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Vietnam and Iraq

SPRING HAS COME again 30 times since the last April agonies of the Republic of South Vietnam. None of us who were there in that final collapse are likely to forget it: The seemingly endless columns of refugees snaking ever southward, the infectious fear that ran through the streets of Saigon, the sudden suicides, some of them in public places, the rumors and pathetic false hopes that some kind of deal would be made, that the Communists would not come after all.

The American armed forces had already left in the summer of '73. There was supposed to have been peace. But peace did not come, and 30 years of American policy was going up in smoke before our eyes.

The melodramatic evacuation instructions had already been passed out to us when the last day came. We were to listen to the armed forces radio, and if we heard a weather report saying ''105 degrees and rising," followed by 30 seconds of Bing Crosby singing ''White Christmas," we were to go to designated evacuation points around the city.

I never met anybody who had actually heard this, but when the last day came thousands upon thousands of Vietnamese mobbed the fence around the American embassy begging to be taken away to safety. When the helicopters arrived, however, there were very few places for Vietnamese. In the end, they would break through the fence and the Marines would use tear gas to disperse their erstwhile allies.

My turn to leave came just as dusk was falling in a sudden squall. As my helicopter rose over the city I could see masses of panicked people in the rain-washed streets below. Away to the north ammunition dumps were exploding in the distance. In the morning it would all be over.

As we crossed the coast in the gathering dark, like a butterfly born on an off-shore wind, I could see thousands of overcrowded boats below us drifting on the South China Sea - the flotsam left from the wreck we were leaving behind.

Today, 30 years on, we are embarked in another military action. Like Vietnam, the war in Iraq began with a falsehood. The Tonkin Gulf incident, the alleged firing upon American ships, turned out to be as bogus as weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaeda links would be in the present war. And in this war as it was then, there were towns that had to be destroyed in order to save them.

Back then another powerful secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, succumbed to hubris, and would later admit he knew nothing of the land of his adversary. He was warned, of course, but chose not to listen as Donald Rumsfeld refused to listen when he was offered advice by experts whom he thought to be ideologically wanting.

We cannot foresee the end of the Iraq war, but the real trouble will come, as it did in Vietnam, after American troops have left. In reality we have invaded three countries in Iraq, and war between factions would demolish all our hopes. The Kurds see us now as liberators, but will not wish to be thwarted in their hard-won autonomy. The Sunnis will probably never be reconciled to what the United States wants for them, and that leaves the Shia who will tolerate us as long as power is within their grasp, but not for long afterwards. The democracy we seek to impose may not be to our liking as the forces of militant Islam may yet win out in the end.

Long after the Vietnam War, a former American ambassador to Saigon, Henry Cabot Lodge, asked some questions that we could be asking ourselves today.

''Was the United States mistaken in its determination to intervene? Was the United States engaged in an imperialist adventure far from our own shores? Or were we defending a small nation, pledged to a democratic government? Did the limitations placed on our use of military force keep us from a swift and decisive victory? Or were we engaged in a war that could not be won even with the most sophisticated and lethal weapons? Were the Vietcong freedom fighters seeking to liberate their country, or were they simply terrorists?"

Ambassador Lodge did not answer his own questions, but he did write that ''it remains true that our only sure guides to a present, which so often seems bewildering, are the lessons -- the often terrible lessons- of the past."

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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