Five days before the Paris Peace Accords were signed to end America's involvement in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson was found dead in the bedroom of his ranch in the Texas Hill Country, his lifeless hand reaching in vain for the telephone on the nightstand. Little more than two weeks later, the first U.S. prisoners were released from North Vietnamese prisons - but it took two full years for South Vietnam to fall, and for the iconographic photograph of the American helicopter lifting off from a roof in Saigon to hit the news wires.
Like LBJ, I don't think George W. Bush will survive this war.
Oh, he may survive politically. Impeachment remains unlikely, even if Congress changes over, and we don't have a parliamentary system. But I think he'll be dead before it's over, possibly before the last American troops come home, and almost certainly - given the actuarial tables even in his long-lived bloodline - before the country he invaded is stable and at peace as Vietnam is today.
The tinderbox region into which Bush, Cheney and the neo-cons have thrown their sparking match of invasion from the hated west may make Southeast Asia look easy. The long tragedy of Vietnam, two decades from first advisors to lift-off, may well look easy when most of us are in our dotage - it may be the least sticky ot the two great American quagmires of my lifetime. And George Bush may be dead on a Texas ranch long before it's over.
Two civil wars. Vietnam was the end of colonialism and the spread of communist governance. This is religion and oil - and both burn a hell of a lot hotter, and much longer.
Three years in, the generals (retired and not) are talking about progress and gradual troop reductions. The politicians (retired and not) talk about exit strategies and homefront politics. But as Tim Russert said on Imus this morning, the one thing everybody agrees on is that we can't leave now - and if we do it's a failure. America, says Russert, is trapped in a box - and he's right.
On this anniversary, some would have us waive the grand Bush error rather than look back to mistakes and failure and wasted blood. Look forward, they urge. It's our only course. [This is the favored line of the growing number of Republicans who have abandoned the President they worked so feverishly to elect]. Some want us to fight our way out - but which way, and with whom? John McCain says he's moderate Presidential material, but he ought to channel LBJ if he thinks Americans can stand many more thousands of lives and many more billions of dollars in a clearly lost cause. We don't have three, five, ten or twenty years of bleeding left in our all-volunteer military - or another trillion in our indebted, outsourced economy, either.
Democrats waffle. Although out of power, they're in thrall to K Street as much as the next guy and they're all worried about seeming moderate in the next election - or the one after that. Only the unassailable or the bereaved truly speak. The bobble-head national press repeats far much too conventional wisdom; the cue cards says "President Defends War" and they repeat it, then turn to their all-star panel, which deciphers the approval ratings and their repurcussions in November.
But we've been there before.
There is a small but relatively vocal cadre of Vietnam veterans who argue that the U.S. expenditure in Southeast Asia in blood and treasure paid long-term dividends, that in the long run, the war was worth it. Look at where Vietnam is today, they urge, in the mistaken belief that our 50,000 dead to stem the flow of communism led to the eventual abandonment of Marxist economic control and the opening of capital markets like its neighbors in China. Property values are growing, a consumer economy is developing, and tourism is taking off. But this has nothing to do with America's intervention 50 years ago, it has nothing to do with Cold War policies of containment and armament, it has nothing to do with the war.
It has everything to do with peace, with markets and trade, and with local/national aspiration. John Murtha is right. Drawn down the troops, insert an Arab peace-keeping force in what cities you can, and let the Iraqis decide their future - whether it's short-term civil war, eventual partition, or some form of unity.
The best thing we did for Vietnam over the long haul was to leave. It's time to leave Iraq. If we're very, very lucky, Iraq can be modern Vietnam in, oh, three or four decades. By that time, I'm guessing, George Bush will be dead and the mission may finally be accomplished.
NOTE: I didn't quote any blogs directly in this post, but was inspired at least partly by these posts, among others, so go read 'em:
- Lance's Peace With Honor
- Gilliard here and here
- Wolcott's Hell on the Installment Plan
- Juan Cole's Top Ten Catastrophes of the Third Year of American Iraq