This Is Bush's Vietnam

By BOB HERBERT

New York Times

September 17, 2004

ARLINGTON, Va.

The rows of simple white headstones in the broad expanses of brilliant green lawns are scrupulously arranged, and they seem to go on and on, endlessly, in every direction.

It was impossible not to be moved. A soft September wind was the only sound. Beyond that was just the silence of history, and the collective memory of the lives lost in its service.

Nearly 300,000 people are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, which is just across the Potomac from Washington. On Tuesday morning I visited the grave of Air Force Second Lt. Richard VandeGeer. The headstone tells us, as simply as possible, that he went to Vietnam, that he was born Jan. 11, 1948, and died May 15, 1975, and that he was awarded the Purple Heart.

His mother, Diana VandeGeer, who is 75 now and lives in Florida, tells us that he loved to play soldier as a child, that he was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and that she longs for him still. He would be 56 now, but to his mother he is forever a tall and handsome 27.

Richard VandeGeer was not the last American serviceman to die in the Vietnam War, but he was close enough. He was part of the last group of Americans killed, and his name was the last of the more than 58,000 to be listed on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. As I stood at his grave, I couldn't help but wonder how long it will take us to get to the last American combat death in Iraq.

Lieutenant VandeGeer died heroically. He was the pilot of a CH-53A transport helicopter that was part of an effort to rescue crew members of the Mayaguez, an American merchant ship that was captured by the Khmer Rouge off the coast of Cambodia on May 12, 1975. The helicopter was shot down and half of the 26 men aboard, including Lieutenant VandeGeer, perished.

(It was later learned that the crew of the Mayaguez had already been released.)

The failed rescue operation, considered the last combat activity of the Vietnam War, came four years after John Kerry's famous question, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Although he died bravely, Lieutenant VandeGeer's death was as senseless as those of the 58,000 who died before him in the fool's errand known as Vietnam. His remains were not recovered for 20 years - not until a joint operation by American and Cambodian authorities located the underwater helicopter wreckage in 1995. Positive identification, using the most advanced DNA technology, took another four years. Lieutenant VandeGeer was buried at Arlington in a private ceremony in 2000.

The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation put me in touch with the lieutenant's family. "I'm still angry that my son is gone," said Mrs. VandeGeer, who is divorced and lives alone in Cocoa Beach. "I'm his mother. I think about him every day."

She said that while she will always be proud of her son, she believes he "died for nothing."

Lieutenant VandeGeer's sister, Michelle, told me she can't think about her brother without recalling that the last time she saw him was on her wedding day, in May 1974. "He looked so handsome and confident," she said. "He wanted to change the world."

Wars are all about chaos and catastrophes, death and suffering, and lifelong grief, which is why you should go to war only when it's absolutely unavoidable. Wars tear families apart as surely as they tear apart the flesh of those killed and wounded. Since we learned nothing from Vietnam, we are doomed to repeat its agony, this time in horrifying slow-motion in Iraq.

Three more marines were killed yesterday in Iraq. Kidnappings are commonplace. The insurgency is growing and becoming more sophisticated, which means more deadly. Ordinary Iraqis are becoming ever more enraged at the U.S.

When the newscaster David Brinkley, appalled by the carnage in Vietnam, asked Lyndon Johnson why he didn't just bring the troops home, Johnson replied, "I'm not going to be the first American president to lose a war."

George W. Bush is now trapped as tightly in Iraq as Johnson was in Vietnam. The war is going badly. The president's own intelligence estimates are pessimistic. There is no plan to actually win the war in Iraq, and no willingness to concede defeat.

I wonder who the last man or woman will be to die for this colossal mistake.