Mike Tharp: Ten lessons to learn from war

July 25, 2009 

Mike Tharp

Forty years ago this week I landed in Vietnam as a soldier.

When you read this, I'll be on a plane leaving Iraq after covering the war for the last six weeks as a correspondent.

Bookends.

Several volumes between them -- a dustup in Belize with Guatemala; South Korea's street fights for democracy; the Persian Gulf War; the L.A. riots; Somalia; Bosnia; Kosovo; Iraq last year.

Not a large library. Some of them more CliffsNotes than books. But they've all left their mark on me, the way some songs, novels, photographs, paintings and poems haunt you.

The U.S. military leaves formal footprints behind in a war. They're called "lessons learned" and "after-action reports."

This is a personal after-action report.

In the Editor's Note to our 2007 Special Report, "The War Comes to Merced," we quoted Plato: "Only the dead have seen the end of war." That's Lesson No. 1. As I've found over four decades, from carrying a rifle to carrying a pen, war will always be with us.

Young reporters, like our Corinne Reilly, who twice has covered the war in Iraq in sterling fashion, can count on a war coming along sometime during their careers. Fewer, it seems, want to bear battlefield witness today than my generation and earlier ones did. But if some Twitter dude or lady blogger wants to don the battle-rattle, good on 'em. It'll make them better journalists. And Americans need someone on the ground, watching and listening for them in the most important decision any human society ever makes.

Lesson No. 2 is that we Americans don't learn from our mistakes. Vietnam was a mistake. This war in Iraq was a mistake. We'll get out of it with fewer than the 58,257 dead from Nam. And the Iraqis probably won't lose 2-3 million, as the Vietnamese did. But we won't leave behind a functioning democracy or even, over time, a U.S. ally. As with Vietnam, the so-called leaders who sent our young people across the seas to fight failed to understand both the enemy and the nature of the war.

Lesson No. 3 is that few of those leaders will ever have to pay the price of their folly. The 4,300-plus American dead, 31,000-plus American wounded, hundreds of thousands of dead and maimed Iraqis have paid the cost. But not the McNamaras or the Bundys or the Cheneys or the Wolfowitzes or the Johnsons or Nixons or Bushes. They get medals and money. The ones who made the ultimate sacrifice get lost in the pages of history. Five of their names are carved in granite at Courthouse Park.

A learning curve leads to Lesson No. 4. By the time I got to Vietnam, America knew it was losing. The late Walter Cronkite had called it "a stalemate" the year before I stepped onto the tropical tarmac at Tan Son Nhut Airbase. Americans don't do stalemates. Before Tet in '68, American soldiers and Marines -- like those in Gen. Hal Moore's and Joe Galloway's book, "We Were Soldiers Once, and Young" -- believed in their mission. By the time the guys in my company landed there, all we wanted was to get home alive.

Lesson No. 4 is that from the Persian Gulf War onward, the quality of soldiers -- and that includes all branches of the service -- has gotten better each year. The volunteer army has produced smart and brave studs, male and female. Each trooper I met over the last 18 years impressed me more each time. From technology to leadership to commitment, the modern American soldier is somebody we can all be proud of.

My dad taught me the next lesson. It may seem to contradict No. 4, but they're opposite sides of the same coin of our realm. National service should be mandatory. My dad said people shouldn't get to vote unless they'd performed two years of national service. Like him, I don't think it has to be only military service. But every able-bodied, able-minded youngster over 18 should be made to serve the country in a way that helps our society. Lesson No. 5 is that the same virtues and values I've found in young soldiers can be applied to peacetime problems right here at home. Sign 'em up and watch what happens -- to our crumbling bridges; to our weak grade schools; to our understaffed hospices; to our trashed national parks.

Another two-sided coin for Lesson No. 6. Take care of our casualties. All you patriots with the bumper stickers and yellow flags and Old Glory on a pole outside your house -- when's the last time you visited somebody in a VA hospital? Or sent a CARE package to troops in harm's way? Or told somebody in uniform, "Thanks for your service"? Or wrote Cardoza or Denham or Galgiani or Boxer or Feinstein and told them to vote for more money to take care of veterans? Or voted them out if they didn't?

Side two is the Iraqis. We've taken in a grand total of 20,000 out of 2 million Iraqi refugees, let alone the millions we killed, hurt, uprooted and ruined. We need to do as good or better a job with Iraqi refugees as we did with Vietnamese, Hmong, Lao, Cambodians, Bosnians, Somalis. We owe them. I know three personally we can help. Contact me and I'll put you in touch with them.

Lesson No. 7: Obama is making the same mistake in Afghanistan that Bush did in Iraq. We can't fight our way to victory in a land that sucked in and spit out Alexander the Great, the British Empire and the Soviet Union. A couple of excellent counterinsurgency manuals give us blueprints on how to contain al-Qaida, the Taliban, the takfiri Muslims who violate the precepts of the Koran by killing nonbelievers of their warped creed. Launching Hellfire missiles into Afghan wedding parties ain't in either manual.

Vote the rascals out. Or don't vote for them in the first place. Lesson No. 8 is maybe the easiest to learn. War is a team blood sport. It takes both the executive and legislative branches to declare and to wage. We pay for both, in KIA/WIA/MIA, tax dollars and moral stature in the world. Vote for women and men who understand that war should be the last resort of a democratic republic -- not the first.

Lesson No. 9 is like unto No. 8. Teach your children well. Parents, teachers, coaches, Scout leaders, clerics -- all of you charged with instructing our kids should also talk with them about war. Helping them understand better about war is at least as important as teaching them how not to have babies, multiplication tables, the two-handed chest pass, a bowline knot and whether angels are real.

Finally, Lesson No. 10. I'm done. I'm not leaving my home in Merced except for vacation. No more will I walk to the sound of guns. This was my last war. I would not trade what I've learned and felt for gold or fame. Covering wars has let me make friends for life. War has shown me the face of evil -- and the heart and soul of courage and loyalty and honor. But it's over for me. Now it's for memories and dreams. And for younger reporters.

Thus endeth the lessons.

Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com

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