As we remember the brutal assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. today, we must not forget the critical fact that during the last year of his life he was being widely condemned as a traitor for his opposition to the Viet Nam war which he had strongly voiced in a sermon in Manhattan’s Riverside Church just down the street from where I am writing this.
King, as many others then, could see that we had stumbled into an unwinnable war, murderously destructive to millions of lives and finally more than 58,000 Americans before it was finally ended off in chaos.
How had this come about? Briefly after WW2 what came to be known as the North Vietnamese had driven out the occupying Japanese from most of the old French colony, Indochina. Charles de Gaulle, however, the domineering French general/president blackmailed the U.S. into sending French troops (in American uniforms) back into Indochina with the threat that he would otherwise boycott NATO. Shortly the French got themselves into serious trouble and after a particularly deadly loss of troops in a 1954 battle at Dienbienphu decided to pull out. Eisenhower at the time warned us against becoming involved in the conflict, but when Kennedy came to office he sent a corps of military advisors to guide the struggling South Vietnamese. Unhappily upon his death the inexperienced with such matters Johnson escalated our troop commitments to more than a million. He and the Congress had been misled by a false report of an attack on an American destroyer by North Vietnamese boats at Tonkin Gulf.
The war dragged on into an impossible stalemate. Some background — during the Korean War General MacArthur had marched American troops (in defiance of orders) up to the border of China. As they had threatened, the Chinese sent in a massive number of troops which nearly drove our military out of Korea — but a lesson had been taught. Don’t press the Chinese when they threaten a counter attack if you come too close to their borders!
The same circumstances evolved in Viet Nam. The Chinese and Vietnamese had never been allies (China has too often occupied Viet Nam in the past as Tibet today). But the Chinese warned that they would send in troops if we invaded the North with ours. So we were left with the frustrating option of bombing the North — with horrible weapons such as napalm and delayed action bombs dumped in rice fields. Napalm consists of jellied gasoline which splatters long distances and sets on fire anything in its way — particularly humans. And the timed bombs were likely to kill children — as are the illegal cluster bombs of today.
Finally after the massive number of deaths mentioned above — we used to read aloud the names of the most recent Americans killed in hour long shifts at Riverside Church — we saw the pointlessness of it all and got out ignominiously. Those who say we could have “won” the war are nuts. There was no way to do so short of launching WW3 against China — and to what end?
I mention all of this as background because of the parallels with the situation that we have created in Iraq. We have fractured Iraq into many parts. The Shia are natural allies of the Iranians with whom we do not want them to associate. So far as democracy is concerned they maintain a 60% majority in any election and do not look to be ready to share the goodies with either of the minorities — Sunnis or Kurds.
Once again we have stumbled into a no win mess. There is no way to ‘win’ a war there and each day we stay the situation deteriorates more and a small percentage of Americans bear the burden. Furthermore we are wasting both our military and our finances. Have we learned nothing from the former Soviet Union having bankrupted itself in that region? The rest of the world looks on with a mixture of horror and amusement.
Let us not forget the warning of Martin Luther King, Jr. (and those who follow in his shoes — possibly Jeremiah Wright per the President of the United Church of Christ on CNN last night). This is not a justified ‘war’ and it is long gone time that we ended it off.
“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)
Ed Kent 212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]