While the first bombs were raining down on Baghdad, I was in the midst of an exhaustive study of the Vietnam War. James Stockdale had gained the reputation as a commander with brains and guts. His middle name was Bond; his call sign was 007. And he eventually became the philosopher warrior of the Hanoi prisoners of war.
Nguyen Khac Vien, a master of Communist propaganda, interrogated Mr. Stockdale in 1966. Mr. Vien chided the commander, “Our country has not the capability to defeat you on the battlefield. But war is not decided by weapons so much as by national will. Once the American people understand this war, they will have no interest in pursuing it. They will be made to understand this. We will win this war on the streets of New York.” Mr. Stockdale was horrified. He knew that “more than any other factor, military success or failure depends on the moral sentiment, the ethos, the spirit of the man in the street.” As the heroic men of New York City sifted through the smoldering rubble at Ground Zero, we realized that September 11 was a declaration of war. And as the battle for the hearts and minds of our people rages on, Mr. Vien’s comments still echo eerily in my heart.
The terrorist acts of the Iraqi insurgency have increased recently; and rhetoric that fails to remember the significance of September 11 for the future of our country also seems to be on the rise. So I’ve conjured up a sure-fire technique to relieve the distress these reckless political pundits inflict upon my psyche. It’s kind of like visualizing an audience in their birthday suits when you’re giving a speech. Whenever I hear a comment that offends my sensibilities, I think of David Harker. Shortly after his capture in South Vietnam, Harker was staring at a banner that read “Welcome to Lenient and Humane Policy towards Criminals of War.”
As I envision the sergeant sitting in a one-room bamboo schoolhouse, my offender du jour is suddenly sitting right there beside him. Mr. Harker’s instructors drone on and on. They encourage their captive audience to contemplate war crimes and have a good attitude. But while the good sergeant just keeps staring at that banner, my political pundit is furiously scribbling down notes. An image of Nguyen Khac Vien has also been flashing through my mind a lot lately.
In my mind’s eye, Mr. Vien, and his comrades throughout the un-free world, are all saluting Sen. Richard Durbin. They then raise a toast to the esteemed senator from Illinois, and thank him for the plethora of political fodder he’s provided the Al Jazeera propaganda machine. Perhaps Mr. Durbin should recall the words of a beloved U.S. Marine Corps private named Gomer Pyle. Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame, shame, shame. I think Abe Lincoln might agree.
The senator’s thoughtless antics remind me of another Vietnam POW who took a licking, but kept on ticking. Capt. Nels Tanner was a member of the illustrious Alcatraz gang in North Vietnam. Mr. Tanner had been tortured mercilessly; and as our guys in Vietnam learned, every man has his breaking point. So the captain eventually made a confession.
Mr. Tanner’s captors were ecstatic and his confession was heralded as a Vietnamese coup. But Americans soon roared with laughter as they learned that Clark Kent and Ben Casey had both turned in their wings to protest the war. Nels Tanner was punished severely when peace-loving friends from the United States exposed his ruse to their Vietnamese comrades. Captain Tanner was barely recognizable when he finally emerged from solitary confinement.
When Mr. Tanner returned from Vietnam he stated, “We Americans take our great land too much for granted. Some are so busy criticizing that they cannot see its greatness. Faith has been reserved, in many cases, for material things. You can lose every material thing you possess in one split-second. I have experienced this and I have found that there is only one thing that cannot be taken away from you. That is faith in God and in Country.”
We understood Mr. Tanner’s sentiments as the twin towers plummeted to the ground. And regardless of how we got into Iraq, we should earnestly contemplate John F. Kennedy’s words of caution. “There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.”
As our fighting men walk through the valley of the shadow of death, they need to know that we’re behind them, every step of the way.
Checkmate, Mr. Vien.
Carla Alvey is a freelance writer living in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Diana West is away.