Those us of a certain age have been here and done this before. And many of us wonder how we could possibly allowed ourselves to be sucked into it again. And then it dawned on me this weekend -- the one critical thing we did not learn from our disastrous Vietnam experience. It's not what we did, but what we failed to do. And that one thing is the reason for nearly everything that's gone so terribly wrong in Iraq and our so-called "war on terror."
Got your pen? Because we can't afford to ever for this again. Okay, here it is:
Accountability -- personal, civil, criminal and international accountability.
We forced just that on Nazi government, officials, military and collaborators after WW II. And we insisted on it for the Khmer Rouge butchers of Cambodia. We even imposed it on the leaders we deposed in Iraq who are, one by one, being tried and hung for the crimes they committed against Shiites in Iraq.
But nothing even close to that happened to the men who trumped up and executed the war in Vietnam. The only accountability they've faced has been easily dismissed rhetorical scoldings. Instead of facing their accusers in a court of law they were allowed to go on with their lives as if the blood of thousands wasn't virtually dripping from their hands.
Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara and other's in the Johnson and Nixon administrations actually went on to advise other presidents and continue to live the good life unmolested -- un-prosecuted.
It's a fact of history that undoubtedly gave considerable aid and comfort to officials of the current administration. Great comfort must have been provided by the sight of Henry Kissinger popping in and out of the Bush White House and McNamara appearing on panels with academic and other former government officials. Those two men alone are responsible for the deaths of more civilians than Saddam Hussein's entire bloody career. Yet nearly 40 after their crime spree, they walk free, respected, included, wealthy.
Which is, I believe, precisely why the current bunch in power didn't give a second thought to creating their own Gulf of Tonkin lies to justify attacking Iraq -- (remember those non-existent stockpiles of WMD?) And it's the reason why they've lost no sleep over violating the legal rights of detainees, kidnapping people around the world and even embracing torture.
After all, it had all been done during the Vietnam War -- no one got busted -- so what's the sweat?
I would suggest -- and strongly so -- that the core reason our soldiers are now bogged down in Iraq, 35-years years after the last US soldier died for our "mistake" in Vietnam, is because no one was ever held legally accountable for the crimes committed during that illegal and immoral war.
Henry Kissinger, the key architect of Nixon's Vietnam strategy, has never been forced to raise his hand and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth -- then forced to do so. He and others involved have instead been allowed to go their merry ways. They've been allowed to hide behind "national security," and incriminating documents that, to this day, remain "classified." (See also Chris Hitchens: "The Trial of Henry Kissinger")
None of that would have gotten past the panel of judges in Nuremberg 60-years ago. Nazi government officials and their collaborators in the business community had accountability forced on them. They had to confront and try to justify their own words, their own orders, their own crimes.
Which may well be why we've not seen a repeat of that kind of behavior by European governments since. The last thing politicians or military leaders want is to risk is forced accountability... something that could lead to prison, poverty or even a stretched neck. (Though I am forced to admit that some ex-officials of the former Yugoslavia required -- and are getting -- a refresher course now at the Hague. But even that makes my point because, there at least, forced accountability is what's being served up to those who so richly deserve it.)
Finally the end of our latest war of choice, the one in Iraq, is slowly limping into sight. It will end, and when it does, let's see if we can get the post-war part of this sorry saga right this time. By which I mean that the men and women who created and carried out this murderous mess must pay personally.
We must, insure that this never happens again. And the only way to insure that is to let the next generation of leaders -- and all that follow -- know for certain they are not above the law -- not above the law of this land, not above the Geneva Conventions and not above the reach of their victims.
If you want your grandkids dying in the next Vietnam or Iraq then do nothing and they will. Let Bush administration officials leave office on January 21, 2009 to pursue normal lives and we will assure another Vietnam, and another Iraq, and another, and another...