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April 14, 2012
KEEPING OUT OF ANOTHER MIDEAST WAR
By James G. Abourezk
One of the most vivid memories I have of my service in the U.S. Senate was of an
early Democratic caucus. It was in January of 1973, not long after President Richard
Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, had ordered the carpet bombing of
Hanoi in an effort to strong arm the Vietnamese into surrendering. It was a
horrendous and savage attack on a nation of peasants who chose to try to expel an
army of foreigners from their land.
There was a debate in the Democratic Senate caucus about how or whether the war
should be ended. What was impressed on my mind was what was said by two of my
colleagues—Danny Inouye of Hawaii, and Missouri Sen. Stuart Symington.
Senator Inouye, who was visibly shaking as he spoke, made one of the most telling
points when he denounced the bombing as motivated by anti-Asian racism. “Had they
bombed Germany, or Norway, or some European country,” Inouye said, his deep
baritone voice quivering with anger, “there would be a great outcry in this room and
throughout the country, but the weak response tells me that to Nixon and to the press
it’s O.K. to bomb Vietnamese because they are nothing more than a bunch of ‘gooks.’”
Inouye had struck a nerve. As he spoke, I noticed a number of senators looking down
at the floor.
Danny knew of what he spoke. He gave his right arm, literally, in World War II, when
he was sent to Italy to fight the Nazis. After the war, he wound up in the Percy Jones
Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, the same hospital as a fighter pilot from
Rapid City, South Dakota. In fact, their hospital beds were next to each other. The
pilot, Tom Lehnert, was flying a P-47 fighter over Germany when he was shot down.
His plane actually was hit just below the pilot’s seat, where it started burning,
ultimately burning both of Tom’s legs. He didn’t lose his wits, however, as he flipped
the plane on its back and unhooked his safety belt, allowing him to parachute out that
way. He spent the war in a German hospital before continuing his post-war
rehabilitation alongside Danny Inouye.
During the 1973 caucus debate, Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson inveighed against
both the bombing and the war by chiding one of the pro-war senators who had
advocated all-out war against the Vietnamese, slapping him on the shoulder as he
said, “Had we listened to my friend here, I’m afraid we’d be in much worse condition
today than we are.”
But along with Danny’s words, another speech that strongly clings to my memory was
delivered by Senator Symington. Tall and distinguished, with a shock of gray hair,
Symington was one of the few senators who actually looked like a senator. His wife
had died during the previous year, an event that had deeply affected him. He rose to
speak. “I’ve had occasion,” he began, his voice heavy with emotion, “to spend a great
deal of time with my grandchildren over the recent holidays. As we watched the news
of the bombing, one of the little ones asked me, ‘Grandpa, why are we killing so many
people with our airplanes?’ I had to try to explain to him why some people thought
killing was necessary. It was an effort that forced me into deep thought about the
entire concept of the war in Vietnam. I’ve decided that I am no longer able to explain
to my grandchildren the fact that my country has now become the bully of the world.”
At that, Symington abruptly ended his speech and sat down, his emotions eluding his
self-control. He put his head in his hands and, in front of the entire gathering of U.S.
senators, sobbed unashamedly.
The United States was in Vietnam in force because our government believed that the
North Vietnamese should follow orders from us, rather than from the Communist
government of Ho Chi Minh that ruled North Vietnam.
According to Wikipedia, at the end the butcher’s bill for the Vietnam War came to
some two million South Vietnamese civilians killed, although there are various
estimates of a lesser number. And this death count includes the bill when North
Vietnam consolidated its power as the war came to an end. The number of North
Vietnamese killed during the entire war was some 1.1 million dead. One million, one
hundred thousand killed.
And the number of young American men killed came to well over 60,000. The
wounded, both those with visible wounds and those with wounds we could not see, far
exceeded this number. The new American technology used during the Vietnam War
brought back to life—but not in one piece—those who would have died in earlier wars.
In the Iraq disaster, in excess of 4,500 Americans died, and tens of thousands came
home in pieces, with arms, legs, part of their faces and skulls missing, and with
horrendous mental problems.
We have not yet been given the butcher’s bill for our misadventure in Afghanistan, but
it will be finally delivered within a couple of years.
There are estimates of several hundred thousand Iraqis who met their deaths during
our invasion and afterward. Some 1.5 million Iraqi refugees have fled to Syria and
Jordan to escape the sectarian fighting, and countless Iraqi civilians have been
maimed and wounded. When I visited Iraq in 2002 in what was a somewhat successful
effort to get the Iraqis to allow the weapons inspectors back in the country, I visited a
children’s hospital in Baghdad and saw little Iraqi children who were suffering from
cancer caused by depleted uranium ammunition that our country used on the Iraqis
during the first Gulf war. I saw a small Iraqi girl—about the same age as my own
daughter then—whose cancer caused blood to run from her mouth. Her mother sat on
her bed, trying to comfort her. I never knew whether or not she survived.
The Saddam Hussein government did allow the weapons inspectors back into Iraq,
after George W. Bush had said that failure to do so would bring an American attack.
After Iraq complied with the U.S. demand, Bush ordered the attack anyway, which to
me was solid evidence that he had planned to destroy Iraq no matter what.
Today our government is arguing with Israel as to whether or not we will support Israel’
s threatened attack on Iran. What is as certain as the sun will come up tomorrow
morning is that, no matter what our position is, if Israel attacks, America will be blamed
for it. I guess that, because we furnish money and weapons and protection in the U.N.
for Israel, such collaboration would be difficult for us to deny.
For those who make such decisions, we can only hope that our government will do
what it can to protect American interests with respect to Iran. I know it’s difficult in an
election year to say no to Israel, but we are talking here about saving American lives,
and saving our economy, which will surely go deep into the tank when crude oil prices
spike to unheard-of levels as a result of such an attack.
Even more, gasoline prices currently are shooting up to the heavens because, as the
press blandly reports, of “the tensions around Iran.” No one yet, either in the media or
in the government, has asked exactly who is creating the tensions which drive up
gasoline prices and, consequently, the prices of everything else we buy. It’s as though
we are witnessing a Grimm Fairy Tale where, although the king has no clothes on,
virtually everyone swoons because of the beautiful (invisible) robe worn by the king.
The media and the politicians are so inured to laying off criticism of Israel that no one
can bring themselves to identify what is hurting us and our economy.
And there is almost no protest here against Israel’s saber rattling about Iran. But our
government could, if it could somehow grow a pair of gonads, tell Israel outright that
both American money and American political and military support will end should it
decide to drag America into another Middle East war as it did in Iraq. It is my view that
Bibi Netanyahu would drop the question of an Iranian threat once he has to consider
the greater threat posed by the U.S. cutting off the gift of billions of dollars each year.
It’s a question of whether our elected leaders will protect Americans or Israel. Surely it’
s not too much to ask that they put their own country first.
JAMES ABOUREZK is a former U.S. Senator from South Dakota. He is the author of
Advise & Dissent: Memoirs of South Dakota and the U.S. Senate, a memoir now
available only on Amazon’s Kindle. His e mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org