Richard Reeves

'It's Still the Same Old Story ...'

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam -- The War Remnants Museum on Vo Van Tan Street in the middle of this clogged city has not really changed in the dozen years since I first saw it. The courtyard is jammed with American weapons, even tanks and jet fighter planes, and with horrific photographs of broken and burned people, dead and alive, Vietnamese and American.

The walls are still hung with drawings of war by schoolchildren. They look the same as always at first glance: U.S. planes dropping bombs on burning villages and villagers. But then you notice something different in the newer ones. The women and girls screaming, bleeding and dying on the ground are wearing head scarves instead of the conical hats of local farmers. The captions repeat a single phrase: "War in Iraq, 2003."

"It's still the same old story ..." was the entry before mine in the new 2004 visitors book. The line from "As Time Goes By" -- the song tinkled in "Casablanca" -- was written by an Italian whose name I couldn't quite decipher. Others, in Western languages, said the same thing in other words. One, on Aug. 20 in the 2003 book, noted the more than 40 deaths that day in the bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad and bombings around the corner in Jerusalem. An Australian added: "When will we learn? ... Never underestimate the stupidity of human beings."

There is also a new entry display. The first thing you see is a blown-up quote from "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," the 1995 book by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: "We were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."

Under that, in Vietnamese, it says: "The following figures represent part of those wrongdoings. In the Vietnam war, the U.S. government mobilized 6.5 million young people ... 7,850,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam, along with 75 million liters of defoliants sprayed over croplands ... nearly 3 million Vietnamese were killed, and over 4 million injured. Over 58,000 American Army men died in the war."

Those numbers alone show that whatever we end up doing in Iraq, our new war is not Vietnam -- at least militarily. That was an 11-year struggle against a determined and patient national army resupplied by communist neighbors and allies.

The war fought by the Vietnamese was both an ongoing civil war and a war of independence in a country that had been fighting for as long as anyone could remember against outsiders, the Chinese, the French, the Americans, the Chinese again. The North Vietnamese had a well-trained and flexible army, well supplied. They also fought with U.S. weaponry and ammunition, the stuff captured or left behind on a thousand battlefields in the jungles and deltas.

In retrospect, it seems obvious we could never have prevailed in our crusade here. The Vietnamese had been there forever and would be there forever. One way or another, we were going to go home, leaving Vietnam to the Vietnamese. No matter what our intentions, the same thing will happen in Iraq -- because politically the American campaigns in Vietnam and Iraq are pretty much the same old story.

When will we learn? Never, probably. The center of this city the French colonialists called Saigon has changed so much that you can barely see the Saigon River from the ninth-floor bar of the Caravelle Hotel. The view is blocked now by bank and office skyscrapers built here in the last 10 years by outsiders eager to sell capitalism to the communists who still run the politics of Vietnam from Hanoi, hundreds of miles to the north. In the end, it seems, dollars, euros, yen and yuan will conquer as surely as millions of our soldiers could not.

The Caravelle, which has its own 30-story annex now, is where foreign journalists gathered before the Americans went home in 1975. The bar is also the place where a young American congressman named John F. Kennedy watched rifle and mortar fire in the trees across the river. That was in 1951. He asked his companion then, a young Foreign Service officer named Edmund Gullion, what was going to happen in Vietnam.

"They will drive the French out," said Gullion. "Then we will come in, and they'll beat us, too."

Within 10 years -- after the French had indeed been driven out in 1954 -- President John F. Kennedy was sending American troops in, confident we could save Vietnam from itself.

We couldn't do it then. Even if you want to believe our motives in Iraq are generous and noble, it will be interesting to see, in retrospect, how President Bush and his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, will explain their decisions to future generations.

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