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Plights of Iraqi Refugees and US Iraq Veterans

This is the essence of letters to my senators and congressman prompted by an international conference on Iraqi refugees held on July 26 in Amman, Jordan.

I am distressed that by starting a war that it has now virtually lost, the United States has created a hell on earth in Iraq. According to the New York Times, 750,000 Iraqi refugees now live in Jordan, and 1.5 million live in Syria. Another 50,000 leave Iraq every month. Craig Johnstone, the UN deputy high commissioner for refugees, told the BBC, “The international community, I think, has neglected the plight of the refugees from Iraq so far, but they are beginning to act.”

On a related issue, we need to help Iraqis who have worked for the US leave Iraq if their life is threatened. As a retired Foreign Service officer who worked frequently with “foreign service nationals” (FSNs) at embassies abroad, I feel particularly strongly that we should help them. I am distressed that we seem to be allowing only a handful of Iraqis to seek refuge in the US, when we should be helping thousands. It’s nothing compared to the number of Vietnamese who came to the US as a result of the Vietnam war.

I do not think immediate withdrawal from Iraq is the best course of action to bring closure to the Iraq war. I think we need to reinstate the draft and increase the number of troops in Iraq to 500,000 to 1 million until we can stop the terror there and bring enough peace for Iraqis to live in their own country. However, if we are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to bring peace to Iraq, then we should leave and let the Iraqis end the civil war as soon as possible with their own internecine bloodletting. As an American I am dismayed that we have brought upon ourselves this choice between two horrible alternatives.

I was a draftee who went to Vietnam, unlike Presidents Bush and Clinton, and Vice President Cheney. I was the Science Counselor at the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, in the mid-1990s when then Vice President Gore visited for an anniversary marking the end of World War II. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski introduced Gore to the audience of Polish war veterans at the Ambassador’s residence in Warsaw by noting Gore’s service in Vietnam. The Poles applauded loudly, but many Americans murmured, “Doesn’t he know Clinton didn’t serve?” As a Vietnam veteran, I will probably never forget the American hostility towards Gore for being a veteran and the difference in attitudes between the Poles and the Americans. I’ve seen it all my life; when I returned from Vietnam to the relatively conservative University of Alabama, all anybody wanted to hear about Vietnam was how many atrocities you committed or saw. I was grateful to have served along the DMZ where, unlike farther south, anybody you saw outside your perimeter was almost certainly a bad guy. For many in Vietnam telling the good guys from the bad guys was difficult, but it seems much more difficult in Iraq.
I realize that Americans are now trying to make up for their former open prejudice against veterans by praising those who fight in Iraq. But news reports make it clear that those fighting are a relatively small group of mostly white Christians from small towns in the mid-American heartland. Upper class and upper middle class citizens from comfortable cities and suburbs applaud them so that the wealthy don’t have to go. Until the last few days, Wall Street celebrated the carnage in Iraq by hitting new highs of the Dow Jones average.

Unless the US beefs up its military presence in Iraq, which unfortunately I doubt because of the unwillingness of most Americans to make any sacrifice for the “war on terror,” I pity the poor Iraqi war veterans. Because of the shoddy treatment of these vets by Walter Reed Hospital and the Veterans Administration, President Bush set up a commission led by former Senator Dole and former Secretary Shalala to help improve their treatment. This is a good start, but the problem for the future is that there will be so few Iraqi vets. Because they are being sent back again and again, the total number of vets is small, especially when compared to World War II or even Vietnam, where most soldiers served one tour. Thus, in the years to come they will have a very small political constituency to fight for the benefits they need. Once the war is off the front pages, they are unlikely to get much from the government.

I don’t know what happened, but the recent resignation announced by Coloradan Jim Nicholson as Secretary of Veterans Affairs is discouraging. I am guessing that, perhaps in private, the Dole-Shalala panel had some tough words for the VA because of its failure to meet Iraq war veterans’ needs.

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