National Commentary

Helen Thomas: Time To Get Out Of Our Blood Debt In Iraq

Will the next president be the second coming of Jimmy Carter? Given Thursday's economic headlines, full of dire warnings about the return of 1970s-style stagflation, you might think so.

Bush wants to leave to the next president the burden of ending the debacle he started five years ago when he ordered the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, against a people who had done us no harm.

Bush cannot explain his reasons for the war without compounding his folly. To this moment, Bush has not given a logical explanation for his disastrous militarism.

How can he tell American families that their sons and daughters died for a terrible, tragic mistake committed by his administration?

History shows that other presidents have found ways to end U.S. involvement in wars. Most times there has been a public sigh of relief when that happens.

After 241 Marines and sailors were killed when the U.S. Marine outpost in Beirut was blown up in October 1983, President Ronald Reagan said the U.S. would not change its policy.

By April 1984, Reagan had quietly ordered all American forces out of Lebanon.

There were no public recriminations about cutting and running — only a sense of relief.

Before then, Dwight D. Eisenhower promised during his 1952 presidential campaign "to go to Korea" and end an unpopular war that had begun in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea.

The American people wanted out, so Eisenhower's message resonated with voters and he won the presidency. The war ended in a stalemate with a divided Korea in 1953 — and there are still some 27,000 American troops stationed on the peninsula.

Getting out of Vietnam was more difficult.

After years of the low-profile presence of U.S. military advisers there, President Lyndon B. Johnson sent major American combat units to Vietnam in 1965, kicking off a huge U.S. investment in the war.

As the war dragged on, Johnson agonized over how to end the conflict. He fretted over the growing American disillusionment with the war, the protests in the street and decided not to seek reelection in 1968 when he realized he could no longer justify the casualties.

Richard M. Nixon was elected his successor and announced that his plan to end the U.S. involvement in the war was to turn the war over to the South Vietnamese in 1973. The torturous finale came two years later when North Vietnamese troops defeated the South Vietnamese military and captured Saigon.

Author Otto J. Lehrack wrote about the presidential dilemma of Vietnam in his 2004 book "The First Battle: Operation Starlite and the Beginning of the Blood Debt in Vietnam."

Lehrack makes the point that U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam could have been easily accomplished — without much furor — before August 1965.

But then came the first major Marine battle against the Viet Cong at Chu Lai. The Americans vanquished the Viet Cong but lost 54 casualties. The U.S. toll quickly escalated in later months and, by the end of 1965, American dead in Vietnam totaled 2,385.

From then on, American presidents found it politically, morally and emotionally difficult to disengage because of what Lehrack calls the "blood debt" that the U.S. leadership incurred as a result of these casualties and the thousands that followed.

How could U.S. officials tell the next-of-kin and the American public that their loved ones died in a futile war?

"How could the American president defend the expenditure of more than two thousand American lives with nothing to show for it," the author writes. America spent another 10 years and more than 56,000 additional lives in pursuit of the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon policy in Vietnam.

"Like gamblers who have already lost their gambling money, and then the rent month, and then the car payment, and then the grocery money, and then borrowed or stole in the hope of changing their luck, the Johnson and Nixon administrations kept signing markers to America for a debt in gore that they hoped a reversal of fortune would justify."

In other words, the United States was getting further in "because it would be too embarrassing to America's interest to get out."

It sounds sadly familiar.

That's why it's time now for the Democratic presidential candidates to step up and say we are getting out of Iraq — pronto.

Let's face it: That country belongs to the Iraqis.

  c.2008 Hearst Newspapers

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