Gulf of Talkin'

Valid or not, comparisons to the deviously escalated Vietnam War are hard to dismiss these days.

"We're trying to explain how things are going," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said recently, "and they are going as they are going." Down. Badly. Deadly. In the seven prior days, 30 U.S. soldiers had died in Iraq. Dozens more were wounded. The death toll of Gulf War II soldiers with Washington state connections also hit 30. A Fort Lewis Stryker Brigade soldier, Army Spc. Tyanna Avery-Felder, 22, married to another soldier, was No. 30. A few days earlier, Army Spc. Philip G. Rogers, 23, also of Fort Lewis, became No. 29. He was the son of a Vietnam veteran. Vietnam, the mostly Democrat war, was all week long bubbling to the surface of Iraq, the mostly Republican war. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said Iraq "is George Bush's Vietnam." Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that is "an inaccurate comparison." Of the two, former Navy pilot McCain might know best. He flew into Vietnam one day and spent five years there in captivity.

Whatever, the V-word hung in the air from Washington to Washington last week. The ship McCain flew from on that final flight in 1967, the carrier USS Oriskany, was designated by the Navy to be sunk and made into an artificial reef off Florida. Now docked in Corpus Christi, Texas, the Oriskany rocked away for 21 years as part of the mothballed fleet across Puget Sound in Bremerton. Other Vietnam relics still reside there, the most historic of which is the USS Turner Joy, open for tours on the Bremerton waterfront. It is a restored Navy destroyer and POW memorial, complete with a compartment converted to look like one of the cells McCain occupied at the Hanoi Hilton. The Turner Joy is also the living symbol of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, passed 40 years ago by Congress to expand the war in Vietnam based on an enemy attack on the Turner Joy and another destroyer that never took place. As a justification for war, the Turner Joy is the equivalent of today's weapons of mass destruction.

"But you get so much rhetoric on all these issues today," retired Adm. Thomas B. Hayward, 79, of Seattle, was saying last week. The Turner Joy was once under the Pacific Fleet command of Hayward, who later became Chief of Naval Operations until his 1982 retirement. "So these things always have to be taken in that context. The anti-Bush crowd would like to tag Iraq as a 'Vietnam,' but that effort is political more than anything else. I don't see the comparison in any strategic way. We're not mired down."

Put the death toll, and the fact it is immediately conveyed home on the 24-hour news channels, in perspective, he says. "The coverage keeps us so much more informed, and so quickly," says Hayward, who became a defense-contractor consultant after the service and is on the board of Voyager Expanded Learning, which provides anti-illiteracy services to schools. He retired here to be with his daughters. "Until the first Gulf War and this one, we did not have the ability to accomplish so much with so few casualties. Each death is important, of course, even a few. On the other hand, in the total scheme of things, with 630 or so deaths in Iraq, only about half are combat casualties. You can have about the same number killed in auto accidents in a short period. I know it's very hard for the public to see it that way."

But it is a young war, 13 months, and at the current rate, the U.S. death toll in Iraq could be double the number of American troops killed in the first three years of the Vietnam War (392, from 1962–64). More than 640 are dead in Iraq, about 450 in combat, including 12 Marines killed in a firefight April 6. President Bush promises a handover of authority to a transitional Iraqi government by June 30, which won't happen unless he is prepared to see people clinging to helicopters, or something similar to the images from the fall of Saigon. Though he thinks war with Iraq may have been inevitable, Hayward nonetheless feels Bush's "timing was not the best, and that's all I'll say about that." Likewise, if the transition date is dangerous, then push it back, he says. "Strategically, we're trying to show some consistency. We'll try the best we can. But if the plan doesn't work, change it."

That was a lesson of Vietnam. The Truman/Eisenhower/Kennedy/Johnson war became the relentlessly expanded Nixon (and Kissinger) war of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos until it collapsed in 1975 under the weight of 58,000 U.S. body bags. It got its momentum under Lyndon Johnson, who lied about that August 1964 evening the Turner Joy and the USS Maddox (scrapped in 1985) were supposedly attacked in the gulf by North Vietnamese gunboats. To obtain Congress' approval to widen the war, Johnson called the attack "deliberate" and "unprovoked." He should have added "imaginary." The ships' radar crews had misinterpreted strange nighttime weather conditions as incoming artillery and engaged in battle with a nonexistent enemy. "I had the best seat in the house to watch that event," Navy Cmdr. James Stockdale once recalled, "and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there. . . . There was nothing there but black water and American firepower." (Stockdale later was a POW and eventually presidential candidate Ross Perot's running mate.) Johnson knew this, and it wasn't until a year later that the president conceded, "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there." By then, the war was on.

Iraq is no Vietnam in a literal sense. Some differences are 180s. Vietnam was about communism, Iraq is about—oil? Ho Chi Minh initially wasn't anti-American—he begged for support from President Truman. Saddam Hussein wanted to kill George H.W. Bush, provoking George W. But the symbolic similarities are there—the guerrilla war, the strategic miscalculations, the government lying, and the rising death toll. The importance of Vietnam to Iraq is as a reminder. What is the real back story to this war? Is it, too, black water and whales? Has Richard Clarke revealed what Condollezza Rice is still trying to hide? What do we know and when do the rest of us get to know it? There is this eerie reminder I came across the other day, a memo recounted in Daniel Ellsberg's book Secrets:

The war will be "almost certainly a protracted war involving an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces, mounting U.S. casualties, no assurance of a satisfactory solution, and a serious danger of escalation at the end of the road. . . . The decision you face now, therefore, is crucial. Once large numbers of U.S. troops are committed to direct combat they will begin to take heavy casualties in a war they are ill equipped to fight in a non-cooperative if not downright hostile countryside. Once we suffer large casualties we will have started a well-neigh irreversible process. Our involvement will be so great that we cannot—without national humiliation—stop short of achieving our complete objectives. Of the two possibilities I think humiliation would be more likely than the achievement of our objectives—even after we had paid terrible costs." That was Johnson's undersecretary of state, George Ball, writing a secret memo to LBJ in 1965. The topic was Vietnam, not Iraq. Maybe what Rumsfeld meant to say last week is that things are going as they have gone.

Seattle Weekly writer Rick Anderson is author of Home Front: The Government's War on Soldiers (Clarity Press), due out in June.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow