A JOINT resolution referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) calls for the withdrawal of all American military forces from Iraq by Dec. 31. Boxer's "redeployment" bill cites in its preamble a January poll finding that 64% of Iraqis believe that crime and violent attacks will decrease if the U.S. leaves Iraq within six months, 67% believe that their day-to-day security will increase if the U.S. withdraws and 73% believe that factions in parliament will cooperate more if the U.S. withdraws.
If that's true, then what are we doing there? If Iraqis don't believe that we're making things better or safer, what does that say about the legitimacy of prolonged occupation, much less permanent American bases in Iraq (foreseen by 80% of Iraqis polled)? What does it mean for continued American armored patrols such as the one last November in Haditha, which, we now learn, led to the deaths of a Marine and 24 unarmed civilians?
It was questions very much like these that were nagging at my conscience many years ago at the height of the Vietnam War, and that led, eventually, to the publication of the first of the Pentagon Papers on June 13, 1971, 35 years ago this week. That process had begun nearly two years earlier, in the fall of 1969, when my friend and former colleague at the Rand Corp., Tony Russo, and I first started copying the 7,000 pages of top-secret documents from my office safe at Rand to give to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
That period had several similarities to this one. For one thing, Republican Sen. Charles Goodell of New York had just introduced a resolution calling for the unilateral withdrawal of all U.S. armed forces from Indochina by the end of 1970. Unlike the current Boxer resolution, his had budgetary "teeth," calling for all congressional funding of U.S. combat operations to cease by his deadline.
Two other similarities between then and now: First, though it was known to only a handful of Americans, President Nixon was making secret plans that September to expand, rather than exit from, the ongoing war in Southeast Asia -- including a major air offensive against North Vietnam, possibly using nuclear weapons. Today, the Bush administration's threats to wage war against Iran are explicit, with officials reiterating regularly that the nuclear "option" is "on the table."
Second, also in September, charges had been brought quietly against Lt. William Calley for the murder 18 months earlier of "109 Oriental human beings" in the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai 4. This went almost unnoticed until mid-November of that year, when Seymour Hersh's investigative story burst on the public, followed shortly by the first sight for Americans of color photographs of the massacre. The pictures were not that different from those in the cover stories of Time and Newsweek from Haditha: women, children, old men and babies, all shot at short range.
What was it that prompted me in the fall of 1969 to begin copying 7,000 pages of highly classified documents -- an act that I fully expected would send me to prison for life? (My later charges, indeed, totaled a potential 115 years in prison.) The precipitating event was not Calley's murder trial but a different one. On Sept. 30, I read in the Los Angeles Times that charges brought by Creighton Abrams, the commanding general of U.S. forces in Vietnam, against several Special Forces officers accused of murdering a suspected double agent in their custody had been dismissed by the secretary of the Army.
The article, by Washington reporters Ted Sell and Robert Donovan, made clear that the reasons alleged by Secretary Stanley Resor for this dismissal were false (and that the order to dismiss the charges had most likely come directly from the White House). As I read on, it became increasingly clear that the whole chain of command, civilian and military, was participating in a coverup.
As I finished the article, it hit me: This is the system I have been part of, giving my unquestioning loyalty to for 15 years, as a Marine, a Pentagon official and a State Department officer in Vietnam. It's a system that lies reflexively, at every level from sergeant to commander in chief, about murder. And I had, sitting in my safe at Rand, 7,000 pages of documentary evidence to prove it.
The papers in my safe, which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, constituted a complete set of a 47-volume, top-secret Defense Department history of American involvement in Vietnam titled, "U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945-68."
I had exclusive access to the papers for research purposes and had been reading them all summer; they made it very clear that I, like the rest of the American public, had been misled about the origins and purposes of the war I had participated in -- just as are the 85% of the troops in Iraq today who still believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 and that he was allied with Al Qaeda.