ALL THE WE HAVE NOT LEFT BEHIND: THOUGHTS ON WAR, LIES ABOUT WAR, & THE DISINTEGRATION OF THE FOURTH NIXON ADMINISTRATION
"Terrorism is the war of the poor against the rich. War is the terrorism of the rich against the poor."
-- Peter Ustinov
"Any change is resisted because bureaucrats have a vested interest in the chaos in which they exist."
"Solutions are not the answer."
-- Richard M. Nixon
Early in 1973, when I was seven years old, my family left the "Holy City" of Salt Lake, as my father jokingly called it, and moved to sunny southern California. My father had just finished his studies at the University of Utah.
We moved to a little town nestled right up against the ocean in the southern-most corner of Orange county. The town was named San Clemente, and boasted fine weather and sandy beaches. In fact, just a few miles down a long stretch of sandy beach, set on a bluff overlooking the Pacific was the 1920's hacienda that served as Richard's Nixon's Western White House. My brother and I loved the place. it was the kind of town two boys of five and seven years could run about freely from the beach to the parks to the small arroyos that ran down to the ocean.
In the interest of tying together the unmitigated disaster that is the present US war in Iraq, the unmitigated disaster that is the past US war in Vietnam, the unmitigated disaster that is the Republican party leadership, both present and past, and the prevarication, fabrication and outright lies used to maintain and expand both wars under the guise of turning the fight over to the "freedom-loving people" of the "nations" we're claiming to "support," permit me to digress for a moment to another era. A safer time. A gentler time. A time long before the horrors of 9/11. But with a similar cast of "patriots" in the White House, using lies and deception and fabrications to hide the true nature of a war they were escalating while claiming to end.
In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected to his first term as president of the United States, partly on a promise to provide "new leadership" that would "end" the war in Vietnam and bring American troops home. Under a plan called "Peace With Honor," Nixon promised to negotiate a settlement that would allow the half million U.S. troops in Vietnam to be withdrawn, while still allowing South Vietnam to survive. In February 1969, just after his inauguration, president Nixon secretly authorized Operation Menu, the bombing of North Vietnamese and Vietcong bases within Cambodia. Over the following four years, U.S. forces dropped more than a half million tons of bombs on Cambodia until Congress learned about it and forced it to an end in May, 1973, with the last bombs falling until August 15, 1973.
Operation Menu was not only a violation of international law (a war crime), and of the sovereignty of the neutral nation of Cambodia (an act of war), but the true nature and substance of American secret bombing in Cambodia was withheld not only the American people and from their representative in Congress, and, more seriously, from many of the key personnel normally involved in the planning, approval, and execution of such an an operation. The list includes the Secretary of the Air Force, Dr. Robert Seamans, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General John Ryan, the Office of Strategic Research and Analysis, all the Congressional Committees responsible for approving the funds and authorizing the mission, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and most of the Pentagon. Not only were these key persons in the chain of command uninformed about the bombing, they were lied to by Kissinger and Nixon, and they repeated these lies publicly on their behalf.
By the time Congress uncovered these secrets and cut funding for the war in Vietnam, not simply to force closure, but partly in retaliation for Nixon's secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia, the enormity of Nixon's lies afforded him the opportunity to commit atrocities in Cambodia bordering on genocide.
Many people easily forget that the fourth article of impeachment against Nixon charged that he:
... had violated his constitutional oath of office in that he "on and subsequent to March 17, 1969, authorized, ordered and ratified the concealment from Congress of the facts and the submission to Congress of false and misleading statements concerning the existence, scope, and nature of American bombing operations in Cambodia and derogation of the power of Congress to declare war... and by such conduct warrants impeachment and trial and removal from office."
American and South Vietnamese assaults in Cambodia, a country whose neutrality the U.S. claimed to respect, caused massive, unconscionable death and destruction. The Finnish Inquiry Commission referred to the number of deaths as genocidal. According to the Commission, 600,000 Cambodians died out of a population of 7 million and another 2 million people became refugees. Carlyle Thayer, an Australian Indochina specialist, estimated the number of dead at 500,000 of which 50,000 to 60,000 were executions. The CIA itself estimates that 600,000 died.
I can still remember the news moments bleeding through between frequent trips to the beach with my brother and our regular diet of cartoons and children's television shows. Especially on Sunday morning, when the program "In The News" often brought images first of battlefield footage of shelling and gunfire, and wounded, and later of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, many of whom later came to find homes up the road in northern Orange county and parts of Los Angeles.
What Iraq has in common with Vietnam is that both are wars of ideology on foreign soil, rather than wars of national defense (though national defense is obliquely cited by both as a seminal reason for both wars). Both are wars taken up in an attempt to create a client state from the failed imperialist/colonialist practices of others; France in the case of Vietnam, Britain in the case of Iraq.
