President Lyndon B. Johnson has long been the favorite whipping boy of the conservative right. His Vietnam-era “guns and butter” programs are still derided as a profound policy blunder. Simultaneously funding war and social programs was a mistake, critics said. Moreover, it sent us down the road of fiscal disaster and government debt.
That’s the wonkish view. There was also the tragic reality of young lives lost in Vietnam. Soldiers were sent into the Southeast Asian jungle, then sent home dead, or maimed. As causalities rose, more soldiers were sent to make sure those who died before them didn’t die in vain. When those died, we sent more to make sure they, too, had not died in vain.
Striking historic parallels is always hazardous. But those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Better to come out partially condemned than wholly blamed.
Iraq has loomed so large in the news for so long it has become a part of the household furniture. It’s time to dust it off and pay more attention—before matters grow even worse. President Bush knows all too well that generous tax cuts are the opiate of the American masses, so we bask in a 7.2 percent growth in GDP. But it would be folly to dismiss a mushrooming budget deficit, or the $87.5 billion bill for aid and military maneuvers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tax-and-spend liberals have given way to cut-taxes-and-spend conservatives. “Guns and butter” Democrats have given way to “guns and deductions” Republicans.
With 382 U.S. troops and at least nine times as many Iraqi civilians dead, Bush is certain our team will pull through this halftime malaise. “We will continue to find the terrorists and bring them to justice,” he’s told national media.
The word “terrorists” helps sustain the popular, but unproven, notion that Saddam Hussein was behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Even if it’s the famed “Sunni Triangle,” and not the allegedly understanding Shias our military must contend with, this still means stretching already thin troops thinner in attempts to control more than 8 million people. How many more troops will be shipped into the Gulf so that those who died before them did not die in vain?
Midway through Vietnam, a politician once joked we could simply pull out our troops and declare ourselves winner. That’s just not an option in Iraq. Even those who opposed the invasion might want to admit that, having bombed their houses and killed their family members, we owe the people of this beleaguered nation a huge debt. If you believe the evidence presented in a Sept. 23, 2002, Newsweek cover story, the United States helped Saddam build an arsenal of WMD. We decimated it in the first Gulf War. Now, we’re chasing rumors of its existence.
Somewhere in the quagmire of Vietnam, there was an opportunity to turn a bad situation into something better. Perhaps that moment has passed in Iraq. Even so, we’d best forget our tax cuts and make sure our leaders don’t miss the next opportunity.