In dark cave of Bosnia, Vietnam echoes loudly


Like Bill Clinton, I reached adulthood during the Vietnam War.

Like Bill Clinton, I opposed that war.

And like Bill Clinton, I have never forgotten it.

I have never forgotten how it killed our young men, divided our nation and corrupted our government.

Now, Bill Clinton is being asked to forget the lessons of Vietnam and not be a weak-kneed victim of "Vietnam Syndrome."

He is being asked to commit U.S. ground troops to the former Yugoslavia to try to halt the killing there.

The argument for doing so is powerful. At the recent dedication of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Elie Wiesel, camp survivor and Nobel laureate, turned directly to Clinton and said:

"Mr. President, I cannot [not] say this: I have been to the former Yugoslavia. I can't sleep for what I have seen. We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country!"

But what do we do? Condemnations have failed. Negotiations have failed. Boycotts have failed. What is the next step?

John Houton came to a conclusion last week. He knows a great deal about Eastern Europe. He has a master's degree in #F international affairs and while waiting for his security clearance before going to work for the federal government, he is working part-time at The Sun.

"It will be necessary to send ground troops to Bosnia," he told me a few days ago.

How many troops? I asked.

"A few hundred thousand," he said.

A few hundred thousand?

"They need not all be American," he said. "The troops should come from countries with no record of involvement in that part of the world. They should come from China, India, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, the United States."

And how long would these troops have to stay? I asked.

"There would probably be about a decade of occupation," he said.

A decade!

"A decade," he said.

While Houton understands how people can disagree with him, I'm not sure he understands my shock.

He is 26. He was born the year we began bombing Hanoi, was 3 when 250,000 people marched on Washington to protest the war, and was 9 when Saigon fell.

This does not make him naive or uninformed. He is, after all, a student of history.

Still, without having lived through the Vietnam era, I think it is hard to appreciate what people of my and Bill Clinton's generation feel when asked to commit U.S. troops to a foreign war.

For now, the White House says, ground troops are not being considered, though U.S. air strikes are.

But when the planes come overhead and strafe and bomb and go back to base, and the angry soldiers come out of their bunkers and carry out even worse atrocities on the helpless civilians as revenge, the world will demand a stiffer reaction.

And one does not have to be 26 to want to send in troops. John Steinbruner is 52 and director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. Writing last week in the Washington Post, he argued that air strikes will only "inflame the conflict" in Bosnia and that the international community must undertake "meaningful enforcement."

If outside forces do not step in, he wrote, the fighting may spread "not only in Kosovo, but in Macedonia as well. If fighting is triggered in both places, resonant populations in Greece, Turkey, Albania and Bulgaria would quickly be embroiled by it."

He may be correct. But I cannot read that without remembering the "Domino Theory" that argued how the United States had to "save" Vietnam in order to keep communism from taking over all of Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Japan and, eventually, San Francisco.

How tough would the fighting be in Bosnia for our troops?

"The murderous militia there do not present a coherent front," Steinbruner wrote, "and would be no match for professional military units."

I remember, however, all the American experts who laughed at the "little yellow men in black pajamas" in Vietnam who would be no match for our American boys.

But we must not let Vietnam paralyze us, the argument goes. We must not let Vietnam teach us the wrong lesson.

Perhaps. But I sometimes think the only lesson we learn from history is that we learn nothing at all.

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