Smith: War! What is it good for?

Smith: War! What is it good for?

November 29th, 2013 by By Roger Smith in Opinion Columns

Soul singer Edwin Starr sang those words in his 1970 No. 1 hit, "War". The lyrics came floating back through my memory today as I watched a movie our daughter Ginny made while touring Central Vietnam near the old U.S. Da Nang Air Base. Her work took her there, and she thought her mother and I would like to see how Vietnam looks today -- very much like it did when we watched reports by Peter Jennings and Dan Rather on the evening news nearly 50 years ago: rice paddies, lush jungle, bamboo huts, farmers in triangular straw hats, and Buddhist temples.

As I watched, I couldn't help think of the 56,000 young Americans who lost their lives there, and the negative, divisive impact the Vietnam War had on America ... for what? A lot of bad stuff happened in the now peaceful country Ginny filmed -- Huey helicopters landed troops in the middle of horrific fire-fights, Air Force F-4s dropped napalm bombs that incinerated acres of jungle (and people), and our Marines trudged through those rice paddies, pulling leeches off their skin and nervously looking about for snipers and mines.

We justified it then as an idealistic attempt to save those poor people from communism. Maybe it made a difference in some of their lives, like the lady she filmed running a cloth manufacturing business in her home. Maybe her children will grow up like our forefathers to appreciate private enterprise, hard work, thrift, and freedom -- maybe. But, under the passive large eyes of cold, silent Buddha statues, representing a faith big on life lessons, but little on hope for real change, I'm not optimistic.

As a career Air Force fighter pilot and now an author who has reflected and written a lot about war, it's very sad to me that, nearly 50 years later, all that effort seems to account for so little. Was it all about majors becoming colonels and colonels becoming generals, foreign service officers becoming ambassadors, liberal state politicians becoming U.S. senators, little known anti-war singers becoming rock stars, little companies becoming international arms dealers, and big companies like Dow Chemical making millions peddling little known or tested products like Agent Orange? The war benefited a lot of folks, but not the Vietnamese who were supposed to be the benefactors.

Following the Vietnam debacle, our national command authorities studied and corrected many mistakes. We vowed never to commit American troops to a war that did not have clearly defined objectives supported by the American people. In the first Persian Gulf War, President Bush's administration adhered to this policy, and "the tide of patriotism ran high." In the second war President George W. Bush failed to gain the needed political support, and Democratic candidate Barack Obama took full advantage, arguing that the more important focus should be Afghanistan, not Iraq. While he scored political points distinguishing himself from the Bush Administration, his naive proposal and illusive strategy ignored the lessons of history. Afghanistan is a collection of disjointed tribes that lacks a cohesive political or cultural framework. Additionally, the geography presents ominous obstacles to military operations, much like Vietnam. Any lieutenant in the U.S. military understands this; unfortunately, our Commander-in-Chief did not, and our country suffers disgrace as Obama now tries to back-peddle from his imbroglio.

The brilliant strategist Karl von Clausewitz wrote, "War is an extension of politics by another means." This means we as a public must hold politicians accountable for needlessly spilling the blood of our young men and women. If we have the faith and hope of our Founding Fathers, we can get this great country back on track. We can elect politicians committed to a bigger cause than themselves. That opportunity is a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Roger Smith lives in Soddy-Daisy and is the author of the book "American Spirit."