Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2003 / 19 Adar I, 5763

The immorality of losing

By Hillel Halkin

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | An old friend in New York with whom we are still in contact after 33 years of living in Israel told my wife over the phone last week about the antiwar demonstration she had just marched in.

"It was like the Sixties," she said excitedly. "Remember?"

Of course we remembered. We had marched side-by-side with her and her first husband in a candlelight parade in Manhattan. "All we are saying/ is give peace a chance," we sang, linking arms as we walked up Broadway to protest the war in Vietnam.

And now I am angry at her for being against an American attack on Iraq, and she is bewildered by my anger. Both of us, on some level, feel betrayed. I suppose she has the better case. After all, it's I who switched sides. It's I, too, who am no longer the American.

And of course this has something to do with it. When I was one, I looked out at the world from its center. Vietnam was on the periphery and did not seem a place worth getting killed in or killing anyone for. Today I live on the periphery myself, in a small and vulnerable country faced with numerically superior enemies.

For the moment, I'm quite able to defend myself. But I can do so only because of generous American aid, and I'm quite aware that if ever the day comes when this too is not enough, the only nation in the world that would even consider coming to my rescue is America - the same America that sought to rescue South Vietnam, and failed.

Which is part of the reason I see that failure differently today. At the time I thought, like many Americans, that America deserved to fail in Vietnam. It had barged, arrogantly and stupidly, into a country it had no business being in, and it had caused that country's inhabitants enormous suffering by doing so.

The North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies in South Vietnam may have been communists, but they were also freedom fighters trying to rid their homeland of foreign invaders. I sympathized with them. I was glad when America lost, and something in me exulted even at the pathetic pictures of its panicky evacuation of Saigon. The weak had vanquished the strong, who had been taught a terrible and well-earned lesson in the abuse of power.

This is still the way many Americans think of the war in Vietnam. Would I be one of them had I not moved to Israel in 1970? A meaningless question, perhaps, like all such hypotheticals --- yet I would like to think that the answer is no.

I didn't have to move to Israel to outgrow my left-wing sympathies, nor to acknowledge the brutal nature of the North Vietnamese regime that took over South Vietnam, from which hundreds of thousands of "boat people" risked (and often lost) their lives fleeing; or the genocidal barbarism of its Khmer Rouge ally in Cambodia, which perpetrated an Asian Holocaust on its own people.

And I could have remained in America and realized that wherever in the world democratic, pro-American countries were compared with totalitarian, anti-American ones - South and North Korea, for example - the comparison was between prosperity and freedom on the one hand, and poverty, degradation and fear on the other.

There was nothing intrinsically wrong about the American intervention in Vietnam. It was a terrible war and the American conduct of it was often reprehensible. And yet had America won, not only would the peoples of Indochina have been far better off, the world would have been a safer place.

It might have been a world, for example, in which the Soviets thought twice about invading Afghanistan a few years later, thus setting off a chain of events that ended with the Taliban in power.

The perspective of Israel is hardly necessary to grasp this, even if it does help one to imagine more clearly how many South Vietnamese must have felt toward America in the 1960s: grateful that it cared about them, insecure about its ultimate intentions, and fearful of being cruelly abandoned by it - as indeed they eventually were.

It was not fighting the war in Vietnam that was immoral. It was losing it. Or rather, it was immoral to fight it if there was reason to believe it could not be won.

Perhaps, given the situation in Vietnam in those years, in which a series of weak and corrupt governments in Saigon could not rally the support of their own people, this was indeed the case. But Americans like me who did not make the distinction between a war that deserved to be fought if it was winnable and a war that did not deserve to be fought at all helped, by their protests, to make it unwinnable.

Those who still do not make this distinction are now marching blindly against a war in Iraq.

If anyone has failed to learn the lesson of Vietnam, it is they. Nothing could be more justified than overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein, destroying all weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and helping the Iraqi people lead a better life that might be a model for others in the Middle East. The only thing unjustified about an attack on Iraq would be its failure to meet these goals.

If there is reasonable room for doubt that America, for whatever reason, will be unable to stay the course, as it was unable to stay it in Vietnam, it would indeed be terribly wrong to begin it, for lives will have been lost for no good reason.

But America's ability to stay the course will be influenced by many things, among them support for staying it in both America and the world.

If the American public decides that its government is pursuing a wrong-headed and overly costly policy in which Europe refuses to join as a partner while sniping from the sidelines, the chances of this policy's success will be smaller, and those of America leaving before the job is done will be larger.

The result might then be an Iraq freed of Saddam, but still run by thuggish generals or Islamist extremists who would rearm at the first opportunity.

A war that ended this way would not have been a war worth fighting. It would indeed have been immoral --- and the immoralists would include, paradoxically, the very people who are now marching against it.

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JWR contributor Hillel Halkin is an Israel-based translator and author, most recently of "Across the Sabbath River: In Search of a Lost Tribe of Israel." (Sales help fund JWR.) Comment by clicking here.


12/17/03: You don't have to be Orthodox to cherish the Sabbath

© 2003, Hillel Halkin