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Don't Quit as We Did in Vietnam

November 09, 2003|David Gelernter | David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale University and a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — U.S. policy in Iraq is haunted by Vietnam, no question about that. That's why Americans support the war and will keep on supporting it until we win. ("Win" is a verb you rarely heard in the Vietnam era.)

We are haunted by the image of Vietnamese who trusted and supported us trying frantically to grab a place on the last outbound helicopter; by Vietnamese putting to sea in rowboats rather than enjoy Uncle Ho's "Workers' and Peasants' Paradise" one more day. We are haunted by the consequences of allowing South Vietnam to collapse. Tens of thousands of executions (maybe 60,000), re-education camps where hundreds of thousands died, a million boat people.

We put them in those rowboats -- we antiwar demonstrators, we sophisticated, smart guys. The war was nearly over when I graduated from high school. But high school students were old enough to demonstrate. They were old enough to feel superior to the fools who were running the government. And they were old enough to have known better. They were old enough to have understood what communist regimes had cost the world in suffering, from the prisons of Havana to the death camps of Siberia.

Today we are haunted, in thinking about Iraq, by the fact that a noisy, self-important, narcissistic minority talked the United States into betraying its allies. (Loyalty didn't mean a lot to antiwar demonstrators; honor didn't mean a lot.) We betrayed our allies and hurried home, to introspect. They stayed on, to suffer. We were eager to make love, not war, but the South Vietnamese weren't offered that option. Their alternatives were to knuckle under or die.

It was my fault, mine personally; I was part of the antiwar crowd and I'm sorry. But my apology is too late for the South Vietnamese dead. All I can do is join the chorus in shouting, "No more Vietnams!" No more shrugging off tyranny; no more deserting our friends; no more going back on our duties as the strongest nation on Earth.

Before the switch of commanders from William C. Westmoreland to Creighton Abrams, we conducted the Vietnam War stupidly; that thought haunts us too, and that's why people like Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are running the Iraq war and his Vietnam-era counterpart Robert S. McNamara and his friends and disciples aren't. We are haunted by our having gotten into Vietnam without really meaning to, without having thrashed it out first in a nationwide conversation. That's why the Bush administration laid out exactly what it wanted to accomplish (regime change) beforehand -- and why the nation chewed the thing over for months before we opened fire. Regime change is what America wanted and what we fought for and won. Regime change is what we will defend, whatever it takes.

Does Iraq bring back memories of Vietnam? The president's critics say yes, and they are right. Vietnam came to mind when we saw Saddamites torturing their captives on camera. Do President Bush's opponents grasp that those are (or were) real people getting beaten to a pulp, mutilated, tortured, murdered? (If they did, wouldn't they be overjoyed now that the smug murderers have been thrown out, and radiantly proud of America?) Our moral obligations as the world's most powerful nation come strongly to mind when we hear about rape rooms and children's prisons; when we read about captives fed into industrial shredders, and swaggering princelings dragging women off the street to the torture houses.

Voltaire once felt obliged to rouse all Europe over the judicial torture of one man. Europe today reacts with the same charming befuddlement it felt back then: What's all the fuss? Surely, it's none of our business.

The president's critics say that he has made mistakes; right again. He was too optimistic about the difficulties of hunting down a man or a biological weapon in a large country. He might well have been too optimistic about the difficulties of managing postwar Iraq. He was certainly too optimistic about the rest of the world's joining us; too many people were making too much money from Hussein's Iraq for the case by Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair against Hussein ever to be popular, for the world at large to care much about Kurdish infants choking to death on poison gas or about a political dissenter with his tongue cut out. But suppose we sweep up all the administration's mistakes and dump them in one pan of the moral balance. We'll put just one fact on the other side: Hussein is overthrown. What do all the president's mistakes amount to? How much do they count when we step back and take in the big picture? They count zero.

People ask: Are you proposing to overthrow every sadist tyrant on Earth? No, only proposing to be proud that we overthrew one.

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