RFK on Viet/Iraq

Les AuCoin

Over on the Huffington Post, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has posted a huge contribution to the debate on the Iraq war--the text of a speech his father made when another obsessed Texan in the White House insisted on a troop surge in a war we never should have fought.

For six months in 1998, I was a financial and management consultant for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial in Washington, DC. I left that assignment believing that Bobby would have be a better president that JFK, which is a significant statement for me, since JFK inspired me to enter politics in the first place. I also had a chance to get acquainted with Bobby's surviving family, and became convinced that Bobby, Jr. would make an outstanding national elected leader if given the opportunity.

His choice of his father's speech, at this moment in our nation life, only reinforces that impression. Read to RFK's words and weap again for our loss, and then be emboldened to demand now of our current Democratic presidential candiates an effort to be as least as bold, concise, perceptive, and wise on Iraq:

By Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

“In 1968, my father, running for President, addressed in a speech, the White House's proposal for a troop surge in Vietnam. Robert Kennedy had initially supported the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Forty years later, as Congress and the White House debate the further escalation of yet another war that has already claimed the lives of an astounding 640,000 Iraqis, killed 3,256 U.S. soldiers and wounded another 50,000, his words should have special resonance to those of our political leaders who are still searching for the right course in Iraq:

"’I do not want--as I believe most Americans do not want--to sell out American interests, to simply withdraw, to raise the white flag of surrender. That would be unacceptable to us as a country and as a people. But I am concerned--as I believe most Americans are concerned--that the course we are following at the present time is deeply wrong. I am concerned--as I believe most Americans are concerned--that we are acting as if no other nations existed, against the judgment and desires of neutrals and our historic allies alike. I am concerned--as I believe most Americans are concerned--that our present course will not bring victory; will not bring peace; will not stop the bloodshed; and will not advance the interests of the United States or the cause of peace in the world. I am concerned that, at the end of it all, there will only be more Americans killed; more of our treasure spilled out; and because of the bitterness and hatred on every side of this war, more hundreds of thousands of [civilians] slaughtered; so they may say, as Tacitus said of Rome: "They made a desert, and called it peace." . . .

"’The reversals of the last several months have led our military to ask for more troops. This weekend, it was announced that some of them--a "moderate" increase, it was said--would soon be sent. But isn't this exactly what we have always done in the past? If we examine the history of this conflict, we find the dismal story repeated time after time. Every time--at every crisis--we have denied that anything was wrong; sent more troops; and issued more confident communiques. Every time, we have been assured that this one last step would bring victory. And every time, the predictions and promises have failed and been forgotten, and the demand has been made again for just one more step up the ladder. But all the escalations, all the last steps, have brought us no closer to success than we were before. . . . And once again the President tells us, as we have been told for twenty years, that "we are going to win"; "victory" is coming. . . . It becoming more evident with every passing day that the victories we achieve will only come at the cost of the destruction for the nation we once hoped to help. . . .

"’Let us have no misunderstanding. [They] are a brutal enemy indeed. Time and time again, they have shown their willingness to sacrifice innocent civilians, to engage in torture and murder and despicable terror to achieve their ends. This is a war almost without rules or quarter. There can be no easy moral answer to this war, no one-sided condemnation of American actions. What we must ask ourselves is whether we have a right to bring so much destruction to another land, without clear and convincing evidence that this is what its people want. But that is precisely the evidence we do not have. . . .

"’The war, far from being the last critical test for the United States, is in fact weakening our position in Asia and around the world, and eroding the structure of international cooperation which has directly supported our security for the past three decades. . . . All this bears directly and heavily on the question of whether more troops should now be sent--and, if more are sent, what their mission will be. We are entitled to ask--we are required to ask--how many more men, how many more lives, how much more destruction will be asked, to provide the military victory that is always just around the corner, to pour into this bottomless pit of our dreams? But this question the administration does not and cannot answer. It has no answer--none but the ever-expanding use of military force and the lives of our brave soldiers, in a conflict where military force has failed to solve anything yet. . . .

