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Page 20
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<< 19. Uniforms, Rage, Medals and Citations21. A Crucible Endured >>

Ellsberg Lesson

By Bill Johnston

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Our latest failure of US military-foreign policy "nation building" in Afghanistan certainly reminds us of another—Vietnam! Two fiascoes in a row. Two countries and cultures the United States had no understanding of and two civil wars we had no business in.

Thousands of lives lost—billions of dollars wasted for nothing. Corporate America again pushing for profits for the military-industrial complex and new cheap labor markets. Guess we won't be seeing any hats or t-shirts "Made in Afghanistan"? Not to forget gaps in the lives of thousands of veterans like myself and the 58,000 (my 19-year-old brother Tim) who did not come home.

I recall an instructive eye-opening experience I had in 1979. I was a Political Science graduate student at Western Washington University. From time to time the department would invite a celebrated luminary to be "fed to the graduate students!" On this particular occasion, it was Daniel Ellsberg the author of The Pentagon Papers. In essence, the papers were a tell-all of the idiotic wrong Vietnam policy from beginning to end.

I started my question with a statement. I told him I had bought a book off the rack at a Safeway Store titled A Vietnam Reader. The book claimed no point of view—it just laid out information and documents about the history and culture of Vietnam. Soon after I left for Air Force Basic Training in May 1966 and did not get back to the book until I was stationed at Amarillo Air Force Base in Texas some months later.

By the time I finished "the reader" based on what I had read I knew we could never win the war in Vietnam. I was against the war from that point on. "Why," I asked Ellsberg, "Couldn't President Johnson or someone close to him pick up a copy of that book (I know Safeway is in Washington, DC) while shopping for milk or a loaf of bread on their way home after a day at the White House.

It just doesn't work that way he answered and went on to explain how information gets to the president from first-hand experience. "This is how it works, every morning, he said, "the president gets three-ring briefing binders. The binders and information are put together by the staff who have developed the policy in the first place.

If they were to present any information showing the path they were on in Vietnam was going wrong, they were the people held accountable. Since the motto of bureaucracy is "Kill the Messenger" to fault the policy was to write your own ticket out the door. It was the reason Ellsberg felt he had to steal top-secret documents and release them to the public and the press. Americans had been lied to for years.

He said the people who advise the president do not pick up books off the shelf at Safeway and read them; they go to professional think tanks. Often where they originally worked. These think tanks have an agenda and they feed the think tank point of view into the system. To disrupt this scam is to court your downfall.

No doubt the same bureaucratic information factory was at work with the Afghanistan disaster. All an issue needs is an "angel" to push it. A perfect example was the Iraq invasion. The oil company executive turned Vice President, Dick Cheney, saw the oil in Iraq as a resource American corporations could control. So recruit some think tank (the Heritage Foundation) to invent "Weapons of mass destruction" and invade to solve a problem that didn't even exist! As usual – Vietnam – Iraq – Afghanistan—those who got us into these murderous messes will never answer for them. The ruling military-industrial complex elite wins again.

Today there is another book policymakers of both parties should pick up and read. It is not a new book but still one with a message for Americans: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ross Douthat cited it in his New York Times article recently. "Our hubris and our accelerating imperial decline … our already yawning ideological divides, encourage the feeling of crackup and looming civil war."

Bill Johnston was a Sgt. in the USAF, 1966-70 and in the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate.

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