Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Iraq and Vietnam

Nearly 6 years ago, I shared these thoughts as part of a panel discussion at The New School university in New York City, on May 10, 2007... Much of it still applies as Americans mark the 10th anniversary of invading Iraq.

They are two different countries in different parts of the world. What unites Iraq and Vietnam are American attitudes and actions. After supporting the disastrous military campaign in Vietnam, a majority of Americans did the same thing all over again and supported invading Iraq. Indeed, the war in Iraq was a continuation of the bitter battles here at home over Vietnam.

As my friend, and fellow Vietnam vet, Ken Campbell, wryly notes in his new book—A Tale of Two Quagmires: Iraq, Vietnam, and the Hard Lessons of War—“Some have said we failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam. This is not quite true. The United States did, in fact, learn lessons from Vietnam. The problem is we learned too many lessons, and they frequently contradict each other.”

Perhaps the most disturbing lesson of all is that Americans are addicted to war. Even in the current climate of public dismay over what’s happening in Iraq, there is no civic groundswell to wage a diplomatic campaign to resolve issues that inflame the Middle East. Despite the horrendous carnage in Vietnam and its bloody sequel in Iraq, Americans are still primed to wage war against somebody. So much so, that an unusual coalition of retired generals, admirals and ambassadors has felt compelled to issue public warnings about the consequences of military action against Iran.

Is anybody listening to these voices of experience? Previously, a number of high ranking retired military leaders, vowing to never repeat their experience in Vietnam, publicly warned against invading Iraq—and were ignored by Congress, the Bush administration, the news media and the American people.       

And now some of the fiercest critics of the war in Iraq are soldiers who fought there.

“Americans generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq,” a two-tour veteran of Iraq, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, recently wrote in the Armed Forces Journal. “No one leader, civilian or military, caused failure in Vietnam or Iraq. Different military and civilian leaders in the two conflicts produced similar results,” he concluded in a devastating critique of the war he fought in. His proposed solution: choose better trained military leaders. Other veterans are calling for a reexamination of America’s fixation with finding military solutions to international disputes and ideological differences.

The Vietnam war, as the late great New York Times reporter David Halberstam insightfully noted, was a product of America’s “best and brightest” military and strategic shakers and doers. After Vietnam, the US military reorganized, retrained and redeployed its best units and commanders—and came up with the war in Iraq. Consequently, many veterans of Vietnam and Iraq are seeking a different strategy. 

A grassroots perspective that challenged the war policy was drafted by a group of Vietnam veterans who opposed the invasion of Iraq and issued a statement in spring 2003 signed by thousands of veterans, from World War II to the first Gulf War. Based on experience, these veterans said “we do not believe that the American military can or should be used as the police force of the world by any administration, Republican or Democrat. Consequently, we believe that the lives and well being of our nation's soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines should not be squandered or sacrificed for causes other than in the direct defense of our people and nation.”

A year later, as the first wave of invasion troops came home, a new organization was formed—Iraq Veterans Against the War. The group modeled itself on Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The sobering legacy of Vietnam and Iraq, these veterans hope, will be a transformation in America’s involvement in the world, from sending military expeditionary forces blundering blindly into other people’s homelands to true international cooperation and security.

Retired general William Odom, a Vietnam veteran and former head of the National Security Agency, tried to explain this call by veterans and others for a different course of action in a recent radio address:

"The challenge we face today is not how to win in Iraq; it is how to recover from a strategic mistake: invading Iraq in the first place,” Odom said. “The war could never have served American interests. But it has served Iran's interest by revenging Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in the 1980s and enhancing Iran's influence within Iraq. It has also served al Qaeda's interests, providing a much better training ground than did Afghanistan…. We cannot 'win' a war that serves our enemies interests and not our own. Thus continuing to pursue the illusion of victory in Iraq makes no sense.…

“No effective new strategy can be devised for the United States until it begins withdrawing its forces from Iraq.... Withdrawal is the pre-condition for winning support from countries in Europe that have stood aside and other major powers including India, China, Japan, Russia. It will also shock and change attitudes in Iran, Syria, and other countries on Iraq's borders, making them far more likely to take seriously new U.S. approaches, not just to Iraq, but to restoring regional stability and heading off the spreading chaos that our war has caused.”

