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The Homecoming 

A pre-election essay

With the world watching anxiously, and often with horror, Americans have flailed and fumbled our way to the end of one of the most critical presidential campaigns in the nation's history. Apparently the strategy was to bury the electorate under such a landslide of irrelevancy, mischief and misdirection that bewildered voters would slip into mental gridlock and obey some Pavlovian command as simple as a road sign. MacBeth's idiot never told a tale that seemed to signify so little. To keep your head in such a rout of reason, you have to ignore nine-tenths of the media menu and somehow view the whole carnival from a great distance, a great height, an angel's eye view of democracy.

Up here circling, you miss a lot, of course. But every so often your eagle/angel eye will settle on the one thing that illuminates -- the thing that at street level, amid the sound and fury, you might easily have missed. Months ago I came upon a story datelined Hanoi, Vietnam. It described the homecoming of Nguyen Cao Ky, once known as "the playboy prime minister" of South Vietnam. Remember Ky the flashy dresser, the handsome one with the mustache? Twenty-nine years after the fall of Saigon, which he fled by commandeering a helicopter and landing it on an American aircraft carrier, Ky -- now a California businessman -- returned to his native city at the invitation of the Communist authorities.

An avid golfer, Ky had flown to Hanoi from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), where he played a couple of rounds with the city's recent mayor, Thanh Vo Viet. In Hanoi, his warm welcome included tee times at a new people's course near the capital and a reunion with two high school friends, college professors who had stayed in the North and remained loyal to Ho Chi Minh. The old friends and onetime enemies reminisced about their reckless student days; they ate ice cream and laughed about a fat lady who used to sell them ices from a cart on the street. They were, well, cute.

There in the once-occupied country, the once-bitter enemies played golf and ate ice cream over the bones of 58,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese. And which sane person would now argue that those deaths accomplished anything whatsoever, that their sacrifice left America one micro-unit safer or stronger or more admired in the world? Who would venture to cry "Not in vain!"? And which sane person, contemplating Iraq, doubts that someday Allawi and al-Sadr or their surrogates will play a round of golf or share a tender goat (in the dining room, I mean) over the bones of another multitude of Americans, another generation of soldiers doomed to perish pointlessly because their leaders were stubborn and dishonest?

It is, it dawns on me, as certain as gravity or entropy that this heartbreaking game of golf will take place, that this goat will be roasted -- and almost as certain that nothing will be learned from it, nothing changed. Much as the knowledge torments us -- those of us who remember -- it's no longer possible to deny that Iraq is Vietnam revisited. When Bush, Cheney and the neocon warlords deny that they see the resemblance, remember that their only memories of the war in Vietnam come from motion pictures.

Another small country is resisting American occupation with astonishing tenacity, aware that time and history are on its side. "Yes, it's getting worse," Secretary of State Colin Powell conceded on ABC News. "Quagmire" was the word we heard often during the war in Vietnam. It will soon be two years since American forces invaded Iraq, and no part of that country is secure, if secure means safe from "insurgent" attacks. Anti-American guerrillas control several regions outright; in September there were 2,300 attacks on soldiers and civilians in Iraq, 1,000 of them in the city of Baghdad itself, where unpacified elements have fired 3,000 mortar rounds since April. Attacks on our troops currently average 70-80 per day. While George Bush and John Kerry debated the war on national television, car bombs in Baghdad killed 41 civilians, at least 34 of them children, and maimed 139 more.

Troop levels remain inadequate in spite of ruthless recycling of our personnel; our death rate is higher in 2004 than it was in 2003. Nearly 1,100 Americans have died in Iraq, with thousands more disabled and mutilated. An average of 138 Iraqis die every week, many of them methodically assassinated for cooperating with the occupying forces. The most reliable sources set the native death toll at 15-20,000 since the war began -- sealing the permanent hatred of millions who were related to the deceased.

Officers, diplomats and intelligence analysts with actual experience in the Middle East -- all the experts who were muzzled while Bush was selling his war -- have begun to emerge from hiding with grim predictions. A survey of dissidents in the CIA and the Army was published in The Washington Post Sept. 29 under the headline "Growing pessimism on Iraq." The Post's unnamed sources agreed that Operation Iraqi Freedom is "a disaster," with "no obvious way to fix it." They supported the National Intelligence Council's bleak assessment of Iraq's future -- at best "a semi-failed state hobbling along with terrorists and a succession of weak governments," at worst the battleground for an apocalyptic civil war.

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