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Issue Date:  May 6, 2005

Lessons in the limits of force

Two anniversaries -- the end of the war in Vietnam and the revelation of prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, Iraq -- collided in April. They should serve to remind us that military adventures rarely go according to plan and that in carrying out those misadventures we often become the evil we say we’re fighting.

Thirty years ago, the United States was forced to flee Vietnam after 10 years and between 2 million and 3 million Vietnamese deaths and the loss of 58,000 American lives. We lost the war, and we lost a lot more of our soul back home. It was a conflict built on lies and misconceptions, justifications for which were fed to the American public long after its leaders had abandoned hope for victory and any conviction about its right purpose.

If there was a period when America shed its hubris and soberly considered the shortcomings of the use of overwhelming violence to solve international problems, it ended quickly with the nagging sense that we needed to dispel the awful truth of Vietnam by proving we could win a war.

The United States prevailed in several lopsided dustups in places like Panama and Grenada, but the war that was going to dispel the specter of Vietnam forever, of course, was the first Gulf War, the one that began in 1991 and has continued in some manner to this day. While the country rained confetti on the victory parade in New York some 15 years ago, the bombers kept bombing for 10 years in the north and south of Iraq. The sanctions killed, mostly the young, for seven of those years, and then the United States decided once more to show its unparalleled superiority as the lone, post-Cold War superpower, by toppling the regime that had been bombed and sanctioned and defeated.

Iraq is a conflict that was based on deception -- about weapons of mass destruction, about Saddam Hussein’s ability to threaten us, and on the deceptive claims today that this was not, in its original reasoning, about retaining access to the region’s oil supply.

In the years since the first Gulf War, the conflict in Iraq has been spun into a human rights campaign even as the millions being starved and slaughtered in other parts of the world have little hope of intervention from the United States or elsewhere. Iraq is being spun as the first beachhead from which Jeffersonian democracy will spread throughout the Middle East even as we wait nervously to see if the new democratic experiment in Iraq itself will devolve into a severe theocracy -- Saddam Hussein in another guise.

Amid the geopolitical nightmare, we contend with the awful abuse at Abu Ghraib, where prisoners were tortured, sexually humiliated and even killed by out-of-control U.S. forces and interrogators.

We have sacrificed a great deal of credibility in the world on the altar of our ambition in Iraq, and we’ve done nothing to restore it and much to continue diminishing it with the recent report of a high-level Army investigation of Abu Ghraib abuse that cleared all the top officers and went after those far lower on the military ladder. The American public, meanwhile, is supposed to believe that there was nothing systemic about the abuse when it also is learning that similar tactics were used at Guantánamo; that the White House had earlier signed off on revisions that increased the threshold on what constitutes torture; and that the government is shuttling prisoners, who have no access to attorneys or due process, to other countries where they stand a good chance of being tortured.

We are learning once again the limits of overwhelming force. A country that had been devastated for more than a decade and was able to offer only minimal resistance to an invasion, now has U.S. forces bogged down, wondering about their mission and uncertain, as violence continues to upend attempts at democracy, when the conflict will end.

The world’s lone superpower would do well to contemplate two disturbing anniversaries.

National Catholic Reporter, May 6, 2005

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