Americans look ahead anxiously toward Baghdad. I can't help but think back angrily. It's an old habit, a grudge I carry with me from Vietnam.
I think about the spring of 1991: The ground shook all that Wednesday night at forward operations base Viper near the Euphrates River in southern Iraq. Out in front of us, the Air Force and Navy pounded Saddam Hussein's retreating Republican Guards. I was a correspondent in the desert with the fastest-moving elements of the Army, but even we weren't fast enough to keep up with this rout.
Apache AH-64 helicopters were spread across the desert, their fighting power momentarily silenced. They had flown ahead of resupply. In this "turkey shoot," they had simply run out of gas.
I've kept the operations maps in my files. Basra was to the east of our combat base. Once fuel supplies arrived, our path would surely lead west and north into the capital. A tyrant was about to fall. This chalky dirty landscape, the cradle of civilization, was going to get another try at civilization. Troops at Viper pawed the ground.
Then, at 8 o'clock Thursday morning, we gathered around a short-wave radio. "Victory," said the scratchy voice of President George H.W. Bush.
A scattering of cheers replaced the rumble of bombs. But the joy was half-hearted and melancholy. The war was over but not completed; a soldier's lament. "I hope it's not going to stay over," a captain from Kalamazoo, Mich., told me. "I want to get rid of Saddam."
Why stop when we were winning? Why pull up when the enemy was surrendering by the tens of thousands? Why go home when Sad'em, as Bush called him, was finished, except for the finishing?
Dick Cheney was in on that war. And Colin Powell. Now they're promoting this new one for Bush's son. We're told that American fighting men and women will have to go back to Iraq and start over again, as soon as the administration has done its prep work and softened up public opinion.
I cannot swear in the newspaper. But if I could, I'd swear like a rank soldier to tell you how disheartened this makes me.
Already in my life, as a Marine sergeant in Vietnam, I watched my countrymen die because faint-hearted, stubborn and politically calculating men made lousy decisions in Washington. Once in a lifetime should be enough. Now it looks like we're going to have to endure the same thing again.
Our men and women in uniform are going to kiss their loved ones goodbye. They'll be lined up and inoculated with strange medicines to try and protect them against chemical weapons attack, just as we were. Then ships away, lock and load. They'll go fight the same man for the same ground a second time.
If Saddam Hussein is worth taking out now, he was worth taking out then. Nothing has materially changed in 11 years. Certainly not Hussein. I have no idea what darkness really lurks in the man's heart, but today's demonizing of him reads from the same script without variation: Obsessed about an A-bomb, willing to use chemical weapons, devious troublemaker, oppressor of his own people, a terrorist foe of the West, etc. Except this time we'll be the aggressor, not he. Only this time, he's likely to be more desperate. Only this time, he may have more friends in the world.
Hussein was ours for the taking back in 1991, and at a cost of remarkably few battle casualties. Our fighting forces proved their stuff. The military had spent almost three decades trying to learn the lessons of Vietnam so as not to repeat them. But the biggest mistake in Vietnam was not the military's. It belonged to a succession of presidents and their brain trusts, who called things wrong in the first place.
The war drums of 2002 tell us it's happened again. Back in the spring in 1991, the White House ignored the wisdom of military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, who long ago put it this way: "The aim of war in conception must always be the overthrow of the enemy." Hussein was ours to take, and we blew it.
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