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A Ghost from Vietnam Speaks


(guest post by Taylor Marsh)

Melvin R. Laird has co-authored the most bizarre editorial, along with Robert E. Pursley, today. The gentlemen ask the question: Why are they speaking out now? Of course, they are talking about the generals. And, of course, this editorial would find a place in the Washington Post. In the Vietnam era, there was Robert McNamara as SecDef, then Clark Clifford, then Laird. Pursley is a retired lieutenant general in the Air Force, and a former assistant to three secretaries of defense.

Laird has a lot to answer for on Vietnam, even though he inherited one hell of a mess. Maybe that’s why he relates to Donald Rumsfeld; feeling like coming to a fellow SecDef’s aid is the right thing to do, especially when the soldiers, generals, start firing. Of course, you also have to understand that Laird still believes we should have poured more money into Vietnam, because he thinks, in the end, the South Vietnamese could have won the day. Right. Again, he’s got a lot in common with Secretary Rumsfeld.

The ghost of Vietnam may be whispering to these retired generals, who understandably want to guarantee that military wisdom is never again trampled by political expediency. They make their point by implying that Rumsfeld has run amok and does not listen to his admirals and generals. Yet recently retired Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Richard Myers and his successor, Gen. Peter Pace (from the Air Force and Marine Corps, respectively), have rebutted the argument that the military was sidelined. Myers and Pace are in a position to know. …

… … In criticizing those with the broader view, they should be mindful of the risks and responsibilities inherent in their acts. The average U.S. citizen has high respect for the U.S. military. That respect is a valuable national security asset. Criticism, when carried too far, risks eroding it.

We do not advocate a silencing of debate on the war in Iraq. But care must be taken by those experienced officers who had their chance to speak up while on active duty. In speaking out now, they may think they are doing a service by adding to the reasoned debate. But the enemy does not understand or appreciate reasoned public debate. It is perceived as a sign of weakness and lack of resolve.

Why Are They Speaking Up Now? – by Melvin R. Laird and Robert E. Pursley

By all means, let’s not rock the boat and try to exert a change of course, because the enemy is listening and watching. You don’t think they know it’s going badly in Iraq? Besides, this isn’t the tune Laird was singing just four months ago.

Back in the November/December 2005 issue of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Laird was lamenting quite a different tale. Talking about how Donald Rumsfeld, his friend of over 40 years, needed to pay more deference to Congress. This is part of what Laird wrote just months ago.

Donald Rumsfeld has been my friend for more than 40 years. Gerald Ford and I went to Evanston to support him in his first congressional race, and I urged President Bush to appoint him secretary of defense. But his overconfident and self-assured style on every issue, while initially endearing him to the media, did not play well with Congress during his first term. My friends in Congress tell me Rumsfeld has modified his style of late, wisely becoming more collegial. Several secretaries during my service on the Appropriations Committee, running all the way from the tenure of Charlie Wilson to that of Clark Clifford, made the mistake of thinking they must appear much smarter than the elected officials to whom they reported. It doesn’t always work.

If Rumsfeld wants something from those who are elected to make decisions for the American people, then he must continue to show more deference to Congress. To do otherwise will endanger public support and the funding stream for the Iraq war and its future requirements. A sour relationship on Capitol Hill could doom the whole effort. The importance of this solidarity between Congress and the administration did not escape Saddam Hussein, nor has it escaped the insurgents. In the days leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, television stations there showed 1975 footage of U.S. embassy support personnel escaping to helicopters from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon. It was Saddam’s message to his people that the United States does not keep its commitments and that we are only as good as the word of our current president. We failed to deliver the logistical support to our allies in South Vietnam during the post-Watergate period because of a breakdown of leadership in Washington. The failure of one administration to keep the promises of another had a devastating effect on the North-South negotiations.

Iraq: Learning the Lessons of Vietnam, by Melvin R. Laird

"Iraq: Learning the lessons of Vietnam" coming just months before "Why are they speaking out now?" is quite a juxtaposition, especially given what we’re facing right now in Iraq. We obviously haven’t learned the lessons of Vietnam, which is one of the reasons the generals are speaking out now. Maybe Laird will remember what happened to General Shinseki for speaking out. The irony opening out from Laird’s two pieces is thick. That it’s Melvin Laird who co-authored the criticism of the generals today, after writing his own piece criticizing and warning Donald Rumsfeld to change his style or pay the price, is obviously one for the memory hole.

After being ignored, Laird is getting nervous. Join the crowd. He sees the ghost of a very bad war coming back to haunt the present. Previous warnings to his pal Rummy having gone unheeded, now opening out on to a plea to back the boss because things are going from bad to worse in Iraq. Laird doesn’t want to see another Vietnam. The U.S. once again pulling back from Iraq, like was done in the bad old days he remembers so well.

However, Mr. Laird needs to take another moment to think about the piece he wrote in Foreign Affairs, pondering an important point. If Donald Rumsfeld had taken his advice in November, would the generals have had to speak out at all? If they’d listened to Shinseki in the first place, would the generals have waited so long?

Bush and Rumsfeld’s stubborn weakness to "stay the course," at a time when pride is too high a price to pay for the crisis that begs for a change in strategy, is just one reason why Melvin R. Laird’s Washington Post editorial rings so falsely today.

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Taylor Marsh

Taylor Marsh

Taylor is a political commentator and radio personality who has been interviewed by C-SPAN's Washington Journal and all across TV and right-wing radio. She's been on the web for 10 years, going to blogging in late 2005. Taylor is affiliated with The Patriot Project, writes for Huffington Post, as well as Alternet. Her radio show debuted in 2002, which she now brings to her blog Mon-Thur, 6:00 p.m. Eastern or 3:00 p.m. Pacific. One of her passions is painting and creating political art. The graphic at the top of her blog is taken from the expressionist flag art that hangs in her home. She was born in Missouri, and has lived in New York City, Los Angeles and Las Vegas and some points in between.