Vietnam Veteran and former Democratic Senator Max Cleland lost his seat in 2002 partly because he was successfully depicted as too soft for the war on terror. He has lent confirmation to that charge, and to the late judgment of Georgia voters, through a widely syndicated op-ed in which he airs out one of the more obviously banal claims of contemporary political discussion: that Iraq is another Vietnam.
Leaving aside all questions as to whether, in the long view of history, the Vietnam War may be something other than the unambigous defeat for the the United States that conventional wisdom holds it to be, to believe that there is at this time anything remotely approaching a just comparison between Vietnam and Iraq requires acceptance of a series of absurdities. Partial list: More than a decade of warfare = a few weeks of major combat. Vietnamese casualties in the millions = a few thousand Iraqis. As for U.S. casualties, it would appear that in Cleland's mind over 50,000 = some 300. In terms of logistics, support and re-supply from Red China and the USSR = remnant Baathist arms caches.
None of this is to suggest that the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq have been or will be easy, or that there are not some valid parallels to the circumstances of Vietnam, among many other American military involvements, but what Cleland actually offers in support of his dubious equivalence thesis amounts to a few empty generalizations, several obvious distortions and exaggerations, and a lot of bile. On the level of historical parallels, for instance, he tries to turn the misreported, vastly overblown "Niger-uranium" story into the equivalent of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Ignoring everything we know or have learned about the former (e.g., that what Bush said about Saddam and Niger in his 2003 State of the Union appears to have been both technically accurate and well-supported factually, or, to the larger point, that the item was one small factoid in a larger case that had already been definitively made and accepted months earlier), Cleland refers to it as both an "outright lie" and a "key piece" of intelligence meant to justify the war. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was turned into a pretext for President Johnson's major escalation. Niger-uranium figured little in President Bush's Iraq war policy on any practical level: It has served at most as a kind of reverse Gulf of Tonkin - a phony pretext for the left's Summer propaganda offensive.
Throughout the op-ed, Cleland relies on numbingly manipulative rhetoric to describe what he calls a "disaster in the desert." Discussing the difficulties of occupation, he claims that "casualties continue to increase," while making no reference either to casualty rates over time or even to absolute numbers. (As David Warren has pointed out, until the dead commence to rise up and regain life, casualties can do nothing else but increase.) While indulging in apparent desperation to attack the president personally, Cleland then asserts that declarations of an end to "major combat" and the famous "Bring 'em on" taunt have led "as a result" to the loss of "more people in [the son's] war than his father [lost] in his...and there is no end in sight." The former Senator does not pause to explain how the utterances could have caused casualties to occur prior to the dates on which they were spoken, nor does he reveal when the enemies of the U.S. and the occupation assumed their Pavlovian dependency on rhetorical triggers. It's notable also that Cleland shifts ground in this statement: Instead of comparing the removal of Saddam's regime and the aftermath to Vietnam, we are now to compare it to the first Gulf War, a far simpler and much more tightly circumscribed operation, of which, according to a reasonable view of the laws of war and of recent history, the more recent fighting has been a continuation rather than a re-play.
To call the conclusions that flow from such hyberbole and nonsense "ill-founded" would itself be hyperbolic understatement. The argumentation offers better support for a different set of conclusions entirely, such as those reached by Georgia voters on Cleland's willingness to fight the war on terror. Thus, when Cleland stridently demands "bulletproof" intelligence prior to action, he confirms that he would prefer for a president to ignore threats from malefactors such as Saddam Hussein, or Osama Bin Laden, until it was too late to deal with them except at the greatest cost. At another point, Cleland recalls Tom Friedman's term for the kind of people who perpetrated 9/11, "non-deterrables," and, referring to Iraq, suggests that "[i]f those non-deterrables are already in their country, they will be able to wait you out until you go home." Cleland neglects the option of killing them until they are dead, and he also neglects to mention that Friedman defined this group as he did in order to argue in favor of combating them aggressively (precisely because they cannot be deterred), pointedly including the then-projected war in Iraq - the idea being that, 1) since they cannot be deterred, they must be attacked directly, and 2) the social and political conditions that create and support non-deterrability must be radically altered, among other things by confronting the autocratic regimes that hold so much of Islam in thrall.