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Teaching (and Learning) in Vietnam

Three decades after the end of the Vietnam War, Americans are welcome visitors and even classroom teachers in Vietnam.

Before launching a career as a teacher in Texas, John Davin, a native of Rockland County, NY, decided to broaden his experience by teaching in Vietnam for a year. Armed with a degree in English from Hunter College and a master’s in education from Long Island University, he ventured into the Southeast Asian nation that repelled a US military invasion—and then embraced Americans on peaceful pursuits. 
Amid his teaching stint at Da Lat University in the Central Highlands, Davin had these thoughts on his experience: 

“I imagine that we are building bridges here. I occasionally feel that, because of the lack of Americans here, we are small ambassadors for our nation. I imagine that we are dispelling some negative stereotypes about Americans, and also reinforcing some positive ones,” he wrote in a blog post.

Vietnam is rapidly changing and growing in its infrastructure,” he added in another blog post. “They are steadily modernizing and becoming an economic power in Southeast Asia, all the while reestablishing its cultural identity beyond the Vietnam War. It puts your work in a different perspective when you realize you are contributing to the economic and cultural revival of a nation.

Returning to Her Native Land to Teach

Iris Nguyen decided to return to the nation that her family fled from due to the bitter upheavals of what for many Vietnamese was a civil war. With a B.A. in political science from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she is teaching courses in conversational English at An Giang University in the Mekong Delta. 

“Before I left to teach here, my family and friends had concerns about what kinds of food I would eat, and how I would deal with mosquitoes, the currency, and the language barrier,” she wrote to her sponsoring organization, Teachers for Vietnam. “What concerned me was whether or not my students would understand me, would I get the time to get to know my students and vice versa, whether or not I would be a good teacher, and most importantly, would I connect with my heritage and culture on another level than what I had experienced before. So far, I can safely say that I have managed to accomplish most of those things on my invisible checklist.”

Teachers for Vietnam, a small nonprofit organization based in Piermont, NY, sponsors newly minted college grads as well as experienced, older adults as teachers of English at universities in Vietnam. The program provides travel stipends and health insurance, which supplement salaries that cover living costs and housing provided by the host institutions.

The program was founded in 2006 by John Dippel, an historian and author who served in the US Army during the Vietnam War, with a focus on providing Americans to assist Vietnamese college students in honing language skills important to expanding their country’s tourism and international trade relations.

Memorable Encounters in Former War Zones

As a member of the board of directors of Teachers for Vietnam, I’ve heard and read about many memorable interactions of people from both sides of our previously warring nations. Davin, a US Navy vet, felt adopted by Vietnamese in Da Lat. Many others felt adopted by their students, families and communities.

“Part of the mission of Teachers for Vietnam (www.teachersforvietnam.org) is to bring native, American speakers, usually recent college graduates like myself, to the English department of Can Tho University,” Kelly Fitzgerald, a graduate of the University at Albany, State University of New York, wrote in a blog post. “We are supposed to share our culture, customs and linguistic knowledge with our students. They love English class – are surprisingly but refreshingly enthusiastic about it here, even though they are reluctant to actually speak it! I even have students who aren’t enrolled in the course who come sit down just to watch me teach.”

Fitzgerald wrote that she wasn’t enthralled with the heat, humidity and hordes of mosquitoes in the Mekong Delta city, nor with the university’s communist-legacy bureaucracy. But she loved the people she met in Can Tho.  

 “… it’s impossible to get frustrated with my students for long, as the ear-to-ear grin I get from every single one of them upon entering class every day is so humbling that I almost feel I’m not worth it. They invite me to dinner with their families, they offer me rides home on their motorbikes when it’s raining and they always tell me that I’m pretty, no matter how awful I might be looking that day. They are undoubtedly the best pupils that a first-year teacher could ever ask for,” she added.

Thinking about doing such an adventuresome experience? Teachers for Vietnam is currently accepting applications for the 2013-2014 academic year.

Apply (by April 1) to:
P.O. Box 384 Piermont NY 10968 info@teachersforvietnam.org

For application form and further information:  teachersforvietnam.org/