One of the most vivid memories I have of my service in the U.S. Senate was of an early Democratic caucus. It was in January of 1973, not long after President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, had ordered the carpet bombing of Hanoi in an effort to strong arm the Vietnamese into surrendering. It was a horrendous and savage attack on a nation of peasants who chose to try to expel an army of foreigners from their land.
There was a debate in the Democratic Senate caucus about how or whether the war should be ended. What was impressed on my mind was what was said by two of my colleagues—Danny Inouye of Hawaii, and Missouri Sen. Stuart Symington.
Senator Inouye, who was visibly shaking as he spoke, made one of the most telling points when he denounced the bombing as motivated by anti-Asian racism. “Had they bombed Germany, or Norway, or some European country,” Inouye said, his deep baritone voice quivering with anger, “there would be a great outcry in this room and throughout the country, but the weak response tells me that to Nixon and to the press it’s O.K. to bomb Vietnamese because they are nothing more than a bunch of ‘gooks.’”
Inouye had struck a nerve. As he spoke, I noticed a number of senators looking down at the floor.
Danny knew of what he spoke. He gave his right arm, literally, in World War II, when he was sent to Italy to fight the Nazis. After the war, he wound up in the Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, the same hospital as a fighter pilot from Rapid City, South Dakota. In fact, their hospital beds were next to each other. The pilot, Tom Lehnert, was flying a P-47 fighter over Germany when he was shot down. His plane actually was hit just below the pilot’s seat, where it started burning, ultimately burning both of Tom’s legs. He didn’t lose his wits, however, as he flipped the plane on its back and unhooked his safety belt, allowing him to parachute out that way. He spent the war in a German hospital before continuing his post-war rehabilitation alongside Danny Inouye.
During the 1973 caucus debate, Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson inveighed against both the bombing and the war by chiding one of the pro-war senators who had advocated all-out war against the Vietnamese, slapping him on the shoulder as he said, “Had we listened to my friend here, I’m afraid we’d be in much worse condition today than we are.”
But along with Danny’s words, another speech that strongly clings to my memory was delivered by Senator Symington. Tall and distinguished, with a shock of gray hair, Symington was one of the few senators who actually looked like a senator. His wife had died during the previous year, an event that had deeply affected him. He rose to speak. “I’ve had occasion,” he began, his voice heavy with emotion, “to spend a great deal of time with my grandchildren over the recent holidays. As we watched the news of the bombing, one of the little ones asked me, ‘Grandpa, why are we killing so many people with our airplanes?’ I had to try to explain to him why some people thought killing was necessary. It was an effort that forced me into deep thought about the entire concept of the war in Vietnam. I’ve decided that I am no longer able to explain to my grandchildren the fact that my country has now become the bully of the world.”
At that, Symington abruptly ended his speech and sat down, his emotions eluding his self-control. He put his head in his hands and, in front of the entire gathering of U.S. senators, sobbed unashamedly.
The United States was in Vietnam in force because our government believed that the North Vietnamese should follow orders from us, rather than from the Communist government of Ho Chi Minh that ruled North Vietnam.
According to Wikipedia, at the end the butcher’s bill for the Vietnam War came to some two million South Vietnamese civilians killed, although there are various estimates of a lesser number. And this death count includes the bill when North Vietnam consolidated its power as the war came to an end. The number of North Vietnamese killed during the entire war was some 1.1 million dead. One million, one hundred thousand killed.
And the number of young American men killed came to well over 60,000. The wounded, both those with visible wounds and those with wounds we could not see, far exceeded this number. The new American technology used during the Vietnam War brought back to life—but not in one piece—those who would have died in earlier wars.
In the Iraq disaster, in excess of 4,500 Americans died, and tens of thousands came home in pieces, with arms, legs, part of their faces and skulls missing, and with horrendous mental problems.
We have not yet been given the butcher’s bill for our misadventure in Afghanistan, but it will be finally delivered within a couple of years.
There are estimates of several hundred thousand Iraqis who met their deaths during our invasion and afterward. Some 1.5 million Iraqi refugees have fled to Syria and Jordan to escape the sectarian fighting, and countless Iraqi civilians have been maimed and wounded. When I visited Iraq in 2002 in what was a somewhat successful effort to get the Iraqis to allow the weapons inspectors back in the country, I visited a children’s hospital in Baghdad and saw little Iraqi children who were suffering from cancer caused by depleted uranium ammunition that our country used on the Iraqis during the first Gulf war. I saw a small Iraqi girl—about the same age as my own daughter then—whose cancer caused blood to run from her mouth. Her mother sat on her bed, trying to comfort her. I never knew whether or not she survived.
The Saddam Hussein government did allow the weapons inspectors back into Iraq, after George W. Bush had said that failure to do so would bring an American attack. After Iraq complied with the U.S. demand, Bush ordered the attack anyway, which to me was solid evidence that he had planned to destroy Iraq no matter what.
Today our government is arguing with Israel as to whether or not we will support Israel’s threatened attack on Iran. What is as certain as the sun will come up tomorrow morning is that, no matter what our position is, if Israel attacks, America will be blamed for it. I guess that, because we furnish money and weapons and protection in the U.N. for Israel, such collaboration would be difficult for us to deny.
For those who make such decisions, we can only hope that our government will do what it can to protect American interests with respect to Iran. I know it’s difficult in an election year to say no to Israel, but we are talking here about saving American lives, and saving our economy, which will surely go deep into the tank when crude oil prices spike to unheard-of levels as a result of such an attack.
Even more, gasoline prices currently are shooting up to the heavens because, as the press blandly reports, of “the tensions around Iran.” No one yet, either in the media or in the government, has asked exactly who is creating the tensions which drive up gasoline prices and, consequently, the prices of everything else we buy. It’s as though we are witnessing a Grimm Fairy Tale where, although the king has no clothes on, virtually everyone swoons because of the beautiful (invisible) robe worn by the king.
The media and the politicians are so inured to laying off criticism of Israel that no one can bring themselves to identify what is hurting us and our economy.
And there is almost no protest here against Israel’s saber rattling about Iran. But our government could, if it could somehow grow a pair of gonads, tell Israel outright that both American money and American political and military support will end should it decide to drag America into another Middle East war as it did in Iraq. It is my view that Bibi Netanyahu would drop the question of an Iranian threat once he has to consider the greater threat posed by the U.S. cutting off the gift of billions of dollars each year.
It’s a question of whether our elected leaders will protect Americans or Israel. Surely it’s not too much to ask that they put their own country first.
JAMES ABOUREZK is a former U.S. Senator from South Dakota. He is the author of Advise & Dissent: Memoirs of South Dakota and the U.S. Senate, a memoir now available only on Amazon’s Kindle. His e mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org