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The Cardinal Lesson

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Military leadership isn’t just about winning the war. It’s about learning from the past.

On February 4, 2003, the day before then Secretary of State Colin Powell would address the United Nations making a case for the invasion of Iraq, I gave a speech to a room full of students, veterans, and anti-war activists at Wayne State University in Detroit. I was asked to speak because I was a Vietnam combat veteran who had run for congress in Michigan’s 31st district. Coincidentally my wife, a United States Marine Corps Warrant Officer with more than 20 years on active duty, had been mobilized just days before my appearance at Wayne State in order to assist in the preparation for the invasion that Powell sought to convince the world was vital to our survival.

That day I spoke of the obvious parallels between the Vietnam War and the war that we were about to initiate in the Middle East. “The cardinal lesson of the Vietnam War,” I told my audience, “is that political leaders must give the public accurate, truthful information,” – something that Colin Powell, despite the obvious presence of CIA Director George Tenet seated directly behind him in order to further promulgate the image of absolute assuredness– would not do.

Despite the serious misgivings of Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq who would admit in an interview with a Spanish newspaper after the war began, “There is evidence that this war was planned well in advance. Sometimes this raises doubts about their attitude to the (weapons) inspections”, Powell went ahead with his speech. Bush and the neo-cons went ahead with their war, and the result is the situation we are in today.

Powell presented world with what he assured us was incontrovertible evidence of stockpiles of chemicals and biological weapons, mobile weapons laboratories that managed to stay one step ahead of inspectors, links with Al-Qaeda, aluminum tubes, and attempts to acquire uranium from Africa. Lyndon Johnson had presented the previous generation with the Tonkin Gulf lie.

The neocons have adopted the same kind of arrogance demonstrated by the failed leadership of LBJ, Robert McNamara, and the various generals who perpetuated the disaster in Vietnam that left some 58 thousand American soldiers and millions of Vietnamese dead for no good reason. Back then they repeatedly assured us of the nobility of the cause, the disastrous results of a withdrawal, the fall of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia. Much later in life, McNamara would write, "We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations who participated in the decisions on Vietnam acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in light of those values. Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why. I truly believe that we made an error not of values and intentions, but of judgment and capabilities."

But McNamara, like the Bush administration and today’s American military leadership - having apparently learned nothing from the experience in Vietnam - made more than errors of judgment and capability, though they have made those, too.

Kennedy, Johnson, McNamara, Bush, Cheney, Powell and the others involved in these wars of choice made their intentions and their values all too clear. The lives of those in Vietnam and Iraq meant little to them. Their intentions were to inflict their will upon those countries and casualties be damned, American or otherwise.

What has been extremely disappointing to me; something that I spoke of that day in Detroit several weeks prior to the War in Iraq; was that the veterans of this nation, as a whole, have repeatedly failed to find a voice in the matter of unnecessary and highly questionable wars initiated by those with a hunger for power and a disregard for human life. They repeat the mantra “support the troops, support the troops, support the troops” as if support is the same thing as blind allegiance and as if having served in the military meant surrendering not only your voice but your experience, insight, and your own ability to distinguish right from wrong.

I concluded my lecture at Wayne State that day by saying, “It is sad and ironic, isn’t it, that a President appointed by the Supreme Court who avoided war himself; who has surrounded himself with others who have avoided military service and combat; who has said he will attack another country even with zero percent support of the American people; now tells us that he wants to bring democracy to Iraq in the form of cruise missiles, stealth bombers, and an attack of such force that it is likely to kill many of those he professes to save. It reminds me of a Vietnam-era phrase that went: We must destroy the village in order to save it.”

We certainly have done that.

Six week later, on March 20, 2003 I shared a beer with a young USMC Major at the Officer’s Club on Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina. As we leaned over the bar and watched “shock and awe” light the night sky over Baghdad the Major turned to me and said quietly, “It’s gonna be bad.”

Just how bad it would become, neither of us could have guessed.



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Mark McVay has lived and taught school in Oregon, Michigan, California, and Colorado. He is a Vietnam veteran and served in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in South Vietnam in 1969-70. His wife is a retired USMC officer. McVay's writing has (more...)

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