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.
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.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.
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.
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.