Monday, November 27, 2006

How to End a War, Continued

In my last post I wrote that the only way to end a war is to stop fighting it. Our elected officials have speculated endlessly about what must happen before the war in Iraq can end. The answer to this is nothing. The war can end tomorrow, if we decide to end it. In offering this judgment I have in mind the President's recent trip to Vietnam (his first visit there, of course,) which came at such a strange time in American history and thus carried with it such odd and powerful symbolism. There is no war taking place in Vietnam right now. It is, more or less, a typical Communist country in the post-Soviet era, still repressive but not unbearably so, at peace with its neighbors, benefiting from and strategically adjusting to the rise of China as an economic power and to the rising tide of globalization. In other words, thirty years after western powers left it, fifty years after being invaded, Vietnam is back to what it always should have been, to what it mostly has been throughout its history. It is not the axis of any kind of evil. It is not a domino waiting to fall. It is just another country, a backwater to the western powers, but one with its own struggles and aspirations. How did this come about? How was Vietnam transformed from a country divided against itself, the site of a global war which killed millions, into one in which peace now prevails? The answer is, the war ended. The United States simply left Vietnam. In the end none of the elaborate scenarios or calculations which the U.S. had made to explain its presence there, its objectives, or the preconditions for its departure, proved to have any substance at all. If they haven't been already, they will all soon be forgotten by history. They were fictions, projections, prevarications. History will record only that the United States left, the war ended, and Vietnam was left to resolve its problems on its own. I am not saying that the end of the U.S. war against Vietnam made any of these problems easier. The civil war continued for many years, and its cost was enormous. But the problems could not begin to be solved until the United States had left. The healing could not begin until the cause of so much of the suffering was gone. Only then could the scope of the problem as a Vietnamese problem, as an episode in Vietnamese history, begin to be resolved. The Vietnamese had to reclaim that history for themselves before reaching for a solution. Many years from now, the civil war in Iraq will finally end. The cost in lives, already staggering, will be unfathomable. It will take decades before Iraqi society can begin to forgive its acts of violence against itself and to knit itself back together again. Then Iraq will finally be at peace again. But that journey will not begin and cannot begin until the last American soldier leaves Iraq. There will come a day when a future American president will visit Iraq (probably for the first time!) and look at it curiously as President Bush recently looked at Vietnam, as a site where so much violence and suffering once took place. But that day will not move any closer to now until the U.S. war in Iraq comes to an end. Which can happen tomorrow.

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