In contrast to Friedman, Cleland seems to be suggesting that, when confronted by non-deterrables, our only choice is to run away, or to wait for them to attack us. He underlines the point in a variation on the same theme: "If the enemy adopts a 'hit-and-run' strategy designed to inflict maximum casualties on you, you may win every battle, but... you can't win the war." If there is any truth to this statement, then the future belongs to the world's most implacably murderous zealots, we have already lost this war and all the wars that will follow until we are reduced to the same conditions and tactics. Of course, if there ever was any truth to this statement, then few of the wars that have ever been fought would ever have been won by either side - since some version of these tactics is always available, and since they are very frequently tried.
Reading through such material, it's hard to avoid the perception that Cleland's judgment has been overwhelmed by bitterness, and that, in this article as in associated TV appearances and other activities, he is now seeking a pound of flesh from the White House, whose operatives have been blamed (or, as some may prefer, credited) for a Saxby Chambliss campaign that included a TV ad juxtaposing photos of Cleland and Osama Bin Laden. Whether or not the White House actually had anything directly to do with the ad or even with Chambliss's victory is probably beside the point. Even under normal circumstances, the loss of a Senate seat would likely have been injury enough to earn Cleland's undying enmity, but the added insult, which Cleland must perceive as a kind of electoral terrorism directed at himself, may have turned that enmity into the kind of hatred that obliterates fine distinctions. Whether or not George W. Bush personally signed off on associating a triple-amputee war veteran and sitting senator with probably the most reviled individual in the history of this country, the failure to denounce the ad is probably enough for Cleland to make Bush and the rest of his regime guilty of harboring the terrorist Chambliss.
For those of us who support the president and oftimes bewail the harsh and unfair invective directed against him, it may be worth recalling that both sides have often played political "hardball" in the last few years, but the fact that those on our side have also been guilty of excesses does not require us to fall silent and cede the field. The stakes are much higher than any individual's hurt feelings, even when that individual's personal biography is as impressive and exemplary as Cleland's. Few among us can claim to have sacrificed even a fraction of what Cleland has sacrificed, and far fewer still can state with confidence that, having suffered the injuries he suffered, we would have risen to life's challenges as he must have, but by the same token we may wonder whether the anger that many of us might have felt in his place, alleviated and repressed during his long rehabilitation and the political career he gained, is now emerging under the pressure of his own personal setbacks. It may very well be that Cleland has experienced recent events as the second most traumatic of his life, leading to the release of powerful withheld emotions. One might even ask whether the hostility he is expressing for the current president has not in some part been displaced from its true, though long-dead objects.
Such analysis might be dismissed as amateur psychology, but it may explain at least in part why Cleland cannot resist saying things that he must know are false, ridiculous, and even vile. The concluding sentences of his op-ed, which manage to be odious and pathetic at the same time, remain very much those of a man who has been thrown back to a time of tragedy and horror in his life, and who not only wishes to hold someone responsible, but also sustains fantasies of vengeance: "Welcome to Vietnam, Mr. President," he writes, then adds, disjunctively, "Sorry you didn't go when you had the chance." Making much sense of this self-entangled outburst is difficult, as the two statements contradict each other in tense and content. What binds them together is pure rage. In drawing attention to Cleland's own experience, they seem to wish not just his historical knowledge but even his wounds on George W. Bush.
Neither Bush, nor America, nor US troops have arrived in Cleland's Vietnam - a place of anguish, debilitation, and endless lies, to which Cleland, however, seems to have returned, and where he seems now to wait, alone and unrequited. If it is not already too late, those who are encouraging and facilitating him in such exercises would do well to re-consider before his personal victory over inestimable obstacles has fully reverted to the tragic outlines he once so heroically re-drew.