Veterans React to Bush War Analogy

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President George Bush recently compared a U.S. pullout from Iraq to the withdrawal from Vietnam. Politicians and historians are now debating whether that comparison was appropriate. George Autobee, a Vietnam veteran, and Paul Rieckhoff, a veteran of the Iraq War, discuss the President's controversial analogy.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, the U.S. Open starts today with a tribute to tennis great, Althea Gibson, the first African-American to win the Open. We'll talk with two rising stars of the game about how much has changed, and we'll talk about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

But first, the question of Iraq continues to dominate American politics. For years, critics of the Iraq war have been invoking the lessons of Vietnam, arguing that the war is ill considered and futile. President Bush and his allies have always resisted the comparison - until now.

In a speech last week at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention, President Bush himself made the comparison to one of the consequences of leaving the battle too soon.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like boat people, re-education camps and killing fields.

MARTIN: The speech drew a strong reaction from pundits and other political leaders. But we wanted to know how veterans, people who fought in each of those wars, felt about the president's comparison.

With us is George Autobee. He served two tours in Vietnam as a Marine. He joins us from KCFR, Colorado Public Radio. And Paul Rieckhoff, he is an Army veteran who served a tour in Iraq and is the executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He joins us from his office in New York. And I welcome both of you, gentlemen, and thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. PAUL RIECKHOFF (Iraq War Veteran; Executive Director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America): Thank you.

Mr. GEORGE AUTOBEE (Vietnam War Veteran): Thank you, Michel. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: Mr. Autobee, if you would start, your reaction when you heard the president's remark?

Mr. AUTOBEE: Well, I was really astounded that they would even use correlation of Vietnam and Iraq. I didn't think the Republicans, especially the president, would use that type of vernacular terminology because the only thing between Iraq and Vietnam, the only similarities I've seen is that they - we were lied to as American citizens in regards to like, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

We found out there was really no attack on any American ships, and yet we were in combat. And same thing here. We were looking for weapons of mass destruction and there aren't any. And here we are in the middle of a war, watching our people getting wasted for no reason at all. So, the term they used in comparisons…

MARTIN: So you see deceptions as an analogy?

Mr. AUTOBEE: …is just beyond my comprehension.

MARTIN: Mr. Rieckhoff?

Mr. RIECKHOFF: Well, I think it's a pretty weak comparison and surprising in general, because the president has refused comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam for so long. And I think it's a sign of really desperate times. The president is really reaching and trying to rally support behind the controversial war. And someone has told him this is going to be a smart strategy. I disagree.

And I think there's another piece here that's missing. We talk a lot about the legacy of Vietnam, and we need to remember what happens when a nation fails to care for its veterans after a war, like in Vietnam. And I found it ironic that as the president spoke to the largest gathering of veterans in America at the VFW convention, he didn't mention any of the key issues facing veterans, like the fact that the secretary of V.A. Jim Nicholson has recently announced his resignation and no replacement has been named.

And the president didn't talk at all about Walter Reed or the Dole-Shalala Commission that was stood up to fix the problems after Walter Reed. I found it almost insulting that at this huge gathering of veterans, he didn't stop of talking much at all about veteran's issues, and instead used the VFW and used the veterans kind of as a political prop or a backdrop for his rhetoric on the war.

MARTIN: But it does sound to me that each of you sees a comparison, just not one that you find favorable to the president's case. Is that right?

Mr. AUTOBEE: Oh, yes. That's what I would say.

MARTIN: Mr. Autobee, what about the substance of his comment, that once American's troops left Vietnam, those who remained in Vietnam - including people who helped U.S. troops - were left to face awful consequences? Is there any validity to that, because it seems that that's already the case in Iraq, that those who are associated with the Americans in any way - I mean, housekeepers, you know, certainly the police, anybody who's training with U.S. forces, anybody who works with U.S. forces is targeted. Even - there was a truck bombing in a town in northern Iraq in the last couple of weeks for people who were just deemed sympathetic to the Americans for whatever reason, sort of targeted. Isn't that already the case? Is there not validity to that argument?

Mr. AUTOBEE: Well, the only I could say in regards to that is that had we not been there in the first place and destabled the government there, none of this would be happening. Because of our actions, because of us going in there based on information that was really not sound, now we're having to suffer all the consequences. And these are just symptoms of the bigger problem of us thinking we can dominate the world and tell people what to do, when, in fact, the reality is they have to dictate their own reality. And they have to live with that reality is.

MARTIN: Mr. Rieckhoff, what about the argument that we were just talking about that U.S. troops are the only thing keeping the country from total chaos?

Mr. RIECKHOFF: I think there's validity to that. I've been there myself, and I think we do have to worry about an imploding situation and a genocide if we pull out. But I don't think anybody is really sensibly trying to promote a quick, precipitous withdrawal out of the plans on the table or over time and leaving some sort of a residual force behind to maintain some degree of order.

And, you know, my question for President Bush is, well, what is he suggesting? That we didn't fight hard enough or stay long enough in Vietnam? I think that's really nonsense. It's a distortion. We've been in Iraq longer than we were in World War II. And Vietnam was not sectarian groups fighting each other. It was a very different situation. So my question is what is his point that we should have stayed in Vietnam? What is the end result here?

MARTIN: Mr. Autobee, did you hear it that way also? Did you hear the president's remarks as in some way indicting the war effort in Vietnam, that we didn't fight hard enough and long enough there? Is that how it felt to you?

Mr. AUTOBEE: Yeah. I agree with Paul. He hit him right on the head as that there was no victory. There will never be a victory in Vietnam. In fact, we would still be fighting there had we not pulled out. And Vietnamese were not going to give up their right for their self-determination.