To call Iraq the "central front in the war on terror" is like calling Vietnam the "central front in the war on communism." Saying it doesn't make it true. Believing it increases and prolongs needless agony and death.
The answer to the question of what constitutes "failure" or "honor" or "loss," lies in part in asking whose "failure?" Whose "loss?" Whose "honor?"
What if, in 1969 or 1970, Nixon had simply made good on his promise to end the war? What if he decided to simply "fail" and accept "defeat" and bring the troops home when the US death toll stood at a mere 23,000? What would the result have been? More death and destruction? Spreading communism? Regional destabilization? Hardly. Had Nixon done so, the North Vietnamese would have undoubtedly succeeded in uniting the country under communist rule, Saigon would have fallen, as would Huey, and all the others, many Vietnamese would have died defending them, as so many ultimately did anyway in 1975. Yes, our mighty armies would have been a bit humiliated. Nixon might have been humiliated or "dishonored." It might have even cost him at the poles in 1973 (though it's hard to imagine a quick pullout of troops and genuine end to of the war erasing his landslide in the '73 election).Nixon would likely not have been seen as any kind of hero, as such a "failure" would have masked the true successes; the deaths and genocide that would never have happened.
However, we would have succeeded in avoiding more than half of war's American fatalities, which came in the last four years with the deaths of another 25,000 US soldiers as we "withdrew." We would have succeeded in avoiding the deaths of hundreds of thousands of other Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. Moreover, Cambodia would likely not have collapsed. Nearly 2 million Cambodians would have escaped torture, starvation, and death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, who were the prime beneficiaries of the secret and illegal bombings that destabilized Cambodia. We would have succeeded in preventing for tens of thousands the seemingly endless horrors of land mines and cluster-bomb units, which to this day continue to savagely maim and kill both children and adults alike.
So in that kind of "failure," in that kind of "loss" of "honor," so many successes were possible, so many lives were possible; so many futures. Instead, in his efforts to "gain" a "Peace with Honor," Nixon, and Kissinger became criminals. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed and tortured and maimed. To this day, bombs they ordered dropped in their secret little "Operation Menu," continue to kill people and maim both children and adults in Cambodia and Laos. The war they conducted while claiming to be working to end the war killed more Americans than died in the previous ten years of US involvement in Vietnam.
Part of the problem with the Vietnam debacle was that our senior administration officials brought a World War II mind set to our foreign policy, particularly with respect to Vietnam. Part of the problem with the debacle in Iraq is that we have a Vietnam-war mind set running our foreign policy, particularly with respect to Iraq. The junior level officials of Vietnam era have become the senior officials of the Iraq era.
People like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld, junior figures of the Nixon days, came of political age during this now disgraced administration. But, unlike so many people who learned so many lessons from Vietnam, like respecting the sovereignty of other countries, or the incredible idiocy of applying George Kennan's "domino theory" to the civil war of Vietnam, or, perhaps, most importantly, that you cannot export democracy with guns and bombs, the current cabal of Vietnam-era leaders seems to have learned an entirely different set of lessons. Like: fight a faster, more secret, more devastating war; keep more information from the American people; use more propaganda and lies to bolster and sell your cause.
So keep this in mind next time you hear politicians without children in Iraq squawking about the "price" of a "gracious exit," or the "real cost" of pulling our troops out "too early." When troops shouldn't be someplace to begin with, you can't bring them home soon enough. Had Nixon learned this and genuinely provided "new leadership" instead of paranoid thugery, I might have been spared returning from that walk to the barber to find my mother crying as she watched Nixon board his helicopter after what I later came to realize was his post-resignation departure to, of all places, San Clemente, California. The whole nation might have been spared the disgrace of watching the only president in U.S. history to resign flying away to that home that was no longer The Western White House.
Remember this when the current cadre of "deciders" tells the American people that we need something like a "lasting" peace, or peace with "honor," or when they say that we need to send more troops or increase our presence in order to "help the Iraqis stand up," so that we can "stand down." Or that we need to "escalate" and "stabilize before we can "safely" and "comfortably" withdraw. Remember that all of this talk will be a recipe for getting more Americans killed for a result that is no better, or possibly worse altogether, than a simple, quick, effective withdrawal coupled with a massive diplomatic and humanitarian effort lead by Iraq's neighbors.
Copyright © Jefferson Adams, 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Jefferson Adams is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. His
poems, essays, and photographs have appeared in Antioch Review, Blue
Mesa Review, CALIBAN, Hayden's Ferry Review, Huffington Post, the
Mississippi Review, and Slate among others.
View all articles by Jefferson Adams