Vietnam All Over Again
As a soldier who fought in the Vietnam War -- the United States' only lost war -- President Bush's imminent decision to increase the U.S. force in Iraq by thousands of troops brings to mind events more than thirty years old.
In 1968, shortly after Clark Clifford succeeded Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense, Secretary Clifford met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss the war in Vietnam. He quickly learned that America's top military leaders did not know how many troops were needed nor did they know what constituted victory.
During March 1968, despite this discovery, President Johnson agreed to send 24,500 more troops to Vietnam on an emergency basis. President Johnson and Secretary Clifford thought that this increase in U.S. troops would lead to U.S. victory there. And in an address to the nation on March 31 President Johnson stated: "We have no intention of widening this war."
At that time, approximately 24,000 U.S. service members had died in Vietnam. By the end of that war, more than 58,000 U.S. troops had been killed. More U.S. soldiers died winding down the war than had in starting it. In addition, by the end of the war, the United States had greatly expanded the war into Cambodia and Laos.
But, little more than a year later, after he left office, Clifford wrote: "Nothing we might do could be so beneficial ... as to begin to withdraw our combat troops. Moreover ... we cannot realistically expect to achieve anything more through our military force, and the time has come to begin to disengage."
By recommending to President Bush that U.S. troops in Iraq should be increased, with no clear plan for achieving victory there, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates risks following in the footsteps of Clark Clifford. As with Secretary Clifford, Secretary Gates has succeeded the architect of a U.S. military failure. Like Clifford, Gates has proven incapable of calling for a dramatic change in course.
Iraq is in the midst of a civil war. In addition, some in the U.S. government blame neighbors such as Iran and Syria for exacerbating sectarian tensions in Iraq. Increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq increases the likelihood that the United States will be pulled further into an intra-Iraqi struggle and deploying a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf -- apparently in an effort to warn Syria and Iran and to increase the flexibility for commanders in the region -- reminds me of the decision by U.S. military and civilian leadership to expand the war in Vietnam beyond the borders of that country.
Today, the U.S. military is, in the words of the Pentagon, stretched "to the breaking point." Almost 30 percent of the 1.5 million U.S. service members who have been deployed since September 11, 2001 have been deployed more than once. Thousands of members of Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) have been called up in what many term a "backdoor draft." Military recruiters are struggling to meet their goals; the Pentagon is considering greatly increasing the number of noncitizens in the U.S. military; more than 16,000 single mothers who are in the U.S. military have been deployed. And, most importantly, more than 3,000 service members have been killed in Iraq and tens of thousands wounded. Finally, more than $350 billion has been spent on the Iraq war.
It is time for the U.S. Congress to ensure that the voice of the American people -- including the voices of those who have served in Iraq and before -- are heard. Clearly, President Bush missed the central lesson of the November elections and the Iraq Study Group: that Americans want a dramatic change in course in Iraq, one that does not include deepening the U.S. involvement there.
Fortunately, not only Democrats have come out opposing the surge. Most prominently, Republican Senators Chuck Hagel, Gordon Smith, Susan Collins, and Norm Coleman have made clear their opposition to the president's plan.
Hard questions must be asked regarding the possibility of increasing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq; the effect that such a choice will have on those who have volunteered to serve their country in the military must be carefully considered.
With such a small percentage of the U.S. population bearing the vast majority of the burden of the war in Iraq, the sense of shared sacrifice has been lost. The social contract between service members and their government and society must be repaired. It is time for members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- to come together to make it clear to President Bush the folly of the surge.
Otherwise, the United States risks repeating the failures of Vietnam.