Editor's note: The Columbia County News-Times completes its four-part series in today's edition with this piece examining the war in Iraq and how Columbia County is responding more than three years after the war began.
Tom McFarland, Quin Herlik and Sam Booher all served as Army officers in the Vietnam War. They all retired from the Army and live in Columbia County.
Despite their similarities, they all have varying opinions on the U.S.-led war in Iraq and how it compares with their experiences in Vietnam.
REASONS TO FIGHT
American soldiers fought the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to halt the spread of communism into South Vietnam during a bloody struggle fought mostly in the jungle and cities.
In Iraq, U.S. troops invaded Iraq on a mission to depose Saddam Hussein, capture weapons of mass destruction and curb the sponsorship of terrorists.
Booher believed so much in the Vietnam cause that he offered to lead a rifle company during two tours. He disapproves, however, of American military involvement in Iraq.
"In Vietnam, we went to protect South Vietnam from infiltration from North Vietnam," said Booher, who served as a captain. "In Iraq, right now, there is a civil war going on between the (Sunni Muslims) and the (Shiite Muslims). They're shooting each other, and our soldiers are sometimes getting caught between them."
Halting an invading force and interfering in a civil war are two disparate reasons, and the latter should be left to the Iraqis, Booher said.
McFarland, a former Army combat pilot, disagrees. He believes the Vietnam War was essentially a civil war between the two battling Vietnamese nations. Should the "shaky coalition" in Iraq revert to a civil war, that would make the two conflicts only more similar, he said.
Unlike Booher, McFarland said the U.S. should finish what it started in Iraq but never should have entered Vietnam.
"I will admit Vietnam was a mistake," he said. "We never should have gone there if we were not going to go in there with the right kind of objectives. I think Iraq is salvageable. If they can keep their shaky coalition together, I think Iraq can come out of this in good shape."
Herlik, who served as a radio reconnaissance pilot and flew more than 900 hours over Vietnam, wished he could have finished the struggle in Vietnam and wants the U.S. to stay in Iraq as long as it takes.
"It hurt," Herlik said about leaving Vietnam. "I knew when we were getting out of there it was only going to be a matter of months before the North Vietnamese would come down and take over."
The threat of terrorism today is as great as the threat of communism then, Herlik said.
"I think that communism was a legitimate fear like terrorism is today," he said. "We did the right thing then and we're doing the right thing now."
From 1959 to 1975, nearly 58,000 American servicemen lost their lives and more than 153,000 were wounded in Vietnam.
About 2,500 U.S. troops have died since the U.S. invaded Iraq in May 2003, and there have been about 18,000 Americans wounded in that time, according to news agencies.
Though Herlik finds any American casualties dreadful, he said the Iraqi dead is a pale comparison to the troops lost in Vietnam or any other American war.
"In one evening, we'd have 150 killed," Herlik said. "I think we've lost about 2,500 in Iraq. You ask guys from Vietnam, or World War II, or Korea, and they'll tell you that's about a week's work."
VIEWS OF WAR
As with Vietnam, Americans are becoming increasingly disheartened with the amount of time it is taking to resolve the situation in Iraq, said Augusta State University history professor Michael Searles.
"If there is a mistake that sometimes the American people, and often politicians, make is that they believe this is a struggle that can be won in a short amount of time with not much sacrifice," Searles said. "It seems like that is always a shock when that is not the case."
When the public comes to realize that war isn't easy, and never will be, there is a natural tendency to pull out, he said.
"I think that was true for Vietnam," Searles said. "It's been true of other wars and it's true for the Iraq situation."
If government officials were more up front about the sacrifice, money and time that will need to be invested in successfully imposing democracy onto another country, there would be less discontent among the public, he said.
"In most cases, people don't start off saying it's going to take five to 10 years," he said. "They start off saying, 'We can do this in a much shorter period of time.'
"People quite often become dissatisfied and soured, as the American people have become in this case, like they did in Vietnam."
Herlik said the conflict in Iraq could take as long as 10 years.
"There's no telling how long Iraq is going to go on, but I think it's necessary that we stay there and get the job done," he said.
"The thing they teach from the time you're a junior officer all the way until you retire is that you take the battle to the enemy," he said. "You don't sit there and let that sucker come over and beat you up on your own turf."
Though there are those who have soured on the Iraq war, McFarland, Booher and Herlik say the soldiers today are being treated much better.
"We had such a political meltdown in the country that the disrespect was transferred to the wrong folks during Vietnam,'' McFarland said. "The GIs coming back were not the bad guys."
If people wanted to point a finger, they should have pointed it at such political leaders as President Lyndon Johnson, he said.
"Blame those guys, not some poor private getting off an airplane after 12 months in Vietnam," he said. "People want to spit on him and call him a baby killer. That was the worst our soldiers have ever been treated in any war."
Herlik travels often and has witnessed the changes in civilian attitudes toward those in the service.
"When servicemen walk down the aisles (of a plane), either before or after the flight, people are clapping for them," he said. "There's been a complete reversal of how the soldiers are treated. When I came back from Vietnam, we could hardly wear our uniforms in public."
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.