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Had We Learned the Lessons of the Vietnam War . . .

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The foundations of our society are under attack. Thousands of our brethren have been slaughtered. Grief is overwhelming and fear pervasive. We are admonished that this crisis is real and grave. In response, we must unite and rally around the beliefs and values we hold most sacred. We must put our petty disagreements behind us and avoid dissent and criticism of our leaders and their policies. We must show the rest of the world, especially those who wish us harm, that we are neither defeated nor in disarray. Indeed, because of our suffering, we have grown stronger, united in our faith, and determined in our resolve that those who prosecute and those who support such terror, will not go unpunished. We must show the rest of the world, especially those who wish us harm, that our grief, though great, is not debilitating, and will translate into a vengeance, the righteous sword of God, that will topple nations. They have drawn first blood, those evildoers. We are justifiably outraged. God is on our side.

This is the rhetoric of crusade, the rhetoric of Jihad. "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists," George W. Bush said shortly after September 11. Osama Bin Laden, appealing in turn to the Islamic world, echoed this logic, "the entire world is divided into two regions - one of faith where there is no hypocrisy and another of infidelity." Both Bush and Bin Laden are clear in their distinctions. Each sees the threat posed by the other as real, grave, and imminent and, in response, has launched a multi front and protracted campaign of death and destruction. Bush’s world is Bin Laden’s world in some strangely distorted mirror. So we wage war and they jihad. In the process, tens of thousands of innocents are murdered, and both sides rationalize the slaughter by appeals to god and to country, masking their maliciousness beneath the flag of a nation or the tenets of a creed.

As evidenced by the quagmire in Iraq, we ignore or distort the lessons of past wars at our peril. Had we learned the lessons of Vietnam, we would have realized that this sort of exaggerated doomsday rhetoric is intended to generate fear and incite frenzy for war. Then, as now, we were warned of the threat to our national security and way of life. "Communism was insidious," they told us, and "the dominoes quickly falling." "To War," was the cry, "Stop them now in the jungles of Vietnam or fight them later on the streets of San Francisco." To meet the Communist threat, we were admonished to unite and rally around our flag, to love America or leave it, and to avoid dissent and criticism of our leaders and their policies of war. "Either you are with us or you are with the Communists." We were justifiably outraged. God was on our side.

Had our political leaders paid closer attention to our experiences fighting the Vietnam War, they would have realized that disenfranchised people would endure tremendous sacrifice and struggle heroically and steadfastly against foreign occupiers and aggressors. Tactically, they would have anticipated the difficulty of fighting a counter insurgency war. How the guerilla/insurgent’s "hit, run, and disappear" tactics not only nullifies the superior weapons technology of the invading/occupying force, but also provides vast war-fighting advantage in concealment, confrontation, intelligence, and communication. They would have foreseen the frustration of fighting an enemy indistinguishable from those we claim to be liberating and protecting and would have understood that the resultant anxiety and stress precipitates a state of conditioned hyper-vigilance and overreaction in which civilian casualties and deaths become the norm rather than the exception. They would have realized that this inevitable "kill them all, let god sort them out" mentality, justified as collateral damage or excused under the rubric of the "fog of war," abrogates the efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people, increases sympathy and support for the guerillas/insurgents, and causes serious psychological and emotional difficulties for the returning warriors laboring to come to grips with the moral enormity of their experiences in war. Had our political leaders paid attention to the lessons of Vietnam, they would understand that to persevere, to stay the course or escalate our involvement, to pursue victory or to save face in such a situation is futile, a prescription for even greater disaster, and tantamount to condoning aggression and murder.

Had we as a nation heeded the prescient warnings of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower and war savvy Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, we would have been aware that despite the charade of humanitarian concern and of dire threats to national security, all too often, wars are fought for economic gain and corporate greed. While those of wealth, power, and influence choose and profit from war, it is invariably the poor, the working class, who must fight. War brings profit and gain to an elite few at the expense of the pain, suffering, and deaths of the many. Consequently, "war is a racket," morally abhorrent and prima facie wrong and anyone who would unleash such sacrilege upon humankind bears an onerous burden of justification.

Had we learned the lessons of Vietnam, we would not have been deceived about the true nature of love for country. We would have understood that the distortion of "patriotism" to require blind allegiance and unquestioned support for, or participation in, unjust and immoral war – aggression and murder – is inconsistent with human decency and with the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy. Such "patriotism" is an abeyance of human reason, a profound failure, both intellectually and morally. We would have realized that true patriotism requires the moral courage critically and objectively to evaluate, legally and ethically, the causes and justifications for war. That patriots celebrate dissent, and not repress it; speak out against and condemn immoral and illegal war, and not support or condone it; seek new ideas and all possible viewpoints regarding peaceful diplomatic resolutions of international crises and disagreements and not rush to war. As citizens of the world’s only superpower, we must hold our politicians, generals, and corporate executives to the highest moral standards. We can no longer separate ourselves from their actions in the world and must accept responsibility for the coups they plan, the wars they wage, or the sweatshops they run. Moreover, for those of us who fought in war and know its insanity and horror firsthand, we have a greater obligation to raise our collective voices in opposition. To remain silent and complacent when greed, incompetence, and misguided patriotism again turn our children into killers and squander their lives and well being in another unnecessary and immoral war, all that we have fought for, bled for, and died for would have been in vain.

In times of crisis such as these, however, when we caution restraint, seek justice and fairness, and urge peace rather than war, we are often condemned as irresponsible, unsupportive of our troops, unpatriotic, and for giving aid, comfort, encouragement, and hope to our "enemies." We are admonished that we are at war and must put aside our petty disagreements and avoid dissent and criticism of our leaders and of their policies. "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists." "The world is divided into two sides - - the side of faith and the side of infidelity." "Whose side are you on?" If we are ever to achieve peace and justice, we must learn the lessons of previous wars. We must choose the side of the victims, no matter their national identity, who inevitably become the innocent casualties of war and corporate greed. We must chose the side of justice and not of vengeance; of the workers and not of those who exploit them; of reason and not of hysteria; of compassion and understanding and not of cruelty and brutality. We must choose the side of peace and not of war.

In this era of Globalization, we have become expendable commodities, forced to live in a world increasingly of corporate design, with little concern for justice and fairness, but only profit. We have become cannon fodder, forced to shed our blood, sacrifice our lives, and to become killers while corporations benefit from the mayhem. The critical lesson of Vietnam and, perhaps, of all previous wars is clear. We must overcome the narrow perspective of corporatism and nationalism, and embrace a universalism. We must reject the bifurcation of Bush and Bin Laden and realize that our country's borders do not separate us from the rest of humankind. Moreover, if we claim to know god, we must respect her creations and treat all of god’s children as our own. Thomas Paine said it best, I think, "The World is my Country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion." The war in Vietnam should have opened our eyes, laying bare the horror, insanity, and futility of war. Had we learned the lessons of Vietnam, we never would have invaded Iraq.

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Camillo "Mac" Bica, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, a long-time activist for peace and justice, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the coordinator of the Long Island Chapter of Veterans for Peace. His books include "Beyond PTSD: The Moral (more...)

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