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Veterans Discuss: Is Iraq Another Vietnam?

Vietnam veteran and congressional candidate speaks at VVA chapter meeting.

"This is not my stump speech by any means," Al Weed told members of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Chapter 227 last Thursday night. "But it's actually the talk I would like to give running for Congress."

Weed is running as the Democratic candidate to represent Virginia's fifth district, comprising all or part of 22 counties and cities in the southern and central parts of the state. He drove to the Neighbors Restaurant in Vienna Thursday to speak about the similarities and differences between the Iraq and Vietnam wars at the VVA's monthly meeting.

"I'm often asked, 'Well, you were in Vietnam. What's the difference between Vietnam and Iraq?'" said Weed, who served as a Green Beret medical sergeant in Vietnam and as a command sergeant major in Bosnia. During his 42 years of military service, many of which were spent in the reserves, he also earned degrees from Yale and Princeton universities and worked for the World Bank and the Arthur Lipper Corporation, and he now owns and operates the state's oldest continuously running vineyard.

One difference between the two wars, he said, is that a single ethnic group dominated the population of North Vietnam. Iraq, pieced together after World War I, comprises a number of competing tribal populations. Weed added that North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Min was trying to unite his country's people, while the insurgency in Iraq is a more "centrifugal" force, threatening to shatter the country.

Economics were another difference he cited. Although some said the Vietnam War was being fought over offshore oil, Weed said he was not convinced by this argument. "There wasn't any compelling economic reason for us to be there," he said. However, the decision to invade Iraq was "vastly different" and involved "a great deal of economic calculation," he said, citing the large quantities of oil under its terrain.

He also noted the religious differences between the two countries. The dominant religions in Vietnam — Buddhism, Confucianism and animism — are primarily nonviolent and therefore were not tied into the country's wartime ideology, said Weed. However, he said, the warrior archetype is prominent in the Islamic ideology that is being bound to the insurgency in Iraq.

ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT differences between the Iraq and Vietnam wars, said Weed, is the treatment of the veterans returning to the U.S. "After Vietnam, our nation learned a lesson," he said. "Even though we can be opposed to a war, it's not the soldiers' fault we're in that war. I think we learned that lesson well."

However, he said, while some anti-war citizens lashed out at Vietnam veterans, the government took care of those soldiers. Weed said he did not recall wounded veterans being "cut loose" with "inadequate treatment" and "laughable benefits."

He said he has met one Iraq veteran who, as a Navy SEAL, received multiple injuries from an underwater explosion. The soldier will wear diapers for the rest of his life, said Weed. He was evaluated for disability pay based solely on an injury to his back.

He mentioned another soldier he had met, who received serious brain damage from an explosion, although his skin was not broken. Two years after the incident, said Weed, the young man has difficulty articulating and is unable to read for any extended period of time, limiting his work options. He received a lump sum disability payment of 10 percent of his military salary. "He owes over $90,000 to University of Virginia Hospital," said Weed. "He'll never pay it off, but his credit rating will be destroyed."

Weed called the treatment of these soldiers "criminal," adding that both also happened to have lost their homes on the Gulf Coast to Hurricane Katrina.

"This is not just two stories," he said, adding that he thinks an under-funded military is being encouraged to keep disability payments to a minimum. If payments are less than 30 percent of a soldier's salary, the debt can be passed along to the Veterans Association, he said. He also noted that his son, who is serving his second tour of duty as a surgeon in Iraq, has said that over half of the wounded soldiers he has seen sent home will suffer from lifelong injuries and disabilities.

Providing for veterans, said Weed, is not partisan politics but "a moral obligation."

"WHEN YOU GET TO CONGRESS, of course, you're going to lobby real hard to get a separate chunk of money so we can have this addressed," said J.R. Mailler IV from the audience.

Weed noted that there are fewer war veterans in Congress than at any time since the late 1800s, when most of the representatives who had fought in the Civil War retired. "It shows in how we allocate our resources," he said.

Pete Young asked if Weed thought the general population realized that the country was engaged in a serious war.

Weed pointed out that President Bush has called the Iraq War a "seminal conflict" but is sending reserves to fight it and has cut taxes during wartime. "We're not mobilized," he said. He also noted that the war's death toll tends to draw attention, while the ratio of wounded soldiers to those killed is nearly eight to one. Not enough attention is being paid to the wounded, he said.

Chapter President Len Ignatowski asked if any lessons learned in Vietnam could be applied to the current conflict.

Weed first noted that the Bush administration is not fond of drawing parallels between the two wars. He said the U.S. military's attention to medical technology and field equipment has improved since the Vietnam War. He added that, from what his son told him, "They have paid much better attention to what happens after men are evacuated," including the use of "space blankets" to keep wounded soldiers warm and the reinstatement of widespread use of tourniquets.

What the military did not learn well, he said, were effective means of urban and psychological warfare. He also noted that U.S. forces still have not figured out how to detect the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) commonly used as weapons by the insurgency, and that armor is still deficient on many military vehicles. However, he said, "what I think is happening is that the other side is learning just as fast as we are."

Bruce Waxman, one of the chapter's directors, said that during his experience in Vietnam, he witnessed problems of corruption among Vietnamese officials who were supposed to be helping the U.S. "Do you see parallels at all between that and what's going on in Iraq?" he asked.

"It's every bit as bad in Iraq as it was in Vietnam," Weed replied. He said what saddened him more was a "culture of corruption" on the U.S. side. He said money set aside for reconstruction is not all being spent on reconstruction, and he added that his son had told him Halliburton was charging $35 per meal at the hospital where he worked. Throughout World War II, said Weed, the government conducted numerous investigations into war profiteering. During the Iraq War, he said, not one such investigation has been carried out.