The Bush administration has gone to that Last Refuge of the Desperate in its defense of its bellicose policies: it has invoked The Hitler Comparison in addressing the American Legion's national convention this week in Salt Lake City. Donald Rumsfeld did it:
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday that critics of the war in Iraq and the campaign against terror groups "seem not to have learned history’s lessons," and he alluded to those in the 1930’s who advocated appeasing Nazi Germany.King George himself did it:
Judging by the applause, Bush's message that the fight against Islamic radicals is akin to the battle against the Nazis and Soviet communists resonated with the legionnaires.
The thing is that Mr Rumsfeld is right that we must learn history's lessons. But the lesson we needed to have learned was taught not in the 1930s and World War II, but 30 years later in Vietnam. Then, as now, we put ourselves into the middle of a war we didn't belong in. One difference is that this time we started it, and in that regard the Bush administration has set itself up to teach a new historical lesson to future generations. Then, as now, much of the battle was waged with a shadowy attacker — one might as well suspect a child or an old man, as someone who looked like a soldier. Then, as now, we were stuck in a hopeless situation, one where we could neither win nor leave. We eventually did leave, then, and it was clearly the right thing to do. The Vietnamese themselves rebuilt and stabilized their country, which is something we could never have hoped to do.
We should have learned this 30 years ago, and it should have kept us out of Iraq. George Bush should have learned it despite his having taken the trouble and pulled the strings to avoid service in Vietnam. Given that he didn't, and that we are in Iraq, there are still lessons to be taken from our history in Vietnam, about how to proceed from here. Consider My Lai. Consider the "secret" bombings of Cambodia. Consider the evacuation of Saigon. Consider those before it's too late to keep comparable things from happening again — we've already started down that path, but we can change the outcome if we act now.
If we continue with the Bush administration's policies, though, we have no hope but to repeat the history we should have learned from. Iraq will survive, surely, as Vietnam did. When we eventually must leave, they will rebuild, repair, and stabilize, though we'll have delayed that by who knows how many years. We will survive too, but what will we look like when we emerge, a failed world bully, bruised and battered and with no respect nor compassion from the rest of the world?