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Election Year 2004:
Scars of Vietnam

Natalia J. Garland

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Today I will try to connect and sum up three recent developments, and shine a different light on them from one social worker's perspective: (1) the fear that the Iraq war will turn into another Vietnam, (2) the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, and (3) the barbaric murder of Nick Berg.

Concern has been expressed that America's involvement in Iraq will turn into a lengthy defeat such as was the case in Vietnam. The Americans expressing this concern have been criticized as engaging in hate speech and having selfish political ambition. Are these individuals politicizing our national security, or are they sincere? Whatever their motivation, their words have resonnated with an entire generation of Americans.

The baby-boomer generation will never get over Vietnam. That generation sacrificed husbands, sweethearts, brothers, and school chums to a war that made no sense to them. The generation of the 1960's was politically disfigured by these emotional scars. The coffins that returned from Vietnam did not contain soldiers whose service was valued. America's mourning process, therefore, never has been and never will be completed.

These painful emotions seem to put us at risk of some either/or thinking. That is, either we fight no war or we fight another Vietnam. We must learn to weigh history and our current political realities with objectivity. We need political awareness combined with self-awareness. Moreover, as we listen to our political leaders, sometimes we will have to analyze the emotional tone behind their statements before we can evaluate the significance. Statements that sound irresponsible on the surface could be expressing very real fears and anxieties.

Next, photographs were made public of apparent abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American military at the Abu Ghraib facility. It is not my intention to make excuses for people who dishonor their uniform and bring shame to our nation. Likewise, it is not my place to be judge and jury. And, along with other average Americans, I am just beginning to give my attention to the area of prisoner interrogation techniques.

Abu Ghraib was originally a prison where torture was inflicted on many innocent Iraqis and under Saddam's direction. It was already a place of human misery and death. As some experts have noted, using this facility for American purposes was like trying to use Auschwitz. It was a hideous prospect. If you have any concept of spirituality, I expect you would agree that any possibility of using this prison again should have been preceded by nothing less than an exorcism.

There have always been prison guards who mistreat prisoners, domestically as well as in wars. Some people cannot manage themselves in situations where they have power and control over others. Some people tend to let power go to their head. This is why society, including the military, has rules to govern acceptable behavior. Iraqis are right to feel outraged over prisoner abuse, but they should not conclude that Americans have betrayed democratic principles. Some Americans behaved cruelly. They are not representative of the the whole. The majority of Americans are doing their very best to uphold standards.

Finally, a young American, Nick Berg, was beheaded by radical Muslims in Iraq. This ghastly action should remind the world of the nature and the purpose of terrorist groups. They have no rules. They stated that they were seeking revenge for abuses committed by Americans at Abu Ghraib. Following this logic, why is it that they never sought revenge on Saddam for his abuses at Abu Ghraib? Revenge on America was not their goal. Their goal is to demoralize Americans and the coalition, and take over Iraq. They hate America, Europe, and moderate Islam.

Is there a thread that can tie these three developments together? So far, unlike Vietnam, the American soldiers in Iraq have the full support of our nation. There is division over the legitimacy of the war in Iraq, but the soldiers are generally regarded with respect. The casualties are honored and the fatalities are mourned. There is unity in terms of personal feelings and community acceptance. We also have a greater knowledge of post-traumatic stress disorder. Soldiers returning from Iraq will have access to better mental health care. At the moment, it does not appear that today's generation will forever be haunted by senseless loss. (They will, however, have to live with the consequences of Abu Ghraib just as the 1960's and 1970's generation has had to live with the My Lai massacre.)

Those soldiers involved in abuses at Abu Ghraib are being investigated and court martial proceedings are taking place. As Americans we are bravely facing this very unpleasant reality. We believe in human rights and we are prepared to take appropriate actions against those soldiers who broke the rules. America has apologized. How many other countries would act as openly and swiftly? How many Muslims have apologized for the atrocities committed against Americans by Islamic terrorists?

The execution of Nick Berg follows the atrocities committed against the American security consultants at Fallujah and the murders of the Baptist missionaries at Mosul. These have been received as quiet horrors compared to other various expressions of criticism and outrage. If these deplorable actions had been given major news coverage (such as was given to the Abu Ghraib scandal) it would have served to decrease anti-American feelings throughout the world. Where are the human rights activists? How many people even remember Karen Watson's name?

We have many, many reasons to love America. The war in Vietnam caused widespread discontent among the burgeoning youth and eventually among mainstream adults. There was never real closure. There was a deterioration of self-confidence. Abu Ghraib must not be allowed to define the character of today's generation of Americans. Instead, it should bring all Americans to a more mature love of country, more motivation to preserve our values, and more wisdom in foreign policy. (Written 05/24/04)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2004 Natalia J. Garland