"’But the costs of the war's present course far outweigh anything we can reasonably hope to gain by it, for ourselves or for the people of Vietnam. It must be ended, and it can be ended, in a peace of brave men who have fought each other with a terrible fury, each believing he and he alone was in the right. We have prayed to different gods, and the prayers of neither have been answered fully. Now, while there is still time for some of them to be partly answered, now is the time to stop. . . .

"’You are the people, as President Kennedy said, who have "the least ties to the present and the greatest ties to the future." I urge you to learn the harsh facts that lurk behind the mask of official illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves. Our country is in danger: not just from foreign enemies; but above all, from our misguided policies--and what they can do to the nation that Thomas Jefferson once told us was the last, best hope of man. There is a contest on, not for the rule of America, but for the heart of America. . . . I ask you to go forth and work for new policies--work to change our direction--and thus restore our place at the point of moral leadership, in our country, in our hearts, and all around the world.’"

Les AuCoin

Comments

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    "’You are the people, as President Kennedy said, who have "the least ties to the present and the greatest ties to the future."

    A quite ironic comment in a 40 year old speech. We are no longer a people with ties to "the greatest ties to the future", instead we live in our past. Like the dottering elderly, we turn to the heroes of our youth for guidance and inspiration. Far from being inspired by our prospects, as Kennedy's generation was, we are fearful of the world and our future in it.

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    Ross,

    In the www.jcdemocrats.org April newsletter I wrote a column, "His Spirit Moves Us Still.." remarking on the profound words of John F. Kennedy relating to war. I find I must look back in history because present day leaders are tone deaf to the struggles of the average American. We no longer see grace under pressure, humility, or moments of eloquence from our leaders. If only the present administration could learn that compromise does not mean cowardice.

    Paulie Brading Chair, Jackson County Democrats

  • Phil Jones (unverified)
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    Like the dottering elderly, we turn to the heroes of our youth for guidance and inspiration.

    And just what is wrong with turning to the wisdom of our past leadership? Only a moron would ignore the teachings of former courageous mentors.

  • Ed Bickford (unverified)
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    paulie's article quotes JFK: "We, the people, are the boss, and we will get the kind of political leadership, be it good or bad, that we demand and deserve."

    What that says about us is not complimentary. We have allowed ourselves to be portrayed to the world as greedy, grasping empire builders, more than willing to send hordes of mercenaries overseas to funnel booty to their corporate masters. We are better than that! We demand better!

  • ellie (unverified)
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    Thank you for sharing this speech.

    Despite having been born after the Vietnam war (and thus after the assassinations of JFK and RFK), I still draw inspiration from their words and deeds. I've had the opportunity to hear RFK Jr. speak on a few occasions and I always come away with a sense of hope -- but, perhaps more importantly, that we still can make a difference. I can't help but wish that someone as intelligent, articulate, and passionate as he is would be in a position of national leadership.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    find I must look back in history because present day leaders are tone deaf to the struggles of the average American.

    As were the contemporary leaders during the Vietnam War. Bobby Kennedy opened his mouth only after it was politically safe. You can find plenty of eloquence among Democrats today who now oppose the war in Iraq.

    And to be clear, I liked Bobby Kennedy and loved John Kennedy. But its time to move on and look ahead, not back. To be exhilarated by the future, not fearful of it. Things which we could have learned from how they lived their lives rather than speeches. We need to demand that spirit of this generation's leaders, not idolize stale relics of history.

    Only a moron would ignore the teachings of former courageous mentors.

    A statement which only underlines the irony I pointed out.

  • Phil Jones (unverified)
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    Bobby Kennedy opened his mouth only after it was politically safe.

    That statement couldn't be more wrong. Having been a teenager in the late 1960's, I remember the public support for the Vietnam War was at an all time high in 1968. It wasn't until the early 1970's during the Nixon administration that Vietnam Veterans were returning home in huge numbers joining and leading protests against the war. This is what ultimately brought about the withdrawal of our troops from Vietnam.

    RFK was a strong leader who wasn't afraid to voice his opposition to the foreign and domestic paths this country had taken. He sacrificed his life while campaigning for righteousness.

    I think the true cowards are those who are afraid to look back into history and learn from it.

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    Ross,

    In the March newletter at www.jcdemocrats.org I wrote about a famous battle of the Crimean War fought in 1854, with the Ottoman Empire, France and Britain on one side and Russia on the other. During that battle the now infamous order to the 673 British Light Calvary to charge a vastly superior Russion Force was given. From this event, came the inspiration for Tennyson's famous line, "Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do or die."

    Here we are 150 years later facing the prospect of another catastrophic military blunder. Like the pathologically stubborn Earl of Cardigan, who ordered the Charge of the Light Brigade, George W. Bush has ordered soldiers under his charge into a dangerous civil war, undermanned, with only a slight chance for success.

    My point is looking back in history instructs us, teaches us and can even inspire us.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    remember the public support for the Vietnam War was at an all time high in 1968.

    Except that isn't true. Support for the Vietnam war was falling dramatically after the Tet offensive and McCarthy had already shocked Johnson with his showing in New Hampshire. That was when Bobby jumped into the fray. Bobby would have made a better President than McCarthy, as later events would make clear, but he was an opportunist at that point.

    My point is looking back in history instructs us, teaches us and can even inspire us.

    I didn't say otherwise. In fact, to the contrary, I pointed to history. But that speech is about Vietnam, not Iraq. Bobby Kennedy didn't pull speeches from opponents of Korea to support his position on Vietnam and inspire opposition. He talked about his own generation's vision and future.

    Some of Kennedy's litany against the Vietnam war might be analogous to Iraq and then again, it might not. But what difference does it make? The problems with Iraq don't need Vietnam to illuminate them. They stand on their own. And, frankly, they are far more serious. Whatever similarities there are, there are also differences. And those difference are far more important.

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    Mr. Williams,

    I really don't know what your problem is. Quoting something from the past to illuminate the present is done all the time in law, scholarship, literature and politics. It shouldn't be necessary to point out that almost all the greats statesmen did it--Madison, Jefferson, FDR, Churchill, et. al. Does George Santayana mean anything to you? "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it?"

    RFK, Sr. in fact had a habit of quoting from the Greeks, Romans, and others to shed light on the human condition. His son Maxwell's book, Make Gentle The Life of This World, is dedicated to a cornucopia of quotations from history and literature that his father collected, read and used over and over. Or did you not know that? Check it out at Random House.

    You are wrong when you state that "support for the the Vietnam war was falling dramatically" [emphasis added] when Bobby got into the race. RFK announced for the presidency in March, 1968. The public was beginning to oppose the war but the country was sharply polarized, as this poll shows. To suggest otherwise is to smear a man who, while imperfect and yes, opportunistic (quick, name me a candidate in this century who wasn't), was, despite his greatness, only coming into his full potential when he was shot dead.

    You write, "Some of Kennedy's litany against the Vietnam war might be analogous to Iraq and then again, it might not." Well, tell us--which is it? Then defend your position. Don't just toss up a statement like so much pizza dough without delineating your thinking and expect us to take you seriously.

    Next you ask what difference the distinction makes anyway. A helluva lot, I say--and I contend the Vietnam analogy is apt. Yes, Iraq is a desert and Vietnam is a jungle. But RFK's point, and his son's, is that it was, and always will be, diabolical folly to send more troops into a failed war in a country that we didn't understand and for reasons that were wholly spurious (in Iraq, WMD; in Vietnam, stopping the Communist "domino theory").

    Les AuCoin

  • ws (unverified)
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    The beauty of any great speech is in its ability to impart insight into the resolution of problems beyond particular events of a given point in time that prompted their creation. I don't consider myself nearly as smart or knowledgeable as many people commenting here, but that's generally the impression I get from the speeches of JFK and RFK.

    What do we have too much of today? People of very limited vision in positions of authority and influence. Apparatchiks.

    JFK and RFK: rich guys from a rich family that nevertheless had some ability to look past their own wealth, power and position through the veils beyond to certain transcendent principles of dire importance to the well being of the world.

    Today, we just don't have enough people in govenment with a clear enough vision of the way things are and what they will become if extraordinary vision isn't exercised.

    I figure neither of those guys, JFK or RFK were absolutely stellar. Each screwed up in some significant way while in public service. Their redeeming quality layed in their ability to learn from their mistakes, always keeping in mind and looking for the higher principal of greatest benefit to all.

    When we as a nation have a problem, I don't see that we neccessarily always have to recall the legacy of those that have been able to do this in the past. I am just really anxious that more people in our government start to do it right now.

  • BOHICA (unverified)
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    Les AuCoin asks,

    Does George Santayana mean anything to you? "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it?"

    My friend Mike H. has the answer.

    "The reason people don't learn from the past, is because the past was a repetitious lie to begin with." Mike H. U.S. Army Medic Vietnam 1970-71
  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    Mr Aucoin,

    I pointed out the irony that the speaker yout quoted talked not of past wars, but the current one. That he addressed the future, not the past.

    Yes, every politician is an opportunist, as are we all. Bobby Kennedy took the opportunity to run against a sitting President of his own party. You can call that courageous if you like, but the reality is he only did so after that President was proven vulnerable because of the war in Vietnam. He didn't stand up and lead that charge, he took the opportunity it presented.

    Your poll link doesn't link to anything. The reality is that support for the war was falling dramatically - whether you approve of that term or not. Lyndon Johnson dropped out of the race and proposed negotiations with the north. And you will recall Richard Nixon won the presidency that year claiming he had a plan to end the war - not win it, end it. Kennedy went further than Johnson or Nixon, but he was hardly out of step with the public any more than Hillary Clinton is.

    Don't just toss up a statement like so much pizza dough without delineating your thinking and expect us to take you seriously.

    I assumed you thought there was some analogy or you wouldn't have published the speech. But did you read what I wrote. I think the analogy is irrelevant to anyone who isn't living in the past. just like most of the Kennedy speech - the exception being the nature of his appeal to the future.

    But RFK's point, and his son's, is that it was, and always will be, diabolical folly to send more troops into a failed war

    You think anyone disagrees with that now or ever has? The issue has never been whether that is folly, but whether this particular war is a failure.

    in a country that we didn't understand and for reasons that were wholly spurious (in Iraq, WMD; in Vietnam, stopping the Communist "domino theory").

    Here, you are imposing your own thought on Kennedy. He doesn't discuss whether we "understand" Vietnam. He doesn't mention the "domino theory at all. Those are your inventions.

    But Kennedy does reject complete withdrawal of our troops from Vietnam as the "white flag of surrender".

    "I do not want--as I believe most Americans do not want--to sell out American interests, to simply withdraw, to raise the white flag of surrender. That would be unacceptable to us as a country and as a people."

    Words that sound like a lot of conservative Democrats today and could easily come out of George Bush's mouth with an entirely different conclusion.

    You can keep reliving the Vietnam War, the defining moment of a generation. But we have a new war, in a different world that is damaging the country in ways Vietnam never did. I am tired of old men rehashing the arguments of their youth.

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    Ross, when ever we take an either/or, young/old absolute position we are avoiding thinking more deeply on events and decisions that may well decide the fate of men and women. The mix of matured thinking with fresh thoughts can make allies of us all. Finding commonground in the public interest is a continuous process that grows stronger over time. Wouldn't it be lovely if the present administration had learned what history has recorded.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    The mix of matured thinking with fresh thoughts can make allies of us all.

    There is nothing "matured" about rehashing stale arguments about a war that ended 30 years ago. It is reliving the past, not learning from it. Its old men rotely applying the rhetoric of their youth to new problems, ignoring or denying that the world has changed around them.

    "There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not."

    Bobby Kennedy

    "I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."

    John F. Kennedy

    "Never trust anyone over 30."

    Abbie Hoffman

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    Mr. Williams,

    I give up trying to get you to see the value of using insightful quotes from the past, as RFK, Jr. did and as "ws" describes so well, above. Be off; read no history; tune out historical references in speeches are articles; live in bliss.

    But I will not let you get away with the smear that Bobby jumped into the race only when public opinion was falling falling dramatically[emphasis added], implying it took no courage. LBJ might have been crippled in New Hampshire, but the war was not the sole reason; he was personally unpopular for a host of reasons. The test of your thesis are the polls at the time.

    Here's a report on the Gallup poll, Mr. Williams, showing that in February 1968, approximately the time RFK declared his candidacy, showing 63 percent of Americans wanted to "gradually broaden and intensify our military operations [in Vietnam] or "start an all-out crash effort in the hope of winning the wary quickly even at the risk of China or Russia entering the war, [emphasis added]."

    Here's, another, showing only 48 percent of Americans called the Vietnam war an error when RFK came out against it.

  • Phil Jones (unverified)
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    I think Ross Williams' problem is that he is immature in his argument that we shouldn't attempt to learn and govern from the mistakes and successes of the past. He must have slept through U.S. History classes and is so embarrassed by his lack of knowledge of same that he promotes discarding all previous experience in favor of blindly surging forth with a foreign policy based on ignorance. That sounds exactly like Bush's foreign policies.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    will not let you get away with the smear that Bobby jumped into the race only when public opinion was falling falling dramatically[emphasis added], implying it took no courage. LBJ might have been crippled in New Hampshire, but the war was not the sole reason; he was personally unpopular for a host of reasons.

    I don't think Bobby Kennedy would have considered it a "smear". But it is historically certain that he didn't have "courage" until after the New Hampshire primary. Old arguments making unnecessary defenses of the heroes of your youth.

    But would you at least learn to create links? The link that works is a blog where the conclusion is "I'd say that when the U.S. pulled out its troops in 1972 it had achieved victory-- in the sense of achieving its objective."

    And the numbers from that blog still show a dramatic decline in support for the war by March 1968 when Kennedy got into the race.

    The problem is that this, unlike the arguments against the war in Vietnam, is not irrelevant. The fact is that politicians don't lead, they follow. They get in front once the march of history has started. That was true of Vietnam and it is true of Iraq. Its true of all issues.

    his argument that we shouldn't attempt to learn and govern from the mistakes and successes of the past.

    You mean the argument that a speech on the evils of the Vietnam War does nothing to demonstrate the evils of the Iraq war? Or the lesson that old men aren't interested in the lessons of the past, they are interested in reliving it.

    The hisotry in that speech was the forward looking nature of Bobby Kennedy, the relishing of the future and his place in it. But that isn't a lesson old men usually want to be reminded of. Instead they see a chance to rehash the arguments of their youth.

  • LT (unverified)
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    As a college student for Eugene McCarthy, those of us who didn't back Bobby Kennedy DID notice who it was who ran first. (And before going any further, the heroic Allard Lowenstein does not deserve to be forgotten).

    It has always seemed to me that those of us of a certain age may have formed our political beliefs based on who we admired in 1968. Just as McCall Republicans were never the same as Reagan Republicans (the former in some cases left the Republican Party after it was made clear to them in the 1980s that they were not welcome), it seems to me that E. McCarthy supporters have been more inclined to be independent thinkers. Not that Bobby wasn't a hero, just that some of us didn't support him in primaries.

    One issue which has not changed from Vietnam to Iraq is the treatment of returning veterans, esp. those with various problems incl. medical care. The Statesman Journal editorial on Sunday should be a wakeup call. http://159.54.226.83/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070408/OPINION/704080302/1048

    In 1983 the Oregon Legislature passed a Memorial to Congress on the treatment of veterans and advocating a specific piece of federal legislation. It passed with bipartisan support and 3 veterans took it to DC and testified on the legislation. 9 years later I was talking to one of those veterans--who still remembered how helpful Cong. Weaver and Wyden had been, and which Oregon members were either unhelpful or not that interested.

    If you watched the Sunday shows yesterday, treatment of veterans was ignored as if the Bob Woodruff special on returning vets with brain injuries, and the Washington Post articles on Walter Reed had never happened. Apparently the folks in DC want to talk about whether the surge is working, not about how returning veterans are treated.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    it seems to me that E. McCarthy supporters have been more inclined to be independent thinkers. Not that Bobby wasn't a hero, just that some of us didn't support him in primaries.

    I think the McCarthy-Kennedy campaign became a religious war for some people of a certain age. I was an agnostic. The point was to end the war. Both deserve credit for taking the baton and trying to get it across the finish line. Bobby gave his life in that effort and, in many ways, so did McCarthy whose Stassen-esque dottage probably stemmed from his failure in 1968.

  • Phil Jones (unverified)
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    I wonder if Ross Williams is a regular contributor to FoxNews? He seems to have a penchant for rewriting history. His claims that RFK was not a courageous leader, the Vietnam War is not relevant to the Iraq War and Vietnam War Veterans want to "relive the war" are laughable. His spin on the truth is what one would expect from the likes of Bill O'Reilly or Shawn Hannity.

  • Phil Jones (unverified)
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    Ooops, make that "Sean Hannity".

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    Nice spin Phil. I can tell it made you dizzy.

  • Demion Hesse (unverified)
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    Anybody who challenges the worship of Democrats on this list is regularly ad hominemed as a troll, concern troll, rethug, or worse. It's the same on Northwest Republican, just in reverse.

    I disagree with Ross about the value of comparing and contrasting past events, but I agree with him about Bobby Kennedy's conservative alternative to McCarthy's progressive challenge to LBJ. The difference was as obvious as Kucinich to Clinton.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    I agree with him about Bobby Kennedy's conservative alternative to McCarthy's progressive challenge to LBJ.

    I'm not sure what you are agreeing with but I didn't make any characterization like that. I would characterize that contest this way - McCarthy was campaigning against the war, Kennedy was campaigning for President. Of course McCarthy also wanted to be President and Kennedy also wanted to end the war, but their campaign support was drawn from people with different primary goals.

    I disagree with Ross about the value of comparing and contrasting past event

    There was no comparison or contrast in that speech. It was solely about Vietnam. And from the remarks you can just see the "good old days" nature of posting it. I think it is as confused as people who take long treatises from Churchill on the dangers of a resurgent Germany and apply them to Iraq. If there is comparison there, it needs to be stated explicitly.

    As my original post said. It is ironic that we are being asked to rehash the Vietnam War using a quote from someone who in his time was looking forward, not back. Who was challenging us at the time to look at the world with fresh eyes, not apply the old cliches.

    The further irony is this digression into hackneyed cliches from the past and present.

  • Phil Jones (unverified)
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    If there is comparison there, it needs to be stated explicitly.

    It just goes to show you have to explain everything to some people. And then, they still don't get it.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    Phil -

    "I think it is as confused as people who take long treatises from Churchill on the dangers of a resurgent Germany and apply them to Iraq. If there is comparison there, it needs to be stated explicitly."

    I think there are a lot of people who don't see any connection there. I don't. Germany was certainly a threat to us - in fact they ultimately declared war on us. Iraq was never a serious threat.

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    I give up, Mr. Williams. Logical arguments roll off you like water off a duck's back.

  • Ross Williams (unverified)
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    I give up, Mr. Williams. Logical arguments roll off you like water off a duck's back.

    You don't make any logical arguements Mr. Aucoin. In fact you haven't said anything unless Phil Jone's silly remarks are your alter ego's.

    The comparison to Vietnam has no more validity than comparisons to World War II. In both cases, it is people misapplying the lessons of their youth to a different situation today. If you think the primary difference between the wars in Iraq and Vietnam are the terrain you haven't given it enough thought to be taken seriously.

    <h2>So keep ignoring the real lessons of history. It doesn't really matter, since you are irrelevant to the future you turn your back on in nostaligia for a different time. Bobby Kennedy would have been appalled.</h2>

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