Thoughts About Vietnam and Iraq

Remembering Albert Koon

My heart is troubled. I am working at home and on the wall is a rubbing from the Vietnam Memorial with the name “Albert L. Koon”. He was a friend of mine lost in Vietnam while piloting an AH-1G Cobra helicopter. We were both 22, both pilots and were members of the 1st Cavalry Division in the same unit. He was one of more than a dozen lost that year from our small air cavalry troop of about 140 young men. I think of Albert often these days. Probably because I have reached 60, raised a family and enjoyed the fruits of America. Albert did not have that opportunity.

Those days in Vietnam were often filled with fear and a yearning to be close to loved ones. We did not dwell on those thoughts often because it would have probably hastened our demise. Instead, one had to concentrate on the activities of the day, the hour and even the minute as we sought to do our best and complete the mission. We were aware of protests against the war in America and sought to erase that knowledge, because it would only serve to be a discouragement and distract one from the full concentration necessary to survive. Those that became distracted or devoted less than their full measure to tasks at hand subjected themselves and others to even greater danger. No doubt, some died from lack of commitment and an emboldened enemy.

I completed my tour of duty and subsequently taught US History in high school. I taught about the Vietnam War and remember clearly the lessons learned that I tried to inculcate in my students. We won every major battle, but lost the war. We lost because we were defeated psychologically, failed to understand the political difficulties in South Vietnam and because the American public withdrew their support. The psychological defeat caused by the Tet Offensive destroyed the resolve of America to continue. The war had taken too long and the American characteristic of desiring to “get in there, get it done and get out” had failed to materialize. Anti-war protests gained momentum, the enemy became more brazen and over 55,000 were sacrificed as the war came to a close.

General Colin Powell astutely recognized that American attribute and clearly articulated a “Go big or don’t go at all” policy. He knew as most who served in Vietnam knew. The American public is unwilling to engage in any hostility that is protracted or clouded by any ambiguity.

The judgment of the American government to use WMD as the proximate cause of war was unfortunate. They could have selected any of a variety of justifiable reasons for toppling Hussein and attempting to provide an environment for a democracy to be established in the middle east. Iraq left unchecked would clearly have provided a training ground for Islamic extremism to flourish and attacks against the west would have multiplied. Unfortunately, the corrupt government in Vietnam which led to a US withdrawal is akin to the Iraqi governments inability to adopt the measures necessary to disband sectarian militias.

Now the American public is becoming increasingly vocal in opposition to the war. It has taken too long for an impatient America. The alleged lack of WMD can be used to frame the idea that “we were deceived”. The landscape of Baghdad is fresh with images that can be captured on television to demonstrate lack of progress and many politicians that desire to remain in office have adopted the expediency of election in place of the reality of what will happen if Iraq is lost. A strong war leader that can explain and successfully rally support for US efforts in Iraq has not emerged and it is easy to say that diplomatic efforts might yield results in the face of American casualties. Sadly, diplomatic failures led us to our present position.

So American soldiers that have to confront the daily hazards of combat will once again have to attempt to ignore what is happening on the home front. It will be difficult and I pray for them daily. To say that one supports the troops, but is against the war is an inconceivable concept to anyone that has served in combat. I for one support the war and the troops. The cause is noble, necessary, honorable and right. I know that their sacrifice is for me, my family and for America as a nation.

I support any politician, leader or citizen that will step up and say that clearly without equivocation. Those that say otherwise provide aid and comfort to the enemy, create more American casualties and jeopardize our nation’s future. It is too late for a politician to mask a change of mind by cries of deception. That time passed when Congress gave the President the approval to use force. That politically familiar refrain “if I had known then, what I know now” only seems as an excuse for an uninformed vote and causes one to wonder if the politician employing such words is really capable of discerning the facts about any issue.

Albert, you gave your full measure to support America. I will join you in eternity in a few years. I pray that your sacrifice and the sacrifices of so many from the Vietnam era and those that have given life and limb in Iraq will not have been in vain. Sadly, politicians that now oppose the war have a vested interest in failure. Could they possibly spin the fact that first they supported the war, then opposed it and then celebrate in success? I fear for the soldiers that are called on to give their all in an effort that is opposed by many of the same political representatives that sent them there and then gained some wisdom after the fact. Al, we’ll talk about this some more when I get there.