Luc Doan Huynh, a former news analyst at Hanoi’s American Affairs Department in Vietnam, writing a column for Newsweek (July 27, 2009) offers a passage that almost lifted me out of my chair. Discussing Robert McNamara’s partial recanting of his role in the war, Huynh writes, “When Mr. McNamara came to Vietnam in 1995, he worked out each morning by going for a jog around a lake in Hanoi.” The writer continues, “I remember everyone smiling at him – even though they knew exactly who he was.”
My God, I thought, is this stunning. Here is one of the architects of the bombing of Hanoi, the carpet bombing of North Vietnam, a man, among others, responsible for the deaths of at least two million people – more civilians than soldiers – here is this man casually jogging around Hanoi. The chutzpah, the unbelievable trust in the goodness of people whom twenty years earlier had been demonized and defined as arch-domino enemies of the USA, beggars the imagination.
It also points up the fact that we, as a nation, have yet to face up to the colossal mistake of waging this war in the first place and our equally colossal inability to acknowledge our stupidity and immorality. It is, I believe, immoral to drop bombs on civilian targets in foreign countries simply because you – the bombing nation – don’t like their form of government. Those of us who opposed the war from day one were right. We should never have been there. The Geneva Convention of 1954 determined there should be elections in Vietnam. Had these elections been allowed to take place, Ho Chi Minh would surely have won. Vietnam would have been one country under a communist government. But we couldn’t countenance that. So we wound up in a 15 year war, two-three million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians are killed, we depart, and the net result? A unified communist government. And, twenty years later, we find Robert McNamara jogging in Hanoi.
It would be laughable if it had not been so tragic. Remember the three photos that so defined this era? The Buddhist monk sitting quietly in his own immolation fire; the little girl burning with Agent Orange running naked up the dirt road; and the South Vietnamese soldier being executed, his head exploding at the moment of being shot. These pictures remind us of the horrors of war. No one wins in war; everyone loses. Except that the USA still cannot seem to realize what a failure of moral and political judgment that war represented.
And, so, having failed to learn anything from Vietnam, we did it again. We blundered into Iraq and God knows how many innocent Iraqis have died since our self-congratulatory “shock and awe” invasion. Some say 100,000, others say 200-300,000, some estimates are as high as 600,000. In addition, two million people have been displaced in Iraq and two more million have left their homes and their country.
As the Bob Dylan song asks, “When will they learn, when will they ever learn?” The they, of course, are the policy makers who send other people’s sons and daughters to die on foreign soil and who condemn innocent civilians to death because of their own greed, hubris and ignorance.
In addition to the futile deaths on both sides these is the terrible waste of funds that otherwise might have been used to build schools in hospitals; to build homes for orphans, refugees, and the homeless; to fight disease; to share arts and culture; and to preserve our fragile and dwindling earth resources. Wars are such unspeakably wasteful enterprises. When will we learn?
I suppose we might anticipate seeing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney jogging in Baghdad some day. But I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one. The Vietnamese are more forgiving, I think.