MARTIN: What lessons, Mr. Autobee, do you feel the U.S. should learn from that Vietnam War, which apply to war in Iraq?

Mr. AUTOBEE: Well, basically, the first thing is that you don't go into other nations and other countries trying to dictate what your reality is. And that attitude is what's caused us so many problems internationally, not only just in the Middle East but in Central America, South America. It's just the attitude we have, and we have to overcome that attitude with leaders that we have now and get new leadership that are knowledgeable on how to do negotiation instead of sending in troops. It's how to we communicate with our enemies, and so where we are able to be proactive instead of reactive.

MARTIN: And you don't buy the president's argument that there's a threat to the United States, a threat to U.S. interests, which can best be resolved by the (unintelligible)?

Mr. AUTOBEE: Yeah. It was like as if the Vietnamese were going to get in boats and come over in the United States and invade us, and that was just preposterous. No way that was going to ever happen. And everybody knew that.

MARTIN: Paul, you had talked earlier about the fact that you feel that the president's comments didn't address the larger issues facing Iraq veterans today. Talk a little bit more about that, if you would.

Mr. RIECKHOFF: Well, I think the key one being that, you know, Secretary Nicholson has recently announced his resignation after a terrible tenure, including the Walter Reed fiasco and…

MARTIN: And I'm sorry. Forgive me. For those who don't know, Walter Reed Army Medical Center is a major medical facility for Army active duty and veterans in Washington, D.C., and it was at the center of a scandal about the quality of care there. Just to remind people who aren't aware.

Mr. RIECKHOFF: Right. And arguably, it's probably got more attention than any other veteran's issue in the last 25 years. So this was a huge issue for the veterans of this generation, kind of like our Hurricane Katrina moment where the American public sort of woke up and recognized that the country wasn't ready to receive this new generation of veterans. And they're facing huge challenges. We had 1.8 million veterans who've been to Iraq and Afghanistan. And right now at the V.A., there are 378,000 waiting disability claims. Eighty-three thousands of those claims have been waiting for six months or longer. Over 25,000 troops have been wounded. One in three coming home have mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

The president doesn't talk about these issues. Even when he's standing in front of the largest gathering of veterans in America at the VFW convention, he doesn't address these pressing needs facing veterans. And I think it's a real problem. We need leadership on veteran's issues. We need to know how the problems of Walter Reed are going to be fixed. And we need to know who's going to be the new secretary of the V.A. It's a Cabinet level position, and a replacement has not been named. So I think it shows you where veteran issues is placed in the priority list for this president and this administration.

MARTIN: Okay. But, Mr. Rieckhoff, did you go to the speech yourself? Were you there? I know members of your organization were there somewhere.

Mr. RIECKHOFF: No, I didn't.

MARTIN: Well, he seemed to be very warmly received there. He got a lot of applause, sustained applause. Do you think this is just generational, that perhaps the veterans of a different generation were more receptive? Or to what do you account for the fact that you and Mr. Autobee seem very critical, but other people in the room didn't seem to be?

Mr. RIECKHOFF: Well, for the president, generally, doesn't speak to too many crowds that are confrontational. I think that's been a pattern throughout this administration. But the VFW in general has been definitely a conservative-leaning organization. They've had problems within their own membership because of their position to devote to support the war. And I think, in many ways, it's compromised their ability to be effective on veteran's issues. The VFW, I would argue, like many other military groups in this country have been used by the administration kind of as a political chew toy, as wallpaper to provide an incredibly powerful photo op. The president can make a very compelling case behind a supportive of audience of people wearing uniforms. And it really plays well on national TV, and I think he's going to get in use to that.

MARTIN: Kind of strong words there. And I think at some point, it would be important for us to hear from the administration on these points, which we will do - which we will endeavor to do at some point. But Mr. Autobee, just a final thought from you. You do consulting for veterans' groups with regard to posttraumatic stress disorder, is that correct?

Mr. AUTOBEE: Yes, yes. Well, I working with American G.I. Forum, and we're looking for the impact that's going to be happening to many - well, happening right now to many of these soldiers with doing two and three tours and extending their tours to 18 months.

MARTIN: I just think a lot of Americans who are listening to us might like to know what they can do to support the troops when they do come home.

Mr. AUTOBEE: The first thing you do is if you see the individual withdrawing or, you know, reacting to gunfire and stuff like that, you should kind of get him counseling and you try to get him stabilized. Because a lot of these stuff - for some of them, doesn't hit for a little later on in their life, but your second war is trying to get your disability.

After you've come back from combat and you're in the battlefield, you think that you're going to be treated fairly well when you've come back, and you end up finding out that nobody wants to talk about it. Nobody wants to deal with it, and your battle to get your veteran's benefits is your second battle, and you can't go in there by yourself. You have to have help to take on the system. If you don't know how to do it correctly, you get disenfranchised and you don't pursue those rights that you have.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. AUTOBEE: And helping these veterans to come back is I think an obligation this country has to its veterans. And even though the war itself, I deem it to be illegal, we have the responsibility to support those veterans and make sure that they get their rights…

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. AUTOBEE: …and benefits coming to them.

MARTIN: All right. And thank you. And as I said, there are number of views on this, and we hope to hear more of them as we go forward. I thank both of you gentlemen for speaking with us. George Autobee, a Vietnam War veteran joined us from Colorado Public Radio at KCFR-FM in Centennial, Colorado. Paul Rieckhoff is the author of "Chasing Ghosts" and the executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He joined us from New York. Gentlemen, if I may thank you both for your service.

Mr. RIECKHOFF: Thank you, Michel.

Mr. AUTOBEE: Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: And I'd like to thank you both for speaking with us today.

Mr. RIECKHOFF: Thank you.

Mr. AUTOBEE: Thank you very much.

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