Forty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. famously said: "A time comes when silence is betrayal. And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.”
King’s opposition to the war in Asia was immediately denounced as "demagogic slander” by Time magazine. But others also spoke out. George W. Ball, undersecretary of State, told President Lyndon Johnson that he thought the war would tear America apart, persist for years, and end with us losing. The war did continue for another decade after his prediction, along with plenty of progress reports. Eleven years and two presidents later, 58,209 Americans had died, as well as an estimated 3 million Vietnamese.
American power and influence were eroded. Constitutional principles were violated, and thousands of returning soldiers were not adequately cared for. Today, there are eerie parallels to that era. Kurt Campbell, cofounder of the Center for a New American Security, points some of them out in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine. Reprinting a 1967 declassified CIA memo on how we lost the war in Vietnam, he simply replaced the word “Vietnam” with “Iraq,” and the word “Soviets” with “Iranians,” to reveal our current assumptions.
For apparently, there is no exit plan for our war in Iraq. Serious military analysts say the current strategy in Iraq will take at least 10 years and may not work. The cost is unsustainable, yet no politician is telling the American people how to address the risks, unintended consequences or costs of this war. Part of the problem is that we have no idea what the war costs. Robert Higgs, senior fellow in political economy for The Independent Institute, calculates that the government is currently spending approximately $1 trillion per year for all defense-related purposes. Most people think we are spending less than 4 percent of our gross national product on defense. This is an underestimate: The defense budget leaves out the budget for homeland security, which spends $46 billion a year and employs more than 153,000 people. Nor does the defense budget include care of veterans. Our national security spending is closer to 8 percent of GDP, and nearly 50 percent of the federal workforce is involved in providing for the common defense. Further compounding the problem is our government’s refusal to increase taxes to pay for the war. Instead, we send the bill to future generations and watch the oil kingdoms and Chinese make money by buying our debt.
This is also the first administration to refuse to raise taxes to pay for a war. I’m a historian, so I read arcane works: Carolyn Webber and Aaron Wildavsky remind us in their book, The History of Taxation and Expenditure in the Western World, that feudalism in the Middle Ages was defined in part by exempting the nobility from taxation, while taxing poor peasants and small merchants. When this administration cut taxes in time of war, the primary beneficiary was the top 1 percent that now takes in an astounding 16 percent of national income -- up from 8 percent in 1980.
And what about those brave young men and women that we put in harm’s way? In a forum for veterans in San Antonio this August, California Rep. Bob Filner, D, who chairs the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, pointed out the ratio of injured to killed in today's wars is a staggering 17-to-1. In Vietnam, it was 3-to-1. That tells us we must plan on providing quality services to the many maimed men and women who survive this war.
But since change in policy is not coming from the top down, it is being spurred from below. Nearly 300 cities, including Seattle, Wash., Butte, Mont., and Corvallis, Ore., have passed resolutions urging the administration to bring our troops home. The U.S. Conference of Mayors endorsed a resolution this June that called “for the administration to begin planning immediately for the swift and prudent redeployment of the U.S. Armed Forces.” The mayors added that the war was “reducing federal funds available for needed domestic investments in education, healthcare, public safety, homeland security and more.”
What other Western communities will break the silence? And will that change anything? Nobody knows. But we can take heart in Margaret Mead’s advice: “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
James Callard is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a retired Air Force colonel who taught national security policy at the National War College in Washington, D.C. He now teaches at two colleges in Colorado and lives in Durango.