Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Iraq, the Rhetoric of Vietnam, and Preaching

I was born in 1958 and thus turned eighteen in 1976. The United States was at peace during those years. American involvement in the war in Vietnam had ended in 1973 and Saigon fell to the Viet Cong in 1975. Young men who turned eighteen between 1975 and 1980 were not even required to register for the draft. I fell in that window.

I also chose not to volunteer to serve in the armed forces. Sometimes, frankly, I wish I had. I say that for two reasons. First, serving in the military is an honorable way to give back something to this great country that has given us so much. Second, having served in the military gives a little more weight to someone’s voice when he or she feels compelled to speak against United States policy as it concerns the military. One might reasonably ask, on the other hand, why the same would not hold true for other areas that might draw comment. For example, must someone have received Welfare or worked in that area to weigh in on Welfare policy? Or, must someone have had or performed an abortion to have something to say about abortion policy? Or, must someone have held elected office to comment intelligently on political issues? Anyone would answer “No” to those questions, so isn’t it just possible that a non-military person like I am might have something helpful to say about military policy? Besides, it was not by accident that our Founders placed the military under the command of the civilian leadership of our nation; the President, not the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is the Commander-in-Chief.

Enough apologetics! I said all of that to say that I want to say something about the war in Iraq. Specifically, I have been intrigued by the invoking of the dreaded word “Vietnam” by folks at various stages of our involvement in Iraq.

When our leaders were moving toward the invasion of Iraq, some opponents of that move drew comparisons to Vietnam. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WVA), a consistent opponent of the invasion of Iraq, said this during the Senate debate in 2003 that led to the authorization of President Bush to go to war:

This is the Tonkin Gulf resolution all over again. Let us stop, look and listen. Let us not give this president or any president unchecked power. Remember the Constitution.

In remarks on the Senate floor on April 7, 2004, Sen. Byrd invoked Vietnam again:

Now, after a year of continued strife in Iraq, comes word that the commander of forces in the region is seeking options to increase the number of U.S. troops on the ground if necessary. Surely I am not the only one who hears echoes of Vietnam in this development. Surely, the Administration recognizes that increasing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq will only suck us deeper into the maelstrom of violence that has become the hallmark of that unfortunate country.

In a prime time press conference six days later, a reporter asked President Bush this question:

Mr. President, April is turning into the deadliest month in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad, and some people are comparing Iraq to Vietnam and talking about a quagmire. Polls show that support for your policy is declining and that fewer than half Americans now support it. What does that say to you and how do you answer the Vietnam comparison?

The President responded this way:

I think the analogy is false. I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops, and sends the wrong message to the enemy. Look, this is hard work. It's hard to advance freedom in a country that has been strangled by tyranny. And, yet, we must stay the course, because the end result is in our nation's interest.

In recent days, as has been widely reported, President Bush has made the Vietnam-Iraq comparison himself, albeit with a different spin. In a speech delivered to the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention on August 22, 2007, the President, after mentioning the ongoing debate in our nation about the Vietnam War, said,

Whatever your position is on that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like "boat people," "re-education camps," and "killing fields."

Later in the speech he added,

If we were to abandon the Iraqi people, the terrorists would be emboldened, and use their victory to gain new recruits. As we saw on September the 11th, a terrorist safe haven on the other side of the world can bring death and destruction to the streets of our own cities. Unlike in Vietnam, if we withdraw before the job is done, this enemy will follow us home. And that is why, for the security of the United States of America, we must defeat them overseas so we do not face them in the United States of America.

Now, I’m a minister of the good news of Jesus Christ and not a political or international affairs expert. As a minister, teacher, and writer, though, I do work in words. What’s interesting to me about all of this is the changing ways in which the rhetoric of Vietnam has been used in this discussion.

From the perspective of Sen. Byrd, Iraq from the beginning raised the specter of Vietnam. For President Bush, the comparisons to Vietnam drawn by opponents of the war were not valid but the comparison that he now draws is valid. Opponents of the war do not agree with the comparison to Vietnam that the President is now drawing.

It seems to me that people on opposite sides of the issue use the same word (“Vietnam”) to try to evoke different feelings and reactions. Opponents of the Iraq War use it to say that we shouldn’t be there and we should get out as soon as possible; they attempt to evoke feelings of loss and anxiety and futility with their use of the word. Supporters of the Iraq War use it to say that we can’t get out now because if we do we’ll create the same kinds of killing fields that occurred in Indochina following our withdrawal from there; they attempt to invoke feelings of wounded pride and fear of modern terrorism. There are weaknesses in both arguments. The opponents of the invasion had no real way to know whether or not the situation would develop into a quagmire; the current supporters of the war are being disingenuous in saying “Even if we shouldn’t be there, now that we’re there, we can’t leave, because really bad things will happen” without honestly facing how our presence there may have contributed to the development of some of those really bad things.

It just goes to show how words can be used and even manipulated to make one’s point.

As a preacher, it causes me to want to be very cautious in my choice of words. The words we choose can have tremendous baggage associated with them. We have to be careful to be as straightforward and honest as possible and to avoid manipulation at all costs.

For President Bush, Iraq was not like Vietnam but now it is. For Sen. John Kerry, he voted for the war before he voted against it. For me and other preachers, we need to be as clear as we can about what the God of the Bible as revealed most fully in the Jesus of the Gospels is for and against. Mainly, we need to be clear that he is for people who are struggling to find their way in this old world and their way into the world to come. That message needs straightforward proclamation, not clever word games.

The same is true of other areas of discussion, too, and our politicians really need to think about that, because, somewhat like preachers, their words are not just about words but about lives.

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