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Thursday, June 8, 2006 | The destruction of Iraq will go down as the greatest moral crime in U.S. history, and historians are certain to ask why Americans remained so indifferent to it.
Two-thirds of the nation now opposes the war, but as the violence in Iraq increases and Americans are implicated in more atrocities, what are we doing about it? Aside from a small group of protesters symbolized nationally by Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son in Iraq – and represented in San Diego by the Coalition for Peace and Justice – the nation sits on its hands. And most of our politicians, of both parties, do the same.
The nation’s prestige and honor are under assault while it sleeps. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib are followed now by Haditha, where 24 Iraqi civilians, including women, children and grandparents, were allegedly murdered in their homes by U.S. Marines. As Iraq disintegrates into bloody chaos and anarchy, Americans at home go about their business, aware of the hell we’ve created and trying to forget it.
It is the national equivalent of the murder of Kitty Genovese 40 years ago, when 35 people stood by watching as a young woman, screaming for help, was killed on the streets of Kew Gardens, NY. The Genovese case gave rise to a phenomenon known as the “bystander effect,” in which fear freezes people into inaction despite having the means to act. With the movie “United 93” making the point that Americans can be galvanized into action with their own lives at stake, why refuse to help others? The former is self-preservation, mere instinct. The latter is heroism.
A few years after the Genovese murder, the nation faced a moment of truth. By early 1968, the anti-Vietnam War movement had grown so strong that President Johnson announced he would not run again. Two candidates, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, hoisted the anti-war banner. When Kennedy, like his brother, was murdered, the nation elected Richard Nixon, who had a plan, he said, for ending the Vietnam War.
What makes Iraq a greater moral crime than Vietnam is that the nation did not sleep through Vietnam. By 1968, that war permeated all aspects of American society – homes, schools, cities. It changed our politics, diplomacy, security and culture. The Vietnam effect spread around the world, setting off riots, demonstrations and terrorism.
The nation reversed course in Vietnam and promised never to make the same mistake. A generation of soldiers, led by Colin Powell, vowed never again to stand by in silent witness as politicians led the nation into military folly. Nixon even wrote a book about it, “No More Vietnams,” in which, preposterously, he claimed we won the war.
It’s wrong, some say, to equate Iraq and Vietnam. Look at the body count, they say: some 58,000 Americans killed in Vietnam over 12 years compared with 2,500 Americans killed in Iraq over three years.
Statistics fail to address the morality of the issue. As with Johnson’s war, the nation supported Bush’s war in the beginning. The difference is that we moved to end Johnson’s war when we understood the evil and futility of it. We have done little more with Bush’s war than try to forget it. The local newspaper sent it to the back pages.
The polls show public support for Bush’s war at 75 percent when it started, not dropping permanently below 50 percent until early 2004. Since then, support has declined steadily, to a low of 32 percent last month. When the nation turned against Johnson’s war in 1968, it forced him from office. When the nation turned against Bush’s war in 2004, it re-elected him.
Why don’t Americans care more about the destruction of Iraq and the blackening of our name? Should we ignore the atrocities simply because the dead and maimed are mostly Iraqis? The moral issue is clear: We are responsible not only for the civilians we murder in places like Haditha, but for the thousands of Iraqis murdered each month by other Iraqis. We broke it, we own it, as Powell said. It is our war. We are stuck.
The obvious explanation for the change in public attitudes from Vietnam to Iraq is the absence of a draft, yet it’s not quite that simple.
World War II proved Americans would support conscription in a good cause; Vietnam proved we won’t support it in a bad one. By eliminating the draft, we have enabled presidents like Bush – ambitious, poorly advised, ignorant of history – to take us into bad wars like Iraq. By re-electing Bush even after he had lied us into war (see the Downing Street memo), we absolved him of accountability.
If the some 2,500 American soldiers killed in Iraq so far had been drafted, it’s likely Americans would be paying more attention to Bush’s misbegotten war. In Vietnam, anyone could be called to combat, famous or unknown, rich or poor. Parents were worried. Johnson’s war was fought with everybody’s children.
For Iraq, only enlistees are sent, and enlistees mostly come from modest backgrounds. The children of Bush’s wealthy “Pioneer” supporters are nowhere near Iraq. Bush’s war is fought with other people’s children.
It’s not young people who mostly oppose bad wars, it’s their parents. Support for the Vietnam War was always highest among Americans under 30 and always lowest among those over 50, their parents. In April, 1968, two months after North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive turned the tide of war toward Hanoi, 54 percent of Americans under 30 – those vulnerable to the draft – still supported the war, compared with just 31 percent of Americans over 50.
It’s the parents who hold the power, both political and financial, to force an end to a bad war. The great American tragedy in Iraq is that politically and financially powerful parents have no children in Bush’s war, and thus have no interest in it beyond grousing about it at the club. The immorality of the bystander effect has gone national. In Iraq, as in Vietnam, we are the enemy, and no solution will be found until we are gone.
James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Submit a letter to the editor here.