Shortly after I returned from the war in Vietnam, I was invited to speak to a small church-sponsored audience about my experiences, as well as my opposition to the war. I had been a conscientious objector and had served as an Army medic in Vietnam. After my talk, a man who identified himself as a World War II veteran, approached me. He said that he had come to raise objections to my position, but had decided not to. Although he still did not agree with me, he said that he respected the consistency of my position. In response to his question, “What will happen if we leave South Vietnam?” I had answered that I fully expected the North Vietnamese to conquer the country. I added that I was opposed to the communist regime, and believed that the Vietnamese people would be better off with a democratically elected government. However, I did not believe that we could win the war we were fighting. Moreover, we were not creating a free and democratic society in South Vietnam, which would have been the only justification for the harm we were causing to millions of Vietnamese, as well as to tens of thousands of American soldiers. In my view, withdrawing American troops from Vietnam was a painful decision, but a simple one.
The current war in Iraq is often compared to the war in Vietnam. However it is not Vietnam—it is Yugoslavia. Saddam Hussein used force and terror to unify the many ethnic and religious factions that comprise Iraq, much as Tito did in Yugoslavia. Removing Saddam Hussein had much the same effect as the death of Tito. It created a political situation that caused the many religious, ethnic and geographic groups that make up Iraq to begin to compete for control.
As in the former Yugoslavia, the motivations are varied. The Shiite majority see the current situation as an opportunity to regain the power they lost under the previous regime. The Sunnis are struggling politically and militarily to protect themselves from anticipated oppression by the Shiite majority. The Kurds are struggling to overcome decades of oppression by the Arab majority. Many individuals, groups and communities see the absence of a strong central government as an opportunity to get even for past abuses. Finally, the chaotic political and security situation has attracted Muslim extremists from all over the world who are motivated by a desire to impose their particular brands of religion and politics on the people of Iraq. This is a complex problem.
The difficulty with a complex problem is that it is not amenable to a straightforward stay-or-leave solution. The history of the former Yugoslavia is an example of the terrible consequences of inter-community conflict arising from ancient and contemporary religious, ethnic and geographical rivalries. Sen. John Kerry’s “nuanced position” on the war in Iraq during last year’s presidential election, as well as the current unwillingness of most Democratic representatives and senators to support an immediate withdrawal, is a reflection of that complexity. By invading Iraq, we have created a problem with no simple solutions. If we stay in Iraq, the violence and instability are likely to continue at present levels well into the future. If we leave, the violence and instability will not end, and they are likely to increase.
The Republican majority is equally burdened by the complexity of the problem. In planning for the war, the administration chose not to answer critical questions outlined in the Powell Doctrine that explicitly address the issue of complexity: 1) Do we have a clear attainable objective? 2) Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed? 3) Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement? 4) Have the consequences of our action been fully considered? As a result, Republicans are faced with the political necessity of justifying our “endless entanglement,” even though a successful outcome would have been much easier to justify and much more beneficial to the interests of Republican representatives and senators.
The war in Iraq has resulted in, among other things, political polarization in American politics. We find ourselves taking up simplistic political positions and engaging in aggressive criticism of those with whom we disagree. Those who question continuing the present course, as well as those who insist on continuing it, are viewed as insincere political opportunists by their political opponents.
We are faced with the challenge of solving a complex problem that requires subtlety, critical thinking and dialogue. Neither a precipitous, unilateral withdrawal from the war, nor staying on our present course is likely to bring about a peaceful, free and happy Iraq within the next few years. It is possible that no course of action taken by the United States will lead to that outcome. However, we are there, and as a society, we are responsible for our actions. It is time to begin talking about this complex problem in a way that will increase our chances of getting it right, and will minimize the harm we cause for the people of Iraq and our own service men and women.
El Cerrito resident Ken Stanton works in Berkeley as a registered nurse.