What Have We (Not) Learned?

The following entry sets forth the opinions of the author alone, and is not meant to represent the views of any other member of Gesmer Updegrove LLP, the sponsor of this site

Not quite two years ago I wrote an essay called Is Iraq "Another Vietnam?". By then, it had become apparent that our military venture into the Middle East would not prove to be of as limited duration as had initially been hoped. Instead, the disturbing specter of the Viet Nam experience was beginning to rise in the public consciousness — as it should have before war was declared. And many began to ask the question: "Will Iraq be "Another Viet Nam?"

As a result, I posed the following question in the beginning of the piece:

So what does someone mean when they say that the situation in Iraq has become “another Vietnam” for America? And what, precisely, is Donald Rumsfeld denying when he emphatically states that it has not? Finally, with tomorrow being the 29th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, have we remembered anything of what we learned from our experience in Vietnam?

As the subject matter of this site is standards, I thought it might be instructive to be more empirical, and take a standards approach to the question, defining the “required elements” of the concept of “another Viet Nam,” and then assessing the Iraq experience to see whether it included each of those elements. In almost all cases, the answer was “yes.” Unhappily, today almost all would agree that the remaining elements have all been satisfied as well.

Why did I write that piece and post it in as inapposite a venue as a site dedicated to standards? The answer goes something like this.

I became politically aware in the latter half of the 1960s. As a result, my social consciousness then (and to this day) was greatly shaped by the wrenching experience of the Viet Nam war. During the years that followed, I retained an all-to-real image of the horrors of war, informed not only by the daily images and rising body count of the war in Southeast Asia, but also by the enormity of the suffering that had been experienced in scores of nations during World War II only twenty years before.

The degree of divisiveness, moral ambiguity and trauma that the Viet Nam experience brought to this country left deep scars. So deep, it seemed to me, that it would be difficult to convince anyone of a certain age, or with a sense of history, ever again of the need to invade another country absent clear and convincing proof of the greatest danger.

As a result, I will never forget the day three and a half years ago that I heard the first saber rattling emanate from the Oval Office regarding Iraq, nor the shock of realizing that the administration was already determined to bring a preemptive war against that nation.

My concern over the administration’s decision paled in comparison, however, when compared to the willingness of the majority of Americans to go to war, when the same citizens we claimed the right to liberate would bear much of the brunt of modern warfare at our hands.

And, as was the case with Viet Nam, the Iraqi people would also bear by far and away the greatest consequences if we failed. Somehow, our own fear of terrorist attacks was viewed as sufficient justification to collaterally damage the innocent victims of the same dictator that we were setting out to depose. Almost as disturbingly, there seemed to be a collective amnesia with regard to the horrors and risks of war.

It was from this perspective that I wrote the essay mentioned above. At the time, it had already become unclear whether the Iraq conflict would successfully lead to freedom and a better life for the Iraqi people, or downward, in a dark spiral into chaos. At the time, I feared that the latter would be their fate, but still hoped for the former.

Two years hence, the likelihood of a happy outcome in Iraq seems to become ever more remote with each passing day, and the semantic debate has moved from “Will Iraq be “Another Viet Nam?” to “Is Iraq now in a state of “civil war?” (I’ll leave that analysis for another day).

And there has been another change as well: the great majority of Americans now disapprove of the decision to go to war. It is ironic that what seems obvious in retrospect could have been so popular in prospect. Why? Because if the Viet Nam experience taught us anything, it is that it is far easier to declare a war than to end it, and far simpler to invade than to withdraw. In war, the last decision that is exclusively in any nation’s control is whether to declare war — or not.

With the fear in mind of just such a situation as we find ourselves in today, I ended my earlier essay with these thoughts:

We can only hope that the situation in Iraq does not set a new standard for needless, endless, fruitless tragedy, born under suspicions of deception, perpetuated out of blind conviction in our own right to remake the world, and tolerated domestically out of complacency and blind deference to authority. We have been here before. It is more than tragic that we find ourselves here again.

Disturbingly, on this third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by American forces, we are once again hearing statements from Washington that we may need to act preemptively – this time, against Iran. In light of our ongoing embroilment in Iraq, I believe that it is more imperative than ever that we pay closer attention to the cautionary experiences of the past, as well as be aware of the daily suffering that our decision to invade Iraq continues to visit upon the innocent people that we took it upon ourselves to “save.” In decisions of this nature, the Hippocratic imperative to “first of all, do no harm” rings especially true.


Is it wrong or inappropriate to express such sentiments in a business venue such as this? I acknowledge that some (my partners included) may think so. But I think that it is more inappropriate to avoid dialogue on matters such as these. The problem, I believe, is not that such a discussion happens in the wrong places, but that it does not occur everywhere and often. Is it possible to ask too frequently whether what we do is morally justifiable, and more likely to succeed than to fail?

Too often, I believe, we allow a desire to avoid confrontation and discomfort in our daily lives to excuse our failure to confront moral imperatives and the consequences of our actions. Unless we speak of such things openly, we can have no influence over what is done in our names by the governments that we elect. But we will be just as responsible for what our governments do, whether we choose to speak or to turn away.

My purpose in turning to this topic on this third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is not to tell you what to think, but to suggest that we all think today — and every day – about what we believe to be right and wrong — and about our duty as citizens to make our opinions known to those that represent us.

So whether you are a supporter or an opponent of the current war, please take a moment to examine the basis for your beliefs, and the moral foundations and assumptions that have informed those beliefs. Because truly we are a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In consequence, what is done by our government is necessarily done in our names and with our permission.

Moreover, if what is done in our names is not just, then the future may not prove to be the type of place in which we would wish to live.

And after all is said and done, who will be entitled to say that we deserve any bettter?