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Deja vu in Iraq
By Derrick Z. Jackson | July 1, 2005
AT FORT BRAGG, in front of soldiers and their generals, the president of the United States said, ''Terrorists can strike and can kill without warning before the forces of order can throw them back. And now he has struck again. At this very hour, a second wave of terrorists is striking the cities. Our forces are ready. I know they will acquit themselves, as they always have, however tough the battle becomes. There has never been a finer fighting force wearing the American uniform than you."
The president reasserted that each soldier represents America's will and commitment at a time that our nation's security and the freedom of an oppressed nation ''is facing a deadly challenge. Men who have never been elected to anything are threatening an elected government and the painfully achieved institutions of democracy."
This was not this week. This was not President Bush at Fort Bragg. It was 37 years ago. This was President Johnson.
For all that the Bush administration pooh-poohs comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, Bush himself keeps running backward to the point where imitation is becoming the sincerest sign of failure. On the weekend of Feb. 17-18, 1968, Johnson went to Fort Bragg, N.C., the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in California, and the flight deck of the USS Constellation.
It was the time of the Tet Offensive, the bloody turning point when tens of thousands of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers and American support for the bloodshed were simultaneously wiped out. Just a month and a half later, Johnson admitted personal defeat by saying he was deescalating the bombing and not running for reelection.
But in January and February, Johnson spoke as Bush did this week, rattling off successes in the face of rising dissent. Bush bragged about restoring sovereignty to the Iraqi people, the voting of 8 million people in free and fair elections, and the victories of new Iraqi soldiers. This was virtually no different than when Johnson said in his State of the Union Message on Jan. 17, 1968 -- again, only two and a half months before his resignation -- ''Three elections have been held in Vietnam in the midst of war and under the constant threat of violence. A president, a vice president, a House and Senate, and village officials have been chosen by popular, contest ballot. The enemy has been defeated in battle after battle."
Bush's speech has already been blasted by critics for not once mentioning the original pretense for the Iraq invasion, the never-found weapons of mass destruction. Bush escalated his playing of the 9/11 card, the card thrown out of the deck by his own 9/11 Commission, which found no link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. ''We fight today because terrorists want to attack our country and kill our citizens, and Iraq is where they are making their stand."
Just as noteworthy was how Bush tried to correct the image of chaos in Iraq with claims of clarity. ''Our mission is clear. We are hunting down the terrorists," Bush said, even as soldiers grumble that the mission is aimless and Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cannot make up their minds whether we are seeing the last throes of the insurgency or face a full decade of massive involvement.
Johnson used the same tactic in his 1968 Fort Bragg speech, saying, ''The enemy's answer is clear. . . . Our answer, your answer, must be just as clear: unswerving resolution to resist these ruthless attacks." Later that day at El Toro, Johnson added, ''We do not doubt the outcome." The next day on the Constellation, Johnson said, ''Quite obviously, the enemy believes -- he thinks -- that our will is vulnerable. Quite clearly, the enemy hopes he can break that will. And quite certainly, we know that the enemy is going to fail."
Two weeks before his visit to Fort Bragg, El Toro, and the Constellation, Johnson was asked by a reporter if the ''present rampage" in South Vietnam gave him ''any reason to change any assessment" about the war. Johnson answered, ''So far as changing our basic strategy, the answer would be no."
In his turn at Fort Bragg, Bush needed no reporter to ask him if there was a reason to change his strategy. He said, ''The progress in the past year has been significant, and we have a clear path forward." The clear path is so much like Johnson's it betrays how deep we are in the fog of war.
Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is email@example.com