Working in Washington, D.C., if one is blessed or lucky, you get a chance to meet some very decent and honorable individuals. I had an opportunity to meet the late Peter Braestrup. We met in the late 1980s in the Smithsonian Castle where Braestrup was then working. He was a remarkable man.
A fellow former Marine who had been wounded at Khe Sanh arranged the meeting. Peter Braestrup was the author of “The Big Story,” and I wanted to learn from him about how the media cover wars and veterans. Brastrep was extraordinary well qualified to give remarkable insights. Not only had he written the definitive book on the press coverage of the Tet Offensive, calling on his experience as the Washington Post bureau chief in Saigon, Braestrup, a Yale graduate, and had also served as a Marine officer during the Korean War.
I asked him about his experiences in Vietnam and his personal observations about Tet. In our discussion, he could not hide his disdain for a New York Times reporter who Brastrep remembers in a panic yelling, “This is the nadir the nadir of our experience.” At least the reporter was in the combat zone when he declared all is lost.
The military history of Tet is simple the Viet Cong got their clock cleaned and were effectively destroyed. American fighting forces ultimately prevailed—just ask the marines at Hue City. The American combat response also set the North Vietnamese Army back four years. Unfortunately, LBJ chose that moment to surrender his presidency, and in doing so left a U.S. Army on the field of battle. History has not been kind to this President who had appointed me to the Naval Academy.
Now America gets another chance to see my previous hometown paper, the New York Times, in action. Frank Rich has declared in essence that all is lost in Iraq. At least in 1968 the New York Times reporter seeing “the nadir” during Tet was in Vietnam; Rich didn’t even have the curtsey to file from Iraq. Since he apparently made his reputation critiquing fantasy as a theater critic and thrived in the New York “Arts and Leisure” combat hothouse, he must be answered by language he understands.
One of the biggest mistakes I have seen those who have disdain for the military make is they think those who serve are dull and monolithic in thought and must be lectured by the “intelligentsia.” Sen. John Kerry (D.-Mass.) touched that third rail. Trust me, some of the most brilliant people in America are currently in uniform.
It is not surprisingly that those reporters who take the time will find thoughtful and remarkably diverse opinions held by every man or woman serving in combat. The consistent and unifying factor is that all in uniform today volunteered to support and defend the Constitution and are prepared to give their life in living up to that oath.
Iraq is just one battle in a very long and difficult global war. The United States has already won a tremendous military victory in the historic run up to Baghdad—not to mention the great success in the battle against the Taliban fanatics in Afghanistan. Granted, nation building may not be our forte. However, regardless of shallow pontification by know-nothing critics, combat action in Iraq and Afghanistan has already created a cadre of warriors who will lead this country for the next 40 years. To imply they are losing is insulting.
Those junior enlisted and officers, some on their third or even fourth tour, are the emerging nucleus of a core of men and woman who have already earned the privilege to lead America in military or civilian life in this long war for American survival.
Regardless of the current situation, where the “fog of policy” in our Iraq engagement is denser than the “fog of war” our enemies, fanatical Islam and the warlords in the People’s Republic of China better take heed if they ever think America “lost” in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. It will ultimately be a fatal mistake on their part.