically a gag order on saying anything that might be percieved as unpatriotic and our current president was able to manipulate those emotions to lead into a misguided war based on false intelligence with virtually no political resistence. Weather you believe we shold have gone to Iraq or not, it was a travesty of our political system that these crucial decisions had so little scrutiny and open debate.

Don't get me wrong though, I do think it is important that we have the utmost respect and reverence for the institutions and principles that this country is built on, specifically the rule of law and free speech. But it is important that we distinguish patriotism from a blind faith in human and fallible political leaders.

Geoff Schaefer said...

That's very interesting about redefining "victory" in modern warfare. I would be curious to see what top brass officials would have to say about how wars are "won" today.

If I had to venture a guess, I would think they would be in the ballpark with your comment, but I'd be interested to see if the military would agree to a "multi-faceted" approach. I.E., would they willingly admit that they can't do the job without diplomatic and economic efforts? That would be an interesting debate.

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