by Ralph Holcomb
Waist Deep in the Big Muddy
If this issue of the Update has a theme, it could be "Hands Across the Sea." We hear from three reporters about
ways to connect with others in Africa, the Mid-East, and Europe. And not a moment too soon, by my observation.
The other day I opened a social policy class discussion on Iraq which confirmed my worst fears, that our students are
dangerously ignorant of the details of our involvement in the war after the war there. The most cogent and plaintive arguments
about the issue came from my Hmong students who reminded us all of the terrible human cost of reneging on promises to vulnerable
populations during times of war, a cost incurred by their parents after the Vietnam debacle. It is clear that having stepped
in the mess of the war, we are now obligated to make good on our promises of peace and democracy in the most honorable way
possible. As in Vietnam, the thoughtful humility required for the task is testing the capacities of our present administration
to the maximum.
Students quizzed me about the parallels to the Viet Nam war, and I was reminded once again how old I'm getting. I hopped
into my time machine and came down in 1965.
I was 14 years old and Walter Cronkite was the anchor for CBS evening news. Over my mom’s meatloaf dinners
I'd stare at the blurred black and white images of terrified GI's ducking fire while dragging wounded comrades to safety through
the jungle underbrush. Cronkite taught us a strange new geography over the dinner table: the Plain of Jars, Khe Sanh, Hue,
the DMZ, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There were also the hundred towns and hamlets and rivers now forgotten to all but those who
left sons on that particular piece of real estate.
And then came the body count, the daily exercise in toting up the home and away team score. My parents, their patriotism
forged during the Big One, asserted as they passed the mashed potatoes that this was the terrible price of freedom, and their
assurance was enough for me. First we heard the home team score, the Americans killed or wounded that day. Then the South
Vietnamese soldiers killed, and finally the away team, a number that ranged from slightly higher to much higher than those
of the friendly forces. Later I learned the enemy numbers were mostly propaganda to make us feel better about the home team
winning the war. At the time it did its magic, assuring us that our victory was inevitable, if always postponed.
The choking desert of Iraq couldn't be more different from the sweltering jungle, but the monotony of the daily score
and the young faces on the TV screen are the same, idealistic and patriotic young men and women who will never grow older
in the service of a misguided policy designed to increase domestic security and protect oil profits. The geography lessons
have come again, as we learn place names that were unpronounceable a year ago. Even the parade of policy options attempted
and discarded by an increasingly panicky White House with an eye to November elections is sadly familiar.
There is another, more hopeful, difference with this war. My mother, nowadays fixing low cholesterol dinners for one,
frets in our weekly phone calls about the simple patriotism proffered by venal and greedy men who never had to count the cost
themselves. Donald Rumsfeld, beware: our students may be blind to the implications of this war, but our parents are no longer