Bob Herbert: The Vietnam Lesson, Unlearned

A Vietnam Lesson, Unlearned
Published: July 10, 2006

By 1971, after years of mindless fighting, dying and widespread atrocities in Vietnam, portions of the U.S. military had fallen into a horrendous state of affairs. Morale had plummeted. Drug use was widespread. Soldiers in units that had previously fought bravely and well were threatening mutiny. Officers and N.C.O.’s were targeted for death by frightened and resentful enlisted men. Racial conflicts abounded.

The biggest lesson we failed to learn from Vietnam was how utterly tragic it was to pull the trigger on an unnecessary war. Now once again we are condemned to suffer the consequences, and those consequences are not always self-evident.

For example, the U.S. military — its capabilities and its reputation so painstakingly rebuilt in the decades since Vietnam — is again falling victim to lowered standards, breakdowns in discipline and a series of atrocities that are nothing less than a betrayal of the many honorable men and women in uniform and the country they serve.

The Army has had to lower its standards because most young Americans want no part of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Recruiters, desperate to meet their quotas, are sifting for warm bodies among those who are less talented, less disciplined and, in some cases, repellent.

John Kifner reported in The Times last week about a study by a watchdog group that showed that recruiting shortfalls caused by the war in Iraq have allowed “large numbers of neo-Nazis and skinhead extremists” to infiltrate the military.

The study, by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racist groups, was titled “A Few Bad Men.” It said that recruiters and base commanders, under intense pressure to fill the thinning ranks, “often look the other way” as militant white supremacists and anti-Semites make their way into the armed forces.

The center quoted a Defense Department investigator as saying: “We’ve got Aryan Nations graffiti in Baghdad. That’s a problem.”

This comes 10 years after a Pentagon crackdown on extremist activity in the armed forces. The crackdown followed the Oklahoma City bombing, which was carried out by Timothy McVeigh, a gulf war veteran, and the murder of a black couple by skinheads in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

This is the sort of thing that happens when the military is run by power-hungry amateurs who lack the maturity and the sense of history to temper their arrogance.

It was already known that the Army had become more reluctant to release soldiers who were seriously out of shape, or pregnant, or abusing alcohol or drugs. The pressure to put somebody — anybody — in uniform also led to the lowering of standards for admission to the junior officer ranks. For example, minor criminal offenses that previously would have been prohibitive could suddenly be overlooked.

As the Abu Ghraib scandal unfolded, I wondered how such completely and obviously unfit characters as Charles Graner Jr. and Lynndie England had not previously been weeded out of the military, which had bragged for so long about how high its standards had become.

Now we’re faced with the case of American soldiers suspected of raping an Iraqi teenager and murdering her and her family. This is one of at least five cases currently being investigated in which American troops have been accused of killing unarmed civilians. Marines are suspected of slaughtering 24 Iraqis, including women and children, in the western town of Haditha last November — a case that in its horror, if not its scale, recalls the My Lai massacre of Vietnam.

Despite the administration’s repeated attempts to put the best face on Mr. Bush’s war, the predicament confronting the military is growing more, not less, dire. There are still not nearly enough American troops in Iraq to secure the country. Some troops are on their third or fourth tour of duty in the war zone, which is beyond unfair.

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the military will be not be able to maintain its current force levels in Iraq for much longer. It doesn’t take much imagination to know what happens when you stretch a rubber band too far.

The proud American military has been badly hurt by the wrecking-ball policies of the Bush administration. It deserved better.

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