Sitnews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska



Repeating the Mistakes of History
by Mike Harpold


January 31, 2003
Friday - 1:55 pm

The picture on the Daily News, (01/29/03) showing a Coast Guard spouse exchanging words with a man holding a sign saying "No Rush to War" in front of Ketchikan's Federal Building brings back vivid memories. Foremost is the haunting picture of young, awkward recruits in green dress uniforms making their way uncertainly through indifferent and sometimes openly rude throngs of travelers in the concourse at San Francisco International Airport on
Mike Harpold

their way to nearby Travis Air Force Base, and then Viet Nam, in the early seventies. The memory still saddens me, and the lady's indignation at what I'm sure she feels is a public show of indifference to the members of our military today has my immediate sympathy.

But although I served in Viet Nam, believed strongly in the right of our involvement there, and still do, I cannot fault the man holding the sign. Whether the President's reasons for wanting war with Iraq are well founded or not, I also feel that we are being pushed towards war before our nation is ready. For that reason alone, we may be forcing a new generation to repeat the painful experience of Viet Nam.

I question the abandonment of the policies this nation has followed so successfully in our history, containment, multilateralism, nation building in favor of ideologically driven ideas such as "preemptive strikes" and "unilateralism." It gives me no comfort to know that the coterie of presidential advisors who are pushing these ideas, including the president himself, have not been tested in war, sitting out Viet Nam. It is precisely because of this inexperience, I feel, that we have been led so rapidly to a point of having no options but war. It troubles me that at the beginning of the new millennium, the richest, most powerful nation the earth has ever seen, the most democratic and most principled, instead of using that power and wealth and expertise to lead, proposes to dominate the earth by promoting the image of its' capacity for overwhelming military power.

In Viet Nam the Communists were able to make terrorists out of children by preying on emotions of envy and hate for the wealthy and privileged American GI's even though the typical grunt was anything but. Vietnamese youth committed acts of terror despite the overwhelming power of the American military. Radicals in the Muslim world, using the same tactics, have manipulated Arab youth to hate America more than they love life itself, making them ready recruits to commit terrorist attacks. Palestinian youth are undeterred by the overwhelming power of the Israeli army. Poverty, lack of economic opportunity and lack of self-government are the roots of terrorism.

Enabling the youth of the world to overcome these obstacles is the war we must fight, and I am convinced that it is the war for which we can be properly mobilized. In contrast, Americans are not convinced that Iraq posses a sufficient threat to justify such a mobilization, and a link to the war on terrorism appears tenuous. Which brings to mind another Viet Nam analogy, democracies do not support wars for long that cannot be linked to their own survival.

Had the President on September 12, 2001, standing amid the rubble of the World Trade Center, called for a new mobilization to defeat terrorism, requiring two years of service by every young American, sending them throughout the world to teach English to young Saudi's, help African villagers obtain clean water for themselves, work at airports in homeland security roles or serve in our military to preserve the peace I would be proud to have my daughters, now in their teens, serve in such an effort. I believe our nation would be behind them too.

I enlisted in the Army in 1956. That was still in the early years of the Cold War, still very much in the shadow of World War II. Because of that recent experience, the country knew that we had to deal with the threat of an expanding communist world. We paid for the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, a tax burden that was indeed felt by every American family and we had the draft. Every able-bodied young man served a minimum of two years in the armed services. Nobody complained about having to serve. We lived in an era of nuclear terror that was as palpable as the terror we felt on 9/11. We knew why we had to serve and the whole country was behind us.

I have fond memories from those years of being on leave, in uniform, in New York City. My buddy and I stayed in the Armed Forces YMCA on Lexington Avenue. Because we were in uniform we were given a free dinner at Schraft's and free tickets to see Damn Yankees on Broadway. Cabbies not only took us to our destination, they treated us to a free tour along the way.

The news this week carried stories of Coast Guard personnel and vessels in the Puget Sound area being deployed to the Persian Gulf. It's a sobering thought that some of our own may soon follow. I am concerned that these men and women today are going off to a war when the country is not as united behind their effort as it was when I enlisted to fight the Cold War in the '50's and even when I went to Viet Nam in the '60's. But as for the guy who is carrying the sign, I'd much rather see him on that street corner before our young people go than see him there when they return.


©Mike Harpold
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