Stuck in the '60s

"You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq."

Those two sentences, spoken by John Kerry last week, tell a lot about the mindset of many — not all, but many — Democrats who supported him for president in 2004 and who, as this is written, are looking forward to Democratic victories this week. One thing they tell us is that Kerry’s mindset is still back in the Vietnam era.

Today, the statement is literally untrue: No one is "stuck in Iraq" unless he or she volunteers, and the educational and economic levels of our military personnel are higher than those of civilians in the same age cohort. Kerry was evidently thinking back to the late 1960s, when there was a military draft and a college dropout could find himself drafted and "stuck" in Vietnam.

Kerry’s explanation for his bizarre refusal to apologize for two days and then his grudging off-camera apology was that he was trying to make a joke about the stupidity of George W. Bush (even though Kerry’s grades at Yale were slightly lower than Bush’s). But his words were not wholly out of line with previous statements by him and other Democrats characterizing American troops as perpetrators rather than heroes.

There was Kerry’s 1971 "Genghis Khan" testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as his December 2005 statement that troops were "terrorizing" women and children. Sen. Dick Durbin likened American service members to Nazi storm troopers and the Khmer Rouge, and Sen. Edward Kennedy suggested that Abu Ghraib under our "new management" was comparable to Saddam Hussein’s regime of torture and murder.

Behind all these statements is an unspoken assumption that American service members are incompetent and vicious.

It’s unusual in American history for a conflict to be seen by a substantial part of the political class through the lens of an earlier war. Yet many Democrats view Iraq through the lens of Vietnam — or their version of it.

Now, as then, they want to see American withdrawal even if that means defeat. Yet Iraq is plainly not Vietnam. There were more than 20 times as many American deaths in Vietnam as there have been in Iraq. And withdrawal from Iraq would be vastly more dangerous than withdrawal from Vietnam turned out to be.

To be sure, our withdrawal from Vietnam was bad for the Vietnamese. There was, contrary to Kerry’s prediction at the time, a bloodbath, and the Vietnamese lived under a cruel communist dictatorship. But the dominoes did not fall beyond Indochina because, unnoticed by war backers and opponents, other East Asian states — South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia — were launching a free-market economic boom. The Vietnam War gave them time to get started. These countries had rule of law and in time developed democracies.

Iraq is not in such a good neighborhood.

Nearby are Iran, the leading supporter of international terrorism, busy developing nuclear weapons; Syria, headquarters of many terrorist groups; and Saudi Arabia, where petrodollars are used to disseminate totalitarian Wahhabism around the world. Premature withdrawal from Iraq would give terrorists more space and time to plan and prepare attacks on us beyond Iraq, and a visible defeat for the United States would exhilarate the followers of Osama bin Laden and other Islamofascist terrorists. It would leave unprotected the brave Iraqis who risked death to vote in three elections and held up their purple fingers in triumph.

About all this John Kerry, to judge from his changing positions on Iraq, doesn’t seem to much care. Rather, he and his ilk seem bent, as they did in the 1970s, on establishing who our heroes should and should not be. They should not be members of the American military, who are portrayed as depraved or incompetent. They should be the antiwar protesters, the professors and intellectuals, the sophisticated elites who know better than ordinary Americans and the servicemen and women what’s in the world’s best interest.

They should be people who believe that fighting those who want to destroy us only makes them madder and that withdrawal will assuage their grievances so they will leave us alone. It turned out that withdrawing from Vietnam did not cause us irretrievable damage. But will we be so lucky if we leave Iraq too